What's New for 2009
The big news for the 2009 Chrysler Aspen is the addition of a hybrid model that combines Hemi V8 power with V6-like fuel efficiency. For the regular Aspen line, the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 makes more power with no fuel-economy penalty, thanks to cylinder deactivation. Sirius Backseat TV is now included with the rear-seat entertainment system.
Truck-based chassis. Fifteen-mpg-combined fuel economy. Less passenger space than a big crossover. With all that's going against it, the 2009 Chrysler Aspen is looking like a lonely Neanderthal surrounded by smarter Homo sapiens. A new "two-mode" hybrid is a last-minute attempt to evolve for changing competition, but it seems unlikely to be enough to save this outdated SUV.
The Aspen is essentially a Dodge Durango gussied up with more chrome and more features. But it remains a truck-based SUV, which means a body-on-frame design (rather than the increasingly more common carlike unit-body design of crossover SUVs) and rear-wheel or four-wheel drive. This rugged construction does lend itself better to towing and off-roading. And its size -- bigger than a Ford Explorer but smaller than a GMC Yukon -- has typically been touted as an advantage as well. That body-on-frame construction also lends it a rough-and-tumble ride and a heavier curb weight that requires big-time engines that have big-time fuel consumption. Having said that, one of the Aspen's most impressive features is its optional "Hemi" engine. Packing 376 horsepower, the 5.7-liter V8 features cylinder deactivation technology, which helps return fuel economy no worse than that of the Aspen's smaller standard V8.
For the best fuel economy, there is the new-for-2009 Chrysler Aspen HEV hybrid. Utilizing so-called "two-mode" hybrid technology co-developed by General Motors, BMW and the company formerly known as Daimler-Chrysler, this powertrain features a de-powered version of the 5.7-liter V8, plus a pair of potent electric motors and a trick transmission with variable gear ratios, which maximizes the efficiency of both power sources. The result is combined fuel economy of about 20 mpg, a 5-mpg increase over the regular 5.7-liter V8. Unfortunately, all that hybrid hardware jacks the Aspen's price up by $3,000 over the similarly equipped non-hybrid model.
With all its chrome trim, the Aspen is fancied a budget competitor for full-size luxury SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, Lexus GX 470 and Lincoln Navigator. Given its smaller size and lower materials/build quality, though, it really isn't in their league. The Aspen is really just a flashier alternative to the Durango for those who need family space and the ability to tow heavy objects. If the latter isn't a priority, well-equipped crossovers like the Acura MDX, Buick Enclave and Ford Flex offer the same or more cargo capacity and better fuel economy. The Aspen HEV hybrid matches them in the last regard, but given its high price, any fuel savings are wiped out. In other words, we suggest looking elsewhere.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Chrysler Aspen is available in two trim levels, Limited and Limited HEV. The Limited is available in two-wheel drive and 4WD, while the Limited HEV (hybrid) is 4X4 only. Standard equipment includes 18-inch chrome-clad alloy wheels, automatic headlamps, foglamps, rear park assist, a rear parking camera, a power tailgate, a power driver seat, a tilting steering column, a 40/20/40-split reclining second row, a 60/40-split-folding three-passenger third row, rear climate control, stain-repellent cloth upholstery, wood trim and an eight-speaker stereo with touchscreen controls, 30GB of digital music storage, an auxiliary audio jack and a CD player.
The creatively named J Package adds the Hemi V8, 20-inch chrome-clad alloy wheels, running boards, heated auto-dimming exterior mirrors, remote ignition, leather upholstery in the first and second rows, a power passenger seat, heated front seats, automatic climate control, power-adjustable pedals, driver memory functions, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth, iPod integration, a navigation system and upgraded speakers. Several of these items are available as stand-alone options, along with second-row bucket seats, a towing package and a rear DVD entertainment system with Sirius Backseat TV. The Limited with J Package can also be equipped with a sunroof and heated second-row seats.
The Chrysler Aspen Limited HEV is 4X4 only and equipped similarly to the Limited with J Package, but adds a hybrid powertrain, 18-inch chrome-clad wheels and real-time traffic information for the navigation system.
Powertrains and Performance
The Aspen is available in rear-wheel drive or 4WD. The standard engine is a 4.7-liter V8 good for 303 hp and 330 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed automatic is standard. Fuel economy is 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway and 15 mpg combined for models with 2WD. Four-wheel-drive Aspens with this engine have a 13/17/15 mpg rating. When properly equipped, the 4.7-liter-equipped Aspen can tow up to 5,950 pounds.
Optional is a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that produces 376 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic is standard. Fuel economy is 13 city/19 highway and 15 combined with 2WD and 13/18/15 with 4WD. When properly equipped, an Aspen with the 5.7-liter V8 can tow up to 8,900 pounds.
The Limited HEV is powered by a "two-mode" hybrid system consisting of a Hemi V8 (345 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque), two electric motors (87 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque) and a "two-mode" transmission with variable ratios, which maximizes power from the gasoline engine and electric motors. Estimated fuel economy is 19 mpg city/20 mpg highway.
The 2009 Chrysler Aspen comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, trailer sway control and side curtain airbags. In government frontal crash testing, the Aspen earned a perfect five-star rating for the protection of front occupants.
Interior Design and Special Features
As a close relative of the Durango, the Aspen's cabin shares its strengths and weaknesses, but throws in some classy light wood accents for show. Chrysler's latest batch of digital entertainment options (a 30GB hard drive, satellite radio and TV) in particular should appeal to kids and tech-savvy parents. Ergonomics and storage capacity are first-rate, but overall materials quality is low-budget and not befitting the Aspen's luxury aspirations.
Second-row legroom is tight, while the third row offers nearly as much space -- but that says more about the second row than the third. Large crossover SUVs like the GMC Acadia and Ford Flex are far more passenger-friendly. Most buyers will find cargo capacity to be more than adequate, with more than 68 cubic feet available when the third seat is folded into the floor, and as much as 102 cubic feet total.
Although the 2009 Chrysler Aspen's handling and ride characteristics certainly passed muster a few years ago, newer and more refined competitors have put the Aspen in a less forgiving light. The steering seems numb and ride quality is unsophisticated -- the available 20-inch wheels certainly don't help. Four-wheel-drive versions can be taken off-highway, offering plenty of wheel travel and responsive manners. The standard V8 is reasonably powerful, but with the Hemi V8, the Aspen is one of the quickest SUVs available for the money.
Driving the Aspen HEV hybrid is a bit odd: It still feels trucky, but the Hemi roar has been replaced by a Prius-like whir at low speeds. Plentiful power is always on tap, with the electric motor providing endless torque. If you drive prudently, the 2009 Aspen HEV can remain in electric mode at low city speeds, thus maximizing fuel economy.