11/13/06 — Chrysler gets its first sport utility

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Chrysler gets its first sport utility

Chrysler Aspen (2007)

Let’s give the Chrysler brand a big attaboy. Its first-ever sport utility carries about as much eye-catching chrome accents as the Cadillac Escalade, the high-riding king of glitter.

Love at first sight works in this case. When you can get people to admiringly look at your vehicle, you’ve reached first base.

Chrysler Aspen, 2007

But it was even more than that. People stared at the stoplights. People commented, favorably. People walked up for a parking lot look at the all-new 2007 Chrysler Aspen with its large signature Chrysler chromed grille, large straked hood, chromed accents on the body side moldings, door handles and roof rack, and polished 20-inch wheels.

It has an imposing presence.

Also imposing was the Hemi logo on the tailgate of our test vehicle.

If the shape of the Aspen is vaguely familiar there’s a reason. It’s basically an upscale version of the Dodge Durango.

For a few dollars more, the Aspen offers the chrome-accented looks that will turn heads, standard V-8 power, a refined and quiet-tuned interior and prodigious towing capacity.

Chrysler is making the same leap up from the Durango that the Cadillac Escalade and the Yukon Denali make from the standard Chevrolet Tahoe in the General Motors stable.

While the Aspen aims for luxury, it doesn’t have the luxury cachet of the Escalade. But then again it doesn’t have the same price tag.

The market for big sport utilities has been shrinking, but Chrysler figures, why lose a loyal Chrysler owner who wants an SUV to replace his minivan-like Pacifica. That owner no longer has to visit the GM, Ford or Toyota store because a large, gorgeous SUV can be purchased with the Chrysler logo attached.

It’s actually surprising the Aspen didn’t come sooner.

Why did Chrysler wait until the bottom dropped out of the SUV market to give Chrysler dealers a sport utility? On the other hand, the more upscale SUVs are still selling at something faster than a snail’s pace. While the Aspen might not fly out the showroom door, it may move in sufficient numbers to keep dealers smiling.

Like several DaimlerChrysler products, the Aspen’s size is difficult to define. It’s bigger than the so-called mid-sized offerings from Ford and Chevrolet — the Explorer and TrailBlazer — but falls just short of full-sized when compared to the Ford Expedition and the Chevy Tahoe.

We’ll classify it on the small end of the full-sized three-row-seating segment with a 200-inch length (the Tahoe measures 202 inches and the Expedition 206 inches) and a large 119-inch wheelbase that matches the Expedition.

We found a very likable companion in our Aspen with its rich-looking leather and bird’s eye maple wood surroundings, excellent-sounding 368-watt Pioneer audio system playing our favorite Sirius satellite stations, instantaneous feedback from the big Hemi V-8 and good maneuverability in parking lot situations.

We were put off a bit by the truck’s light steering, and lack of feedback. Body roll is evident, too, but hey, this is a big sport utility and if handled like a big sport utility, it reacts in an acceptable manner. One other idiosyncrasy you might have to get used to is braking. Pedal feel is vague and stopping distances seemed long.

On the other side of the coin, we got favorable comments from a couple of passengers about the plush ride quality.

The Aspen comes in only one trim level, but with two engine choices. Both are V-8s and both are mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The base engine is a 4.7-liter generating 235 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.

The optional 335-horsepower Hemi V-8 comes with the fuel-saving Multi-Displacement System, which deactivates four cylinders under light load. Even with this feature, fuel economy may be a misnomer. EPA ratings are 15 mpg city and 20 highway for the two-wheel drive models and 14/18 for all-wheel drive.

Four-wheel drive models get standard full-time all-wheel drive and an available two-speed transfer case with high and low range. Both transfer case settings split torque 48/52 front/rear when locked in four-wheel drive.

For those who need prodigious towing capacity for the big boat or travel trailer, the Aspen Hemi delivers, rated at 8,950 pounds with the tow package, which includes special 3.92 rear-axle gearing. The smaller V-8 has a tow rating of 7,500 pounds.

The big V-8 moves the nearly 5,000 pound Aspen with urgency. We found plenty of power in reserve for those situations when a heavy foot to the pedal was necessary. We didn’t drive the 4.7-liter V-8, but we think that if the big SUV is relegated to such standard chores as collecting the kids, touring the mall parking lot, and hitting the highway without full camping gear, the base engine should be sufficient.

Overall we were pleased with the passenger compartment, with the rich-looking layout, front-seat comfort and switchgear ease of use. But we were disappointed, and somewhat confused, over the tight second-row seating. While two adults could gain some measure of comfort in the captain’s chairs provided in our test vehicle, leg and knee room were on the tight side.

If the chairs, which are fixed into position, could be moved fore or aft a few inches would improve life dramatically.

The seats can be reclined 11 degrees and passengers have access to a center console with cupholders, a covered storage area and a power point.

The third row seat, like most vehicles, is not adult-friendly but a great place to stash the kids.

There is 19 cubic feet of space behind the third seat, but fold it down and a generous 68.4 cubic feet of storage space is created. With all seats folded the Aspen has 102 cubic feet of space. Because of the vehicle’s solid rear axle, the load floor has a slight slope.

The base Aspen with all the usual amenities and a healthy amount of safety features starts at $30,745. All-wheel drive models begin at $33,520.

A lot of good stuff including the Hemi engine can be obtained by ordering Package 28J for $5,415. The package includes 20-inch chrome wheels, upgraded stereo with Alpine speakers, power driver and passenger seats, rear park assist, power adjustable pedals, power liftgate and satellite radio.

Our two-wheel drive test truck carried a bottom line of $39,995 including a $745 destination charge.

If you are still in the market for a big sport utility, the Aspen is worthy of consideration. The Aspen looks more expensive than it is with its half acre of bright work and stately trademark Chrysler grille. If looking good in the driveway is high on your list of priorities, don’t miss a visit to the Chrysler store.

Jim Meachen can be contacted at meachen@mac.com.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on November 13, 2006 3:28 PM