2009 Chrysler Aspen Limited (USA)

What could follow the experience of driving of a Corvette, without coming across as a huge disappointment, I wondered to myself as I headed into the Hertz LAX facility at the end of my week behind the wheel of the yellow American sports car? Surely, the only solution would be to get a completely different sort of car. Although there were indeed plenty of cars waiting for the lucky renter to take them away, nothing much caught my eye, it has to be said. I did, however, notice a significant number of Chrysler Aspen, not something I had seen in the fleet before (Hertz seem not to favour Chrysler products, certainly in California), and so I decided to try one of those.


The Aspen is probably not familiar to those outside America, as the model has only been available for a few years, and its oversized dimensions make it a far from suitable candidate for the more congested European roads and cities. It is based on the Dodge Durango, a large SUV which in turn has its origins in the truck world. This is old style engineering, with a large boxy body on a separate chassis, seating for 8 people, a large engine and the ability to tow big and heavy loads. So, a far cry from the Corvette, for sure. The Aspen is positioned as a more luxurious alternative to the Durango, but even so, prices start at just over $35,000 for the entry level 2 wheel drive “Limited” model, which proved to be the specification of my test vehicle.


Everything about the Aspen is big. I was acutely aware of this at all times. You open the door and you have to haul yourself up into the cabin. Once there, you really do have a commanding view over “ordinary” vehicles, as you are sitting that much higher. This is a long and wide vehicle, and you need to remember this when manoeuvering it, especially in tight spaces. There are rear parking sensors and there is a standard camera mounted above the rear license plate, which transfers an image onto the stereo display. I found it harder to judge where the front ended than the back of the car. It is high, too. The tallest item is the old style radio aerial, and I found that on entering a couple of parking garages, this would actually brush against the various bars and supports suspended from the ceiling.


The standard engine in the Aspen is a 4.7 litre V8, developing 303 bhp. The engine is branded “Flexfuel”, which means that it is capable of running on either regular 87 octane petrol or on E85 ethanol. As I did not find any source of the latter, it had to content itself with petrol, which it consumed at an average of about 19 mpg (US). There is the option of the 5.7 litre Hemi engine, which would give you another 30 bhp. I am not sure that I could see the point, to be honest, although perhaps if you were 8 up and towing a large boat, the extra grunt might prove useful. As it is, the standard engine proved to be one of the better features of the car. It sounds good, like only a V8 can, with that wonderful burble, on idle, and when you were powering up a hill, the noise changed to a slightly more purposeful growl. 303 bhp proved to be more than ample, especially given the other dynamic characteristics of the car. There is a five speed automatic transmission, controlled by a column mounted lever, which proved easy to use. Gearchanges were very smooth indeed, as the engine shifted between the ratios imperceptibly. And that’s where the good news goes to bad rather quickly.


Large SUVs like this are never going to win prizes for their handling prowess, and the Aspen is no exception. The first time I approached a curve linking the 105 to the 110 freeway, I realised very quickly that the warning sticker posted on the sunvisor about how these cars could topple over was a serious warning. As I got used to the car, it became clear that you could maintain a reasonable speed on sweeping curves, and indeed I would rate the handling as no worse than the Explorer or the Trailblazer that I drove last year. The steering, though, is something else. All sorts of descriptions have been used – pejoratively – to describe vague and feel-less steering in the past by me and others. The Aspen requires a brand new form of insult. I think that suggesting it was connected to the wheels with cooked spaghetti, or even by Bluetooth would be too praiseworthy, and concluded that the base of the steering column is probably connected to a bucket of mushy peas. There was a lot of play in the wheel before anything happened, and the whole feel was just vague.


Worse than the steering, was the ride. Truly dreadful at times, for reasons that I could not really fathom. It seemed that on some surfaces – not necessarily even very rough ones – and probably at certain speeds, the Aspen would just pitch and bounce up and down, I could easily imagine that anyone prone to seasickness would experience that nauseous feeling. What is odd is that other times, and on similarly looking road surfaces, the Aspen smoothed out the bumps quite nicely and actually rode pretty well. The sensation of this bucking bronco on the I-10 freeway was so bad that even if there were no other weak points about this car, I could not recommend it to anyone. This is a real shame, as the Aspen generally proved to be quite a refined cruiser. It is pleasingly quiet, and could hold its own at freeway speed quite easily, and with the big seats and commanding driving position, with good visibility from the enormous mirrors, it was quite relaxing to drive on a long journey.


