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.
A dashboard knob locks the differential for dealing with serious low-traction conditions.
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.
The UConnect buttons on the mirror are a long reach for easy use.
In the cabin
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.
Skis, snowboards, luggage, and three people fit in the Aspen comfortably.
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.
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.
The radio display doesn't name the Sirius channels the car can receive, making selection tedious.
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.