The 2009 Chrysler Aspen is a big, traditional sport utility vehicle capable of towing substantial loads. The Aspen is in the same class as the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Ford Expedition, but it has more luxury amenities than most of those vehicles. For 2009, a new hybrid gas-electric model joins the lineup for improved fuel economy and reduced emissions.
Chrysler Aspen is based on the Dodge Durango and shares its size and mechanical components. Introduced for the 2007 model year, Aspen is distinguished from Durango by its styling, interior trim, and suspension tuning.
The Aspen offers the ability to tow trailers up to 8,900 pounds. Like the Durango, the Aspen uses a truck chassis and engineering.
Boasting a cavernous interior, the Aspen accommodates seven or eight passengers, depending on the seating configuration. Three rows of seats are standard, starting with front buckets, a second-row bench and a third-row bench. Buckets are optional for the second row to reduce seating to seven.
Two V8 engines are available, plus the Hybrid. Buyers can choose between rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive (AWD or 4WD) with either standard engine. The Hybrid is offered only with all-wheel drive. The standard V8 powertrains earn decent fuel economy ratings, either matching the competition or at worst giving up no more than one or two miles per gallon. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 gains 30 horsepower for 2009.
The Hybrid boosts city fuel economy by 40 percent and overall fuel economy by more than 25 percent compared with the standard Aspen, says Chrysler. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 19 miles per gallon City and 20 mpg Highway compared to 13/18 mpg City/Highway for the regular Aspen V8 4WD. We found it very rewarding to silently motor around town and in slow traffic using only the electric motor. Developed with BMW, GM, and Mercedes-Benz, the Chrysler's two-mode hybrid system pairs its 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engine with two electric motors, along with a lot of fancy gearing and electronics. The first mode is mostly for around-town driving and can use battery power alone up to 25 mph. The second mode is meant for highway speeds and always uses engine power. Stop at a stop sign and everything goes quiet. You start noticing small sounds like the climate control fan, even on low speed. Total output for the Hybrid is 385 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque, and we found it quite responsive in traffic.
The standard Aspen models rewards the driver with hearty mechanical sounds from the engine compartment, prompt throttle response, solid gear shifts, and thoroughly competent brakes. Ride and handling are average for the class. The Aspen is tall, heavy and narrow. The ride tends to the springy end of the scale, cushioning bad pavement but bobbing at times.
The Aspen is a nice-looking SUV with styling that features Chrysler's traditional but subdued egg-crate grille, mildly curvaceous bodylines reminiscent of the Dodge Durango, and an attractively sculpted tailgate. The wheel wells are filled with good-looking 18- or 20-inch chrome rims.
The interior blends elegant-looking, satin-finish metallic accents with woodgrain trim on the dash and center console. The standard upholstery is Chrysler's stain-resistant fabric. Leather trim is optional and all of the usual power and personalization features are available.
For 2009, the Aspen gets available Sirius Backseat TV for the rear DVD entertainment system. Chrysler's MyGIG hard-drive radio is now included under the UConnect brand and the hard-drive grows from 20 to 30 gigabytes.
The Chrysler Aspen looks like a lot of other full-size SUVs, but we found it attracted admiring looks and inquiries. Chrysler styling cues set the Aspen apart from the Dodge Durango. The Hybrid attracts even more attention as people notice the badges; they also notice the absence of engine noise in certain situations such as when leaving a restaurant parking lot.
The grille, with bold crossbars and classic Chrysler medallion, attempts to stake a claim for the Aspen at the top of the brand's pyramid. Low-key headlamps seem to diminish the claim, however, along with a bland bumper and generic-looking fog lights.
Embossed strakes in the hood run back to the windshield and carry on the newest Chrysler-brand styling motif. This styling element, which first appeared on the Chrysler Crossfire and then the redesigned Sebring, is seemingly inspired by the jewel-like cap on the famous Chrysler Building in New York City.
The side view offers the proportions and features of a traditional SUV. The swept-back windshield pays homage to aerodynamics and looks sleek. Mildly creased, visually pleasant blisters circle the wheelwell openings. A chrome-topped, overstated molding strip pulls double duty, breaking up the expanse of metal between the front and rear wheel cutouts while insulating the doors against parking lot dings. Side mirrors proudly perch on brackets extending from the base of the A-pillars (the side frames of the windshield). A slight ridge defining the beltline (where the side windows meet the lower body panels) extends beyond the base of the rear pillars, accenting the graceful outline of the rear quarter windows. A short front overhang and tucked-up lower hindquarters invite thoughts of venturing off the highway to explore an unpaved track.
The optional running boards do a better job of dirtying trousers and long skirts than serving as truly functional steps, and the quarter-step from the running board into the car is awkward; we'd delete them.