Of course, the bad news continues. Just step inside, and have a look. In deference to being the slightly more luxurious brand in the Chrysler Group, the Aspen is furnished with some particularly tacky looking light coloured wood effect trim which afflicts the dash, the door casings and the upper half of the steering wheel. Sadly, I know from listening to showgoers at US Auto Shows that there are plenty of Americans who like this, so I suppose it just has to be a question of personal taste. It certainly is not to mine! The dash is not exactly of the highest quality, either. Not all the plastics are as hard as they look, and I think the overall design, with lots of hard edges to it reinforces the feeling of poor quality that is only partly justified. That said, there are some cheap, low quality plastics, so the criticism is not totally unfair. Among the worst offenders are the air vents, which are simple plastic mouldings, with a hard edge at the bottom which allows you to redirect them. Another bad thing was the horrid plastic release lever for the parking brake, though this is mounted so low in the dash above the driver’s left knee that at least you don’t have to look at it. You will also struggle to find it. The parking brake is set by pressing a large pedal. I did the “American thing” and simply did not bother. The main dials, a speedo flanked by a smaller rev counter to the right and minor gauges to the left are presented in a sort of quasi retro look, with an off-white finish to them and slightly stylised graphic which renders them that bit fussy, but actually impart their information clearly enough. The column stalks cover the wipers and indicator functions. A rotary light switch is to the left of the wheel, on the dash. Cruise control is operated by buttons on the steering wheel. There is a traditional analogue style clock at the top of the centre dash, though there is also a clock function in the stereo unit. A digital display function is provided up above the rear view mirror, and this has controls to toggle between compass direction, average fuel consumption and various warning messages. After I had driven about 100 miles, it told me (and an audible alarm went off every time I started the engine) that it needed the oil changing, even though the Aspen had only done 7500 miles.



The Limited trim includes an XM Satellite radio, which displayed its information via a touch sensitive screen. This was wonderfully simple to use, with an easy way of finding satellite stations, grouped by category, and the sound quality that emanated was pretty good. Much appreciated on a long drive in the desert, where the regular AM/FM stations have no signal. I was less impressed by the long spindly aerial that sprouted from the top of the offside front wing. Very old tech, and as already noted, the highest point of the car, so it was the first thing to reach height limitations in car parks.


Where the Aspen really scores – and there had to be at least a few positives, let’s face it – is in the amount of space in it. The inside really is as vast as you would expect given the sizeable exterior dimensions. The middle row of seats would easily seat three large adults, and the rearmost set of seats are also generously proportioned, and would also work for adults. It is true that when all three rows of seats are erect, there is precious little boot space, as what remains is short from back to front, but it is deep. There is no cover provided, though, but that is normal for vehicles of this type. Pull on the straps on the backs of the asymmetrically split rearmost seats, and they fold down flat, to give you an acre of luggage room. You can get the second acre by folding down the middle row of seats. The two outermost seats can then be swivelled up to provide an even deeper area of storage space. It may be possible to do this with the middle seat in this row, but I never figured out how to do so, and there was no owner’s manual supplied with the car. Oddment space in the cabin is OK, though the large looking glove box turned out to be pathetically small once you opened it. There are big door bins, and a large cubby between the front seats, along with a number of smaller stowage areas for odds and ends on the dash and in the centre console – hidden behind that fake wood covered lid, one of which conceals cup holders large enough for the typical American 16 fl oz soda.


If you’ve read this far, I probably don’t need to spell out the conclusion, as it should be pretty obvious: I was not overly impressed by the Aspen. It is certainly a lot of metal for your money, and if hauling lots of people and towing something heavy are something that you do frequently, it might be worth consideration, but the driving dynamics were not good – save for the engine itself, and the steering and ride were so bad that it has to get the proverbial thumbs down. I’ve not driven its two domestic competitors, the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe, but I have driven their smaller brothers, the Explorer and Trailblazer, and I did not think much of them either. Whether the Japanese, who offer the Nissan Armada and the Toyota Sequoia can do any better, I don’t know, but I can guess. Judging by the number of them you see on American roads, I suspect that many Americans have found the answer to that question, too.



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