PALM SPRINGS, California - Not every automaker would have the audacity to issue a full-size sport-utility vehicle during a time of rising fuel prices. Even though those gasoline costs have been falling a bit as late summer turns into autumn, it's no secret that big SUVs haven't quite been leaping off the car lots lately.
Quality always counts, though, and Chrysler has done an admirable job of transforming what is basically a Dodge Durango into an appealing Chrysler-labeled model. Capable of seating seven or eight "real adults," according to chief engineer Bob Feldmeyer, the Aspen holds a 235-horsepower, 4.7-liter V-8 engine that can now run on E85 (a blend of ethanol and gasoline). Chrysler's Hemi V-8 is optional, producing 335 horsepower but capable of running on only four cylinders during light-load conditions. For towing ease, a new Trailer Sway Control Program is installed.
Front torsion bars help produce what Feldmeyer calls a "nice plush ride." Curtain-type airbags are installed, and the upholstery is said to be "stain-resistant to almost anything."
Styling leads off with a familiar Chrysler grille made up of wide horizontal bars, containing an integrated wing badge. Wheel arches are boldly formed, and 20-inch tires are available. Chrome door handles and belt moldings decorate the bodysides.
Most noticeable inside the Aspen is the huge speedometer in the center of the dashboard. It looks like one of the biggest ever, reminiscent of such instruments in some cars of the 1930s. A column-mounted lever operates the automatic transmission without difficulty.
It's a pretty big climb up, but the Aspen has wide-enough running boards. Luxurious-style seats aren't so strong on back support, but comfortable enough otherwise.
No doubt about it, this is a big vehicle. Yet it's easy enough to drive on curvy two-lane roads. In some ways, it behaves more confidently than some smaller SUVs. The luxury-car ride is move cushiony than in most big SUVs, but without losing a sense of contact to the road.
Although Aspen steering is on the light side, that's not a drawback at all. Actually, it feels about right for this vehicle, which exhibits an excellent sense of road connection. Of course, the Aspen's relatively high weight doubtless helps keep it grounded.
DaimlerChrysler's Hemi V-8 clearly does the job, providing sufficient strength for confident responses even on steep mountain inclines. With the 4.7-liter base engine, acceleration is certainly adequate or better under most conditions. It's just not brawny like the more renowned Hemi.
Trucklike drone with either engine is not particularly noticeable unless you're accelerating from a standstill with some intensity. Going downhill, it helps to use Tow/Haul mode, to keep overdrive from engaging. But it's still essential to apply the brake frequently on long mountain downgrades.
Prices start at $31,490 (including destination charge) for a two-wheel-drive Aspen. Picking a 4x4 raises the outlay to $34,265, and the Hemi engine adds $995. Only one trim level is offered, but an option package includes 20-inch wheels, leather upholstery, and other extras.