It's the rear aspect of the Aspen that has the most presence, the view most will have of it in traffic. A strong rear bumper with a deep, non-skid clad step cups the one-piece liftgate. Chrome-like trim on the bumper's end caps tie into the side molding strip. The medallion-and-wing treatment from the grille repeats above the stylized license plate recess. Gently bowed sides and a rounded top give the back end a smaller, less massive look than the rest of the vehicle. A conservatively sized notch centered in the bumper's lower edge makes room for the optional hitch receiver and junction box.
Unlike the hybrid SUVs from General Motors that share the Durango's two-mode hybrid system, the Aspen Hybrid does not have any exterior modifications. A Hybrid badge on the rear is very noticeable, however.
On first impression, the Aspen interior looks classy in its materials selection, presentation and packaging. On closer examination, some of that initial luster fades.
The satin-finish metal accents and wood-like trim give the interior an elegant touch, as does the silver-ringed, old-fashioned style clock tucked into a recess in the top-center of the dash. The woodgrain looks better than it feels, however, as do the expanses of textured plastic panels, which are hard to the touch and replete with seams that pose threats of squeaks and buzzes as the miles rack up. Where there's padding, it's noticeably thin. The symmetry of shapes and simplicity of features and controls for the stereo, air conditioning and navigation systems are pluses that partially counter some of the questionable elements.
Chrysler's UConnect Tunes (standard) comes with a 6.5-inch touch screen and a 30-gigabyte hard drive to hold music and picture files. UConnect GPS (optional) adds a navigation system to UConnect Tunes. The navigation system has voice activation and real-time traffic, and voice commands can be used to input navigation destination information when the vehicle is in motion, a great feature once you learn how to use it.
The rear-seat DVD entertainment system is available with Sirius Backseat TV, which has three children's channels: Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network. DVDs and TV can be played on the front navigation screen when the vehicle is in Park.
The Hybrid's gauge cluster replaces the tachometer with a power gauge that shows when the electric motors are aiding power or being charged. This gauge has a green Economy zone that drivers can use to aim for the best possible fuel economy.
The front seats are supportive, with adequate bottom and side bolsters for the Aspen's intended use. We found the fabric upholstery more comfortable than the somewhat stiff leather. The pivot point for the front seatbacks' recline is positioned above the seat bottom, much like the seats on those regional commuter jets; reclining in the seat requires sliding one's posterior forward on the bottom cushion, effectively shortening the seat bottom and reducing thigh support. In short, the seats are okay but we don't love them.
The laid-back windshield pushes the dash, and with it the steering wheel, close enough to the driver that the adjustable pedals are strongly recommended. The adjustable pedals will permit short-stature drivers to sit far enough from the steering wheel to maintain the recommended safe distance from the steering wheel airbag. The steering column tilts but does not telescope. And the dead pedal against which drivers might want to brace their left foot while navigating sharp turns is somewhere up near the front bumper and useless for anybody not as tall as, say, Lebron James.
Visibility outward is limited by the low roofline. The tinted rear glass limits the driver's view rearward, though it enhances the image on the rear-seat video screen. When deployed, the rear-seat video screen further reduces visibility through the rearview mirror. Fortunately, the rearview camera helps with this.
Second-row legroom trails the competition (Ford Expedition, Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia) by one to four inches. Knee room for back-seat riders is cramped when the front seat is comfortably positioned for a 6-foot driver. Getting in and out of the second row is easy. The back doors swing open a welcoming 84 degrees and leave space enough in their lower reaches for all but NBA-size shoes.
The third-row seats compare well with those of the competition. The flop-and-flip second-row seats make access to the third row easy. In headroom, the Aspen's back row tops all but the Sequoia. Its legroom handily bests all but the Expedition. Hip room and foot room in the third row is relatively tight, however, especially in the center position, the automotive equivalent to the center seat in the back of a plane.
Cargo space is plentiful. With the third row folded, the Aspen's 68.4 cu. ft. of cargo tops the competition. Fold and flip everything behind the front seat and the Aspen's 102.4 cu. ft. is average when compared with the other full-size SUVs.
Cubby storage is about par for the class. Each row of seats gets at least two cupholders. The front doors have fixed, hard plastic map pockets. The backside of the driver's seat has a pouch for magazines. The glove box is adequate, but the undamped door can crack the shins of an unwary front passenger. The front center console lid is hinged on the right-hand side, making access difficult for the front seat passenger.
Aspen has features that came from Chrysler's relationship with Mercedes-Benz. One is tip start, which requires only a twist and release of the key to start the engine. Another is a one-touch lane-change function on the turn signals, where touching and releasing the lever produces three blinks of the turn light. The third is an option in the driver's personalization settings that turns on the headlights whenever the windshield wipers are on, a useful feature for drivers living in states where that's mandated and a good idea in other places. Auto On/Off headlights are standard.
The Chrysler Aspen rewards the driver with hearty mechanical sounds from the engine compartment, prompt throttle response, solid gear shifts and thoroughly competent brakes.
