Better late than never?

Though it took eight years to follow Toyota’s lead, Chrysler finally has unveiled its first gas/electrics, the 2009 Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs developed in cooperation with General Motors, which offers the same hybrid system in the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

We tested the Aspen hybrid, which claims 19 m.p.g. city/20 m.p.g. highway with four-wheel-drive (no rear-wheel-drive hybrid). Though not as stingy as a Toyota Prius (48 m.p.g. city/45 m.p.g. highway), it beats the 13 city/18 highway rating for the non-hybrid 4WD and is about equal to the 20/20 rating of the Tahoe hybrid. And the 27-gallon fuel tank promises 500 miles between fills. Good range, but at $4 or so a gallon, you won’t get much change back from your $110.

Aspen is about the same size as a Tahoe. Styling touches include chrome-on the grille, body-side moldings, door handles, mirrors, roof rack and 18-inch wheels.

Hybrid badges on fenders and tailgate tell of the conservationist at the wheel. Some might wish the badges were a bit larger to make fellow conservationists more likely to flash thumbs up when passing, rather than another finger frequently offered an SUV.

With its 5.7-liter, 385-horsepower Hemi V-8, Aspen has muscle enough to haul up to eight people and their stuff. It also it also can shut off 4 cylinders at cruising or all 8 at idle to conserve fuel.

If Aspen sounds familiar, it’s because the replacement for the Dodge Dart went by that name in 1976. It was replaced in 1981 by the Aries, one of the infamous K cars created by then Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca in the infancy of platform sharing.

The SUV starts and stays in battery mode to about 25 m.p.h. in warm weather, the reason for the 19 m.p.g. in the city. The batteries not only conserve gas, they also eliminate internal-combustion engine racket.

To fully appreciate the hybrid’s charms, however, means focusing on the schematic in the dash that tells when in battery or gas mode or both, as well as mileage at the moment. The schematic shuts off half the engine shading when the Hemi is doing its 4-cylinder thing.

While Chrysler partnered with GM on a dual-mode hybrid, it developed its own schematic, which isn’t as clear or as large as GM’s.

A more user friendly display would let folks know how much gas is being saved by what mode without having to decipher arrows. Maybe something simple like a battery symbol that turns green or an engine symbol that turns red whenever in use?

But you don’t need a degree in schematics to realize that the slower you move, the more likely the batteries are working. Or that going up hills takes more energy than going down.

It’s fascinating to watch the instant mileage reading shoot from 13 m.p.g. to 25 m.p.g. when you’re running on 4 cylinders. We even got it up to 35 m.p.g. holding at 50 m.p.h. in 4-cylinder mode-in a full-size SUV with three rows of seats for eight people.

Ride was sufficiently soft to prevent bouncing around the cabin. While the 4×4 body stands high enough to handle heavy snow, it isn’t so high as to create excessive lean and roll in corners. Handling was good though the hybrid adds about 600 pounds, weight you feel in the wheel.

Nice touches include a power tailgate, very wide opening side doors for easy entry/exit and ample space in the front center console to hold cups and coins and inside the armrest to hold a small purse and CDs. There’s also power outlets in the dash and center armrest, and fold-flat second row seats that flip forward to open an aisle to the third row, though the latches that secure the seats to the floor get in the way.

Other nice touches include power pedals; fashionable wood-grain cabin trim; and a 115-volt, 150-watt power outlet behind the center console for second-row occupants to plug in a computer or TV, which would be enjoyed more if second row leg room was increased a bit.

The cargo hold behind Row 3 is rather small. With lots of luggage or gear, you have to fold one or both of the third-row seat backs flat, which really hurts space for passengers back there. Seat backs raise or lower quickly using pull straps.

The 4×4 Aspen hybrid starts at $44,770, about $3,600 more than the gas version. About every amenity Chrysler offers is standard, including power, heated, leather seats; climate control; power mirrors/windows/locks; navigation system; MyGIG entertainment system; electronic stability control; trailer sway control; anti-lock brakes; back-up camera; and side-curtain air bags with rollover sensors.

What more could Aspen need?

A few hybrid car companions. But with the flux in the auto industry, there’s no talk of when, or even if, that will happen.

Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation. Contact him at

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