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First Drive: Chrysler Aspen

VehicleVoice correspondent and AutoPacific staff were among those the Chrysler Group invited to Palm Springs, California, to experience first-hand their first SUV, the Aspen, and their latest attack on the mid-size sedan market, the all-new Sebring. We covered the reveal of the Aspen at the 2006 North American International Auto Show and the Sebring in June at the Chrysler Proving Grounds, and now we’re able to share our first driving impressions. In this space, we tackle the Aspen.


Why Add an SUV?
Chrysler noted that of the buyers that leave the Chrysler brand, 25 percent go on to buy SUVs. Of that 25 percent, 75 percent leave the company altogether, while about 25 percent go to Dodge or Jeep. Two years ago, the Chrysler Group decided to reskin a Durango and see if they can’t keep some of those buyers.
The Aspen gives Chrysler loyalists needing an SUV a reason to stay, though any new buyers it brings will be welcomed. As far as a theme, the 300 of SUVs is clearly the target. Differences between Durango and Aspen are all things customers can touch; suspension tuning is slightly different, but components, brakes, and steering components and ratios are all identical to Durango. Sheetmetal differences include the front clip (fenders, grille, fascia, lamps, and hood outer), rear door, rear aperture quarter, tailamps, and rear fascia. These changes give you an SUV with more pizzaz and chrome, and the Aspen looks best in strong colors that allow the chrome to pop. Black and blue were very nice; in silver, the chrome gets lost along with its personality.

Make Mine a HEMI, Please
Aspen gets the 235HP 4.7L and 335HP 5.7L HEMI V8 engines, but thankfully not Durango’s base V6. The 4.7L is barely adequate for moving this size vehicle, though it is available as a flex-fuel engine. The 5.7L gets Chrysler’s seamless Multiple Displacement System. It would be nice if there were an option to be able to see what mode you’re in; GM makes that one of the driver-information options where they offer their cylinder-deactivation system and there can be some satisfaction in seeing how long you can keep it in V4 mode and directly how driving habits affect consumption.


In any event, the MDS system means that 4.7L betters the 5.7L only by one or two mpg, depending on 4×2 or 4×4, and the 5.7L gives you 100HP more to work with. The extra acceleration is, to my mind, well worth the slight fuel economy penalty and the extra up-front cost. The 5.7L AWD gets a two-speed transfer case, where the 4.7L AWD models only a single-speed transfer case. Both get the same five-speed automatic transmission with the same gearing.
We drove the Aspen from Empire Polo Club, where our test vehicles were lined up on the field as if ready to take a match, to the Parker Palm Springs hotel in Palm Springs via Idyllwild and over some terrific roads. I had more time with the 4.7L in city/highway setting, but took my turn in the 5.7L V8 over twists and turns on CA-111 and CA-74. These roads were chock full of nice, swift curves and wide roads that challenged the SUV just enough to have some fun.

Mechanically, there aren’t many differences between the prior Durango and this year’s entries. A look at the spec chart reveals that the brakes are the same size, gear ratios the same, steering setup the same, suspension components all the same. Adjustments to the basic tuning allow for a stiffer ride, but the experience has not changed a great deal. Perhaps better it would have, as the competition has only gotten better since this setup was last all new.


Interior Is a Pleasant Place to Be
Just as the Aspen looks better than Durango outside, so, too, inside the Aspen is far better. The Durango interior had been a very uncomfortable and cheap-feeling place, and the extra money Aspen was able to get for improving materials was put to good use. Aspen gets a revised dash and center stack, richer-looking interior accents, and uplevel materials. The changes aren’t dramatic, but give Aspen a softer edge and more comfortable feel. Base Aspens (and Durangos) get Chrysler Group’s new YES Essentials cloth (stain and odor resistant), but the leather-trimmed Aspen seats helps one feel a bit more pampered. Aspen comes only in the Limited trim level, and all the chrome you’re gonna get is standard.


The two equipment packages, E and J, are not tied to engine or the 4×2/4×4 choice. Today’s most notable in-car entertainment and convenience features are standalone options, including GPS navigation, UConnect hands-free communication, rear-seat entertainment, heated front and second-row seats, remote start, and a moonroof. The E package gets the basics while the J package sweetens the setup with twenty-inch wheels, power liftgate, ultrasonic rear park assist, premium audio, power adjustable pedals, leather seating, reclining second-row seats (buckets still optional), and the three-seat configuration for the third row.
I spent time in the driver’s seat, front passenger’s seat, and second row. Seating and NVH characteristics were comfortable. The interior is reasonably quiet and conversations between the first and second rows easy to follow.
Bottom Line
Aspen offers a more comfortable and refined setting than Durango, but this product is mid-pack in terms of other available SUVs. Explorer, though smaller, is quieter and its six-speed automatic smoother. The General Motors full-size SUVs offer better driving dynamics and a bit more room. Aspen does offer room for eight, a decent maximum tow rating (8950 lbs), and lots of features for the money. For buyers devoted to Chrysler, or those just looking for the 300 grille on an SUV, the Aspen is your car. Aspen is priced nearer the GMC Yukon and Ford Expedition than the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade, but with Chrysler flair. Choosing it gets you a near-luxury brand for a mainstream brand price.

1 Comment

  • delmartian| November 19, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    I give this review a D. The reviewer compares the Aspen to an Explorer? Stating the transmission of that suv is better? Well then that means Motor Trend picked the wrong suv for the suv of the year award, the Mercedes GL has the same transmission. Why doesn’t he tell us how an ’07 Explorer handles and rides worse than an ’05 Tahoe, it really does. Then the Aspen is compared to the new GM suv’s, what he didn’t tell us is the Tahoe ride is worse and not much quieter, I know I just compared the Aspen and Tahoe LTZ. Tahoe lost out the ride is much worse, some shudder where the Aspen is smooth, very smooth. Aspen is a bargain compares favorably to a Denali or Escalade.

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