EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit Newspapers's view


At first, “Hemi hybrid” sounds like an oxymoron in a George Carlin bit, falling between “military intelligence” and “jumbo shrimp.”

But this word combo is no laughing matter for Chrysler LLC, which is trying to show that its legendary engine — known for burning tires in the past — can efficiently push eight people around town in the future.

EPA’s assessment says the 5.7-liter Hemi delivers 19 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. Not spectacular numbers, but certainly better than the 13 mpg in the city the 2008 Aspen reached with a 4.7-liter V-8. During my week of testing this large SUV, I was able to hit 26 mpg at times; other times, 18 mpg. Admittedly, on the high mileage days, the roads were flat and my right foot was in eco-drive mode — though I never acted like those 55-mph imbeciles on a 70-mph highway.

The 2009 Chrysler Aspen Limited hybrid is not a vehicle without flaws. The interior still has a heavy plastic feel, especially the doors and dash, and comes with the second ugliest hood on a Chrysler vehicle. But it serves a purpose, and not every vehicle on the road today can say that. Some people do need a truck and the Aspen is exactly that: a big hulking truck. After a few days behind the wheel, I started to remember how nice SUVs can be.

SUVs bring out the Texan in all Americans

So before every hemp-wearing nut spills his green ice tea lemonade (no syrup) while in a hurry to send me a terse e-mail over his iPhone 3G about the evils of SUVs, let me tell you something: You’re wrong.

Americans may switch to smaller cars, but it’s only because they have to; not because they want to.

We’ve all heard the trend: Consumers are migrating away from trucks — and I am by no means making excuses for Detroit’s wholesale neglect of not offering reasonable small cars — but the reason trucks and SUVs were successful in the first place is that Americans wanted them. They bring out the Texan in all of us.

We love our space. We love the bird’s eye view of the road. We love knowing we can drive through three feet of snow, tow a small village and seat all three generations of our family in a single vehicle. Those are the “what if” questions that come with so many vehicle purchases. What if I need to take seven adults to the mall? Unreasonable? Of course. But if Americans didn’t overbuy, we wouldn’t have this current housing mess either.

The Aspen hybrid over delivers with its capabilities and a promise of a cleaner, greener world.

The reasons for the big truck’s decline is many people have finally realized they don’t need a truck that can tow a mountain or scale it. Nor can they afford 13 mpg — the city mileage of a 2008 Aspen with a 4.7-liter V-8. So can you afford 20 mpg? That’s midsize car numbers in the city. Slightly better mileage if there’s a strong wind at your back.

Then there’s the other question. Can you afford a big giant Chrysler that costs $46,000? For a hybrid, it’s on the high side, but certainly not the most expensive — coming in $6,000 less than General Motors Corp.’s big SUV hybrid.

So if you occasionally tow something heavy, have a Walton-sized family and a good-paying job, this Chrysler may be for you. (There also is a Dodge Durango hybrid, a few hundred dollars less than the Aspen, but its interior and exterior don’t match the Aspen.)

Aspen comes fully loaded

With a curb weight of 5,637 pounds, the four-wheel drive Aspen is pound-for-pound half the price of filet mignon — and despite its flaws, it’s certainly not chopped liver.

Here’s what you get: A fully loaded SUV, comfortable and complete. There are only two options for the Aspen: a sunroof and a rear-seat entertainment system. If you have kids, I’d go with the ceiling-mounted DVD player with a Sirius Satellite radio connection that brings in three children-oriented stations.

The Aspen’s amenities include powered leather seats (also heated), wood trim, a 110 volt outlet and Chrysler’s infotainment and navigation system, formerly known as MyGig. It allows the driver to connect his personal music device to the stereo or burn compact discs to a hard drive.

The standard hands-free phone system, known as U Connect, allows you to send and receive calls. It connects easily to the system and reconnects your phone automatically every time you get in the SUV, but the voice recognition software had difficulty deciphering my very plain American accent. Test after test, I would ask the system to call “home” and it would dial “Ford.” Not the best choice for a Chrysler. While the system will upload your phone’s address book, I found it easier to dial the number on the phone and then speak through the hands-free system. Certain functions are only available if the car is stopped or if you are a passenger. Passengers can talk freely to it. I liked how the system asked if I was a passenger so I could change features. The system cannot detect lies.

The second- and third-rows are comfortable, even for adults. Both rows fold down to create more than 100 cubic feet of storage space. The automatic lifting tailgate is convenient, especially with an armful of groceries. Two clicks on the key and the back opens right up. But then you have to close it by hand — that’s not luxury, that’s manual labor.

Market may not be big enough

The exterior is big, but nice. The straight lines on the hood seem out of place, like a long-lost design cue for a defunct sports car.

But the other aspects of the vehicle, while big, are nice. It looks menacing from the front . Stretching more than 200 inches long, the Aspen has a 119-inch wheelbase. That provides a very smooth ride. And the electric motors make it nearly silent at slow speeds. Driving through parking lots I felt like a rhino on my tippy-toes. Inside, the ride is extremely quiet.

The 5.7-liter Hemi hums along on the highway on four cylinders and keeps a low idle during moderate acceleration. (The electric motors assist the engine when cruising at highway speeds, which is why the highway mileage numbers are slightly improved.) Press the accelerator hard and you can feel the combined 385-horsepower engine lurch the vehicle forward.

However, drive fast at your own peril. This SUV handles like a bowl of Jello when going fast. The electric power steering is a little loose and the body rolls through turns heavily. I said it before: it’s a big truck. The braking (which also helps recharge the batteries) is excellent, so I never found myself in too much trouble.

There may be people who need this kind of vehicle, but the real problem is there are just not that many.

This is a fine SUV. And those last three letters may be its downfall.

Automotive consumers are begging for high-mileage cars and crossovers, not better-performing large SUVs. There is a market for this vehicle, and those few customers will be pleased with it. But it’s not going to be enough to pull Chrysler out of its current tailspin. The sooner Chrysler adopts its hybrid technology into Dodge Chargers, Avengers and Calibers, the better.

When you consider price, performance and capabilities, this is the best large hybrid SUV on the road. But for most people, who really needs it?

2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid

MSRP : $45,570

Type: Seven- or eight-passenger full-size SUV with full time four-wheel drive.

Engine : 5.7-liter V-8 with Active Fuel Management and dual electric motors for electric drive

Power : 385 horsepower (total)

Transmission : Hybrid electric transmission

EPA Mileage : 19 mpg city / 20 mpg highway

Towing: 6,000 pounds

Steering: Electro hydraulic power rack-and-pinion

Wheels : 18-inch chrome–clad-cast aluminum

Dimensions (inches):

Wheelbase: 119.2

Length: 202.1

Width: 76

Height: 73.6

Report Card

Overall: ***

Exterior : Good: Clean lines. The hood strakes look silly. Intimidating front end is nice.

Interior: Good: Lots of space. Nicely appointed and with every imaginable option available.

Performance : Good: Handling is not great, but it hits more than 20 mpg with normal driving.

Safety : Excellent: Full complement of airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. Also, its big body will toss compacts the length of a football field.

Pros: Green vehicle with quiet ride and good mileage numbers. Can tow 6,000 pounds.

Cons: Expensive SUV with poor handling; people may boo at you.

Grading scale: Excellent: **** Good: *** Fair: ** Poor: *

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at sburgess@detnews.com.

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