Beyond our niggles over colors and textures, the cabin's real letdown was in the tech department. Our particular car was outfitted with the upgraded eight-speaker, 276-watt Alpine audio system ($395) and Sirius satellite radio ($195), which worked well together. But the sweet-sounding stereo had an Achilles' heel: the lack of a proper display screen for audio information.
Regular readers may be tiring of our frequent carping over satellite radio setups that lack a display screen, but the Aspen went to new lows by not even offering a channel-name readout on its rudimentary LED faceplate. Knowing we'd be relying on Sirius for entertainment during the trip to Lake Tahoe, we printed out a channel lineup before leaving the office, a decidedly low-tech solution in a would-be luxury SUV. That aside, the sound from the stereo was excellent, both playing Sirius and CDs. High frequencies seemed especially well represented, and with the fader set slightly to the rear, we were impressed with the separation on a few familiar CDs. The standard single-CD player in our Aspen did not offer MP3 capability, but the optional six-CD in-dash changer (part of the navigation package) does, with ID3 (version 1 only) information displayed but without playlist capability, according to the owner's manual. The standard stereo does include an auxiliary input jack, easily accessible on the faceplate, for hooking up an iPod.
Numerous 12-volt power outlets are standard throughout the interior: one on the dash, one deep in the huge center armrest storage area (under a pullout CD and incidentals tray), and one in the rear cargo area. Also standard as part of the Limited package is a 115-volt AC outlet on the back of the center console controlled with a switch on the dashboard. This would be an especially handy feature in conjunction with the rear-seat entertainment system (for using a video game system, perhaps), but our Aspen was not equipped with the rear-seat screen.
The navigation option also was notably absent. We have seen nav systems on plenty of cars in this price range, and its inclusion here would have made the entire vehicle seem a better value, and obviously would have made the satellite radio option much more enjoyable. We also wondered if the dashboard nav display would have included a rear-view camera--the Aspen has a relatively effective park assist system with a row of lights warning of objects in your path, but in a vehicle this size there's no substitute for actually seeing what's back there. Minor plus-side features included separate rear-seat climate controls (which can be overriden from the front seat), well-designed analog gauges with pleasant soft-blue backlighting, good secondary steering-wheel controls, and the expected power rear liftgate.
Under the hood
If a review of a modern SUV gets to the Performance section and the vehicle hasn't impressed much with its features and tech amenities, chances are it's not going to make up much ground based on economy, handling, and overall driving characteristics. The 2007 Chrysler Aspen is no exception.
There is some interesting drivetrain technology in the Aspen repertoire but, unfortunately for us, not for buyers of the base-engined model in California (or Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont), where emissions standards more stringent than federal requirements cannot be met. Elsewhere, the standard 4.7-liter V-8 in the Aspen is a flexible fuel unit allowing the use of E85 ethanol/gasoline blend--in those five states, a standard gasoline-only engine is substituted. If the optional Hemi 5.7-liter V-8 is specified, buyers are surprisingly rewarded with better EPA-rated fuel economy than for the smaller unit, thanks to a multi-displacement system that deactivates one bank of four cylinders under light-load cruising.
The five speed automatic transmission doesn't do much to help the fuel economy and is surprisingly primitive considering German cousin Mercedes-Benz is up to seven gears. A gas-only base-engined Aspen such as the one we tested gets 14mpg in the city and 18 on the highway, according to the EPA. In mostly highway driving with a bit of lakeside sightseeing thrown in, we averaged 15.6mpg for the weekend. For our entire week with the Aspen, its trip computer calculated closer to 14mpg, understandable with the extra city driving not included in the Tahoe jaunt. The E85 version of the 4.7-liter is rated at 14 and 19mpg, while the 5.7-liter is rated at 15 and 20mpg, thanks to its ability to run on four cylinders at times.
The base engine struggles somewhat to get the Aspen up to speed, part of a generally lackluster overall driving experience. Seating position is high and mighty as in other SUVs, but the distance of the windshield base from the driver is somewhat awkward and creates a large blind spot at the base of the A-pillar.
Handling is similarly unsatisfying, with every bit of the Aspen's weight and height felt when changing direction. The suspension feels softer than that of the other full-size SUVs we mentioned previously, and while the soft ride is appreciated over rough pavement and expansion joints, the resultant wallowing control seems like too much of a trade-off.
The 2007 Chrysler Aspen makes a styling statement, but we're not sure it's one many people will be eager to agree with. Despite fuel prices and environmental concerns, the luxury SUV market remains full of competition, and the Aspen doesn't outdo its rivals on any score.
Base MSRP for the four-wheel-drive Aspen Limited is $33,520. Along with the Alpine audio, Bluetooth, and Sirius options, our test truck came equipped with a $455 towing group consisting of a Class IV hitch and 4- and 7-pin wiring connectors. Total sticker price with destination charges came to $36,545.
This may seem on the low side for an SUV of this size, but equipping an Aspen with its full array of tech options would likely put it over the $40,000 mark, giving it plenty of company in the marketplace. As tested, our Aspen scored merely average marks for performance and design and earned an extra tick for comfort, mainly based on the sheer volume of the interior and the Alpine stereo's ability to fill it with rich sound.