Chrysler's first foray into the hybrid market affects its two full-size SUV twins, the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango. Using a two-mode hybrid system co-developed with GM, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the hybrid versions of both SUVs purportedly yield 40 percent better city mileage than their gasoline counterparts. The Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon hybrids, which use the same two-mode technology, are the Durango's main competitors.
Though Dodge positions the regular Durango slightly downstream of the Aspen, the SUVs' respective hybrid versions are similarly equipped. Both have three rows of seats and many standard features, and both arrive in showrooms in mid-2008. For now, the SUVs come only with four-wheel drive, though two-wheel drive may be offered down the road.
Unlike GM's full-size hybrid SUVs, which sport additional body cladding to enhance aerodynamics, Chrysler says the Durango Hybrid doesn't look noticeably different from a regular Durango. Wheelbase and width remain identical, but length is up 1.3 inches. Minimum ground clearance is down 0.9 inches, despite a load floor that's closer to that of the regular Durango. Chrysler says the loss in ground clearance is due to extra electrical infrastructure in the hybrid chassis.
Eighteen-inch chrome wheels are standard. Unlike GM's hybrid SUVs, the Durango Hybrid's flanks don't trumpet their credentials for all to see. Hybrid badges appear near the front fenders and above the rear bumper, but they're comparatively humble.
Inside, the Durango Hybrid looks much like its regular counterpart. The three-row cabin seats up to eight, and passenger volumes are more or less equivalent to those in the regular Durango. Passenger volume in the first and second rows remains equivalent to that of the regular Durango, with third-row volume down by just 0.4 cubic feet, or less than 1 percent; Chrysler says that's due to the battery pack, which sits underneath the rear load floor. Standard features include leather upholstery and heated power front seats.
Hybrid-specific implements include a screen on the navigation system that shows real-time power flow between the drivetrain components — the battery, brakes and engine. Like many hybrids, the Durango Hybrid has a charge-assist gauge whose dial swings to the left when the regenerative brakes are charging the battery and to the right when the electric motors and gasoline engine are working together to maximize acceleration. In between them is a green zone labeled "economy," which is similar to a gauge that promotes fuel-efficient driving in the Tahoe Hybrid.
Under the Hood
The Durango's two-mode hybrid system starts with a 300-volt battery pack, which is recharged using the friction from the SUV's regenerative brakes. In turn, the battery powers two transmission-integrated electric motors — most conventional hybrids have one. The motors are fixed to a network of two continuously variable and four fixed gear ratios. A 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with eight- and four-cylinder modes does the heavy lifting, though Chrysler says it can stay in four-cylinder mode more often because of the hybrid system's electrical assists. (The two-mode designation comes from the two variable ratios, which work when the SUV is starting out and then again when cruising at highway speeds.)
All told, the system generates an estimated 385 horsepower and is capable of moving the Durango Hybrid along on electric-only power at low speeds. The Durango can also operate on gasoline and electric power, or on gas power alone. Hybrid drivetrains typically pay the highest fuel dividends in the city, where electric-only propulsion at lower speeds is most likely; Chrysler says preliminary mileage estimates are 18/19 city/highway. That represents a considerable improvement over a four-wheel-drive Durango with the 5.7-liter Hemi, which gets 13/18 city/highway.
Maximum towing capacity is 6,000 pounds. The regular Durango can tow up to 8,950 pounds.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are standard. Three-row curtain airbags include a tip sensor to deploy during a rollover.