Ride and handling are average. The Aspen is tall, heavy and narrow. The ride tends to the springy end of the scale. The Aspen loses composure around curves and gets a bit bouncy on rippled neighborhood streets. The available 20-inch wheels with fatter tires stick better than the base model's taller tires and 18-inch wheels at the price of a slightly harsher, but no less bouncy, ride.
Chrysler's 4.7-liter V8 produces 303 hp at 5650 rpm and 330 pound-feet of torque at 3950 rpm. The 4.7-liter provides good around-town power, but struggles to provide passing punch in this heavy SUV. With the 4.7-liter V8, the Aspen can pull up to 5900 pounds. The 4.7-liter is EPA-rated at 14/19 mpg City/Highway with 2WD. On E85 ethanol, it's rated 9/13 mpg, a reminder that ethanol is not as efficient as gasoline.
The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 was upgraded for 2009, gaining 30 horsepower to 365 hp at 5600 rpm and 390 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. The Hemi moves the Aspen better than ever, launching it strongly form a stop and providing confident passing power. With the 5.7-liter Hemi, the Aspen can pull up to 8900 pounds. The 5.7-liter is EPA-rated at 14/20 mpg City/Highway, slightly better than the smaller, less powerful engine. The 5.7-liter engine benefits from Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System, which shuts down four cylinders when they're not needed for better fuel economy. Those numbers may not be unappealing during times of high fuel prices, but they match those of other large truck-based SUVs.
The Aspen Hybrid is considerably more frugal. It shares its two-mode hybrid system with the Dodge Durango Hybrid. It's similar to the hybrid systems used on the new full-size SUV and pickup hybrid models from General Motors. In fact, this two-mode hybrid system was developed jointly by BMW, GM, and Mercedes-Benz. Chrysler's system uses an electrically continuously variable transmission (ECVT) paired with Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi V8. The ECVT has two electric motors and four fixed gears, and it can also power the Aspen like a regular CVT, meaning it offers an infinite range of gear ratios. The system's Traction Power Inversion Module (TPIM, of course) determines when the vehicle should operate in the first or second mode. In other words, a computer helps control whether the battery or the gas engine is doing most of the work depending on the situation and what you're doing with the gas pedal. The first mode is mostly for around-town driving and can use battery power alone up to 25 mph. The second mode is meant for highway speeds and always uses engine power. The system determines the necessary torque for the driving conditions and instructs the engine and electric motors to respond accordingly. No engine speed changes are necessary for mode shifts to occur. In the Hybrid, the Hemi V8 also has the multi-displacement system, and Chrysler says the hybrid system allows the Aspen to use just four of the eight cylinders more often for even better fuel economy.
Fuel economy for the Aspen Hybrid is estimated at 19/20 mpg City/Highway. That compares to 13/19 mpg for an Aspen AWD model. (The Hybrid comes with all-wheel drive.) Obviously, the big gain is around town and at lower speeds where you can run solely on the electric motors. Chrysler says the hybrid system boosts city fuel economy by 40 percent and overall fuel economy by more than 25 percent. So it's going to get better fuel economy in L.A. and Boston and other urban areas than it will in Montana and other wide-open or mountainous places. Total power output for the Hybrid is 385 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque. The Hybrid is rated to tow 6000 pounds. That's significantly less than the 8,900-pound rating possible in an Aspen, but a 6,000-pound trailer is a hefty trailer. That may be enough tow rating for you while giving you the benefits of good fuel economy during the majority of the time when you're not towing.
We found the hybrid system worked well, but not seamlessly. It occasionally stutters or clunks slightly as it shuffles modes. We noticed a flat spot in the power curve at about 45 mph, though it wasn't noticeable when we went easy on the throttle. Despite these quibbles, the Aspen's hybrid system is mostly transparent in operation, and you have to pay careful attention to tell that you're not driving a regular gasoline model. Your passengers may or may not notice anything unusual, especially if the radio is on.
On the road, the Hybrid powertrain may be slightly quicker than the standard Hemi version, though it's hard to tell. Any additional power the hybrid system provides at low speeds is offset by the sometimes tardy operation of the ECVT.
Towing with the Aspen is eased by a feature Chrysler calls Trailer Sway Control. This system senses trailer sway and employs the electronic stability control to apply tiny amounts of brake pressure selectively to individual wheels and to reduce engine torque to counter trailer-induced yaw.
The 2009 Chrysler Aspen is a competent full-size SUV that offers the hauling and towing capability of a truck. The Hybrid model gives the Aspen a fuel economy advantage. Drivers who need a large SUV that can tow can get that with the Aspen, and the Hybrid makes it competitive with some of the newer carlike crossover SUVs in terms of fuel economy with comparable cargo utility. If you need a large SUV for towing, the Aspen is a fine choice. If not, a crossover SUV will provide a more carlike driving experience and fuel economy that is just as good, if not better.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Palm Springs, with correspondent Kirk Bell in Chicago, and Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.