Strengths and weaknesses:
- hauling power
- doesn’t live up to consumption estimates
Aspen makes the best of a honkin’ HEMI
When Chrysler decided to hedge its fuel consumption bets and spruce up its green act by grafting two-mode hybrid technology to the big HEMI-powered vehicles in its family tree, it made a lot of sense.
What’s the point in making already-efficient vehicles even more miserly when they could get to the root of the problem and give the big boys a better feeding pattern?
Now, having spent some time climbing around a full-size Aspen Hybrid SUV, I can see they weren’t going out on a limb with that strategy.
There’s no denying a 5.7-litre HEMI V8 ingests fuel at a prodigious rate, but add the hybrid system and its appetite for regular gasoline decreases noticeably and you go a lot farther before you have to feed that 102-litre tank.
The technology in Chrysler’s first hybrid vehicle marries a two-mode hybrid system with the HEMI’s Multi-displacement System to give a Transport Canada city/highway consumption estimate of 10.5/9.2 L/100 km.
While my time in the test Aspen from Chrysler Canada didn’t live up to that estimate, it was appreciably better than what I have been able to obtain with other HEMI-powered vehicles that didn’t have hybrid help.
Capable of towing 6,000 lb., the Aspen system uses an electrically variable transmission and two different modes of operation (hence the two-mode tag). The low- and high-speed electric continuously variable transmission (ECVT) modes also incorporate four fixed-gear ratios for high efficiency and power handling. The system can use electric motors for acceleration, improving economy or for regenerative braking.
The first mode, at low speed with light loads, the vehicle can operate in electric power only, engine power only or any combination of the two. The second mode is used primarily at highway speeds. In addition to electric assist, it provides full power from the 5.7-L V8 when passing, climbing steep grades or pulling a trailer.
The driver gets some incentive to drive economically with a gauge that tells you when you’re operating in the “economy” range or when you’re in full-gulp territory. I find myself trying to wring out the best possible gauge position to see how low a readout I can get from the average-consumption readout on the driver info system.
Despite holding myself to less-abrupt getaways from stoplights, and more sedate acceleration, the best figure I could achieve from the on-board computer was an average of 11.7 L/100 km combined. Even at that, it’s a whole lot better than you’d get with just the HEMI providing the propulsion for such a big vehicle.
The hybrid comes in Limited trim only, which means it’s a premium vehicle with all the trimmings.
Outside, there are chrome touches on body mouldings, door handles and side mirrors as well as 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels. It’s a good-looking vehicle – for a full size SUV – with pleasant proportions.
The interior of the Aspen, with tasteful use of wood accents, includes nesting for eight, but I don’t think people in the centre are going to be happy with their perches. It’s fine for six in three rows of two. The second row seating is a 40/20/40 arrangement while the third row is a 60/40 split bench. All fold down, together or separately, to create a large, efficient cargo space.
Amenities include power everything, leather seating including heat for the front buckets; UConnect GPS navigation system; electronic vehicle information centre; HomeLink transceiver, front and rear LED lamps; power adjustable pedals, park assist, rear backup camera – the list goes on. And it’s all standard.
The only options available are a power sunroof and DVD rear entertainment system. Performance add-ons include heavy duty cooling (with auxiliary oil and power steering cooler), trailer-tow group and heavy-duty service group (included with the trailer tow package). The test vehicle also added 7 and 4-pin wiring harness and Class IV hitch receiver.
The whole Limited package makes the Aspen a pleasant place in which to spend time on the highway.
Driver visibility through the big glass area is excellent and, despite its size, the Aspen demands little effort before responding to steering inputs. On-demand all-wheel-drive maintains traction when the going gets sloppy.
The suspension soaks up road imperfections, giving a smooth, well-modulated ride.
While you can induce a throaty growl from the HEMI, the powertrain goes about its regular business with a minimum of fuss.
Considering you’re pushing a great big brick through the air, wind noise is surprisingly mellow - like a breeze blowing through a stand of ... well ... aspens.