Although boldly styled successes such as the 300 sedan and the PT Cruiser generated big profits as recently as 2005, Chrysler's late 2006 financial reports showed it deeply in the red, and also-ran products such as the 2007 Chrysler Aspen and its sibling, the Dodge Durango, are part of the reason why.
Chrysler took pains to incorporate its family design language into the contours of its first full-size SUV. But what works so well on a car like the 300, and even what works sort of acceptably on a car such as the Crossfire, doesn't necessarily scale up to Cadillac Escalade proportions. The Aspen is the most derivative Chrysler Group product in some time, looking like a bloated minivan and wearing cues like the hood strakes and the massive grille and wing emblem uncomfortably.
Things do improve inside the Aspen somewhat, with nice touches such as numerous power outlets and easy-to-configure seating options. But the standard features leave a lot to be desired in terms of tech, and the materials and palette choices strive toward luxury rather than actually getting there.
Compared to other super-sized luxo-trucks we've reviewed, the Aspen's ride characteristics are behind the pack, giving us the mildly disturbing longing to be behind the wheel of an Infiniti QX56, the aforementioned Escalade, or even a Ford Expedition. Those and other competitors, while slightly more expensive, nonetheless drive better and offer more comprehensive and better-executed feature sets, making the Aspen's slow sales numbers easy to understand.
Test the tech: Aspen to Tahoe
Our lightly equipped Aspen didn't offer much in the way of gadgetry for the occupants, so the familiar drive from CNET's headquarters in San Francisco northeast to Lake Tahoe seemed the best way to test the tech of its all-weather capabilities. While the generally mild conditions over our weekend trip didn't exactly cooperate by providing anything but dry roads, there was snow on the mountains, and we found a few slick spots where we could gauge the Aspen's low-traction behavior.
The Aspen has two four-wheel-drive modes: normal and lock. The latter is only intended for use on loose or slippery roads, so almost all our drive time was in 4WD Normal, selected via a prominent knob on the dash. Around town the drive system goes unnoticed, providing relatively decent slow-speed agility. For our few asides onto icy driveways and remote parking areas where traction was lacking, we also tried AWD Lock mode to compare and frankly didn't notice much difference: the Electronic Stability Program system intervened before real wheelspin or sliding could be induced at these low speeds.
ESP is a catchall acronym for the Aspen's collection of electronic driving aids: standard ABS, a brake assist system, traction control, electronic roll mitigation, and trailer sway control. The system uses selective braking and/or power retardation when any signs of diminished control are detected. The entire ESP system can be set to a partial off mode with a dash-mounted switch, to allow for using chains or getting unstuck from mud or snow, but the basic protections are always active. This is probably a good idea in the Aspen, as its high-speed stability was not confidence-inspiring, and it is easy to imagine how an emergency swerve or a squirrelly trailer could get dangerous without the nannies ready to step in.
The one true tech option on our test Aspen was the UConnect Bluetooth phone integration system, a $360 addition which also includes an auto-dimming inside rear-view mirror. The mirror is part of the package because that is where the UConnect activation buttons are located, not a very convenient placement as it is a bit of reach to hit the buttons. Pairing our Sony Ericsson K790a was straightforward, following the voice prompts for instructions, and once paired, operation was seamless for both incoming and outgoing calls. One gripe is the system can't access a phone's address book, so dialing out required number-by-number instructions, which were misinterpreted by the car often enough to cause frustration. The system has its own internal address book, the use of which would be a necessity for owners.
As is probably now clear, we considered the highlight of the 2007 Chrysler Aspen to be its interior, but weren't enamored enough with it that it won us over completely. Given the exterior proportions of the vehicle, finding plenty of space inside was no surprise, but sheer space isn't enough to differentiate a modern SUV from the ever-growing pack. The Aspen scores points for its flexibility and functionality inside, especially the easily configured rows of rear seating.
In its base configuration, the Aspen offers a 40/20/40 split-folding and split-tumbling second-row bench and a simple non-split third-row bench. Our vehicle's window sticker listed the optional second-row leather-trimmed bucket seats as included, but they weren't present. This was just as well, as we were able to load three passengers' skiing and snowboarding gear with the rear bench folded and the left section of the second row flat as well, leaving plenty of room for the third passenger in the rest of the second row. Room is one thing the Aspen offers in spades, and with all three rows available for passengers, it can seat eight easily if they're not all adults.
Materials in the cabin weren't pleasing to our eyes, with a very light-colored faux wood used liberally on the steering wheel and center console, which produced more glare than it did a feeling of upscale luxury. The Aspen uses a seat fabric called "YES Essentials," which is treated for resistance to staining. We were loathe to test this out with any intentional spills, but the fabric was comfortable enough and a nice compromise between regular cloth and a more expensive leather upgrade.