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2007 Aspen is first Chrysler-branded SUV

    Officials at DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group outside Detroit knew they had a problem when studies showed, year after year, a quarter of Chrysler owners were interested in sport utility vehicles. And, a majority of these SUV-minded owners were leaving Chrysler to get an SUV from a competitor.
    They had to. The Chrysler brand had no SUV — until now.
    The new-for-2007 Chrysler Aspen is a comfortable-riding, nicely styled, large, V-8-powered SUV that can carry seven or eight people and tow an impressive 8,950 pounds.
    It has a lower starting price than many full-size SUV competitors and is available with a Dodge Hemi V-8. Also, the Aspen’s slightly smaller dimensions means it fits more easily into garages than do some other large, garage-crowding SUVs.
    Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $31,490. This is for a base Aspen Limited model with two-wheel-drive and 235-horsepower, 4.7-liter Magnum V-8. The 2007 Chevy Tahoe starts at $34,755 for a two-wheel-drive LS model with 295-horsepower V-8, and the 2007 Toyota Sequoia starts at $33,805 for a two-wheel-drive SR5 model with 273-horsepower V-8. Meantime, the 2007 Ford Expedition starts at $29,995 for a two-wheel-drive XLT with 300-horsepower V-8.
    Built on the platform of the Dodge Durango, the four-door Aspen doesn’t attract attention on the road the way a blinged-out Cadillac Escalade can. Indeed, the Aspen’s relatively clean, mainstream looks, albeit set over sizable, base 18-inch wheels and tires, are a contrast to the bold styling of Chrysler’s largest car, the 300 sedan.
    About the most differentiable part of the Aspen styling are the half dozen strake lines on the hood. They’re reminiscent of the styling lines on the hood of Chrysler’s two-seat Crossfire car.
    The Aspen doesn’t look smaller than its major competitors, but it is. It’s nearly 6 inches shorter in overall length than Ford’s Expedition, nearly 3 inches narrower than Toyota’s Sequoia and 2.6 inches shorter in height than a Chevy Tahoe.
    In part because of its tidier size, the test Aspen Limited handled well. Power rack-and-pinion steering had good on-center feel, and I didn’t have to do a lot of maneuvering to get the Aspen into and out of parking spots.
    At 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing nearly 5,000 pounds as a two-wheel-drive test model, the Aspen had a non-tippy ride. Note the Aspen also comes standard with electronic roll mitigation that can sense a potential rollover situation and cut back on the throttle and apply brakes to try to avert a rollover. It works via the standard electronic stability control system.
    Though the Aspen is based on a truck-like chassis with fully-boxed, hydroform frame for robust performance and towing and has a solid-axle rear suspension, the tester didn’t transmit an overt, bouncy, truckish kind of ride. Rather, I found the Aspen with base engine cruised highways and country roads graciously, and well-cushioned front seats kept me feeling unfettered.
    Wearing all-season tires, the tester also was decently quiet inside, save for a coarse-sounding ventilation fan and some wind noise coming from around the outside mirrors.
    The engine — a 4.7-liter, single overhead cam, Magnum V-8 — has been around the Chrysler Group for years. It’s not exactly sporty, but it does a good job of moving the Aspen and has acceptable V-8 sounds. But its 235 horses and 300 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm are less than the base V-8s in the major competing large SUVs and limit trailer hauling to 7,500 pounds.
    This engine is not particularly fuel efficient, with a government rating of 14 miles a gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway for a two-wheel-drive Aspen. It does operate on regular unleaded gasoline, though, and even can handle E85 fuel.
    But Aspen intenders should be sure to try the uplevel, 5.7-liter, Hemi V-8, too. With a competitive 335-horsepower and 370 foot-pounds of torque at 5,200 rpm, this engine has a slightly better fuel economy rating of 15/20 mpg in a two-wheel-drive Aspen.
    Besides having stirring V-8 sounds during acceleration and moving the Aspen easily, the Hemi includes Chrysler’s fuel-saving multi-displacement technology that automatically puts the engine in four-cylinder mode when appropriate, such as when the vehicle is coasting, to save gas. It’s also the engine that allows for towing trailers up to 8,950 pounds.
    I liked the attractive interior of the Aspen, with light blond, fake wood trim and easy-to-understand gauges. The column shifter for the five-speed automatic transmission, however, was a surprise. It seems sort of old-fashioned these days, when many other SUVs have moved the shifter down to the center console between the front seats.
    Besides, even with the column shifter, Chrysler doesn’t offer a three-person front bench in the Aspen. Second-row seats don’t adjust on tracks fore and aft, as they do in some other SUVs to help passengers arrange legroom between second- and third-row seats. And the seat cushion for third-row passengers is noticeably short in length.
    I wished the Aspen had a handle to help short-stature drivers, like myself, climb up and get on the driver seat. Riders at the other three doors do have handles.
    The Aspen includes standard curtain air bags, antilock brakes and traction control. This new SUV earned a 5-out-of-5 stars rating in federal government frontal crash testing. Side crash test results have not yet been reported. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the Aspen received 3-out-of-5 stars as a rollover rating for the two-wheel-drive model. The four-wheel-drive Aspen received four out of five stars.
    Additionally, in October, 6,644 Aspens and 2007 Dodge Durango SUVs were recalled when it was discovered that the right front steering knuckle might fracture on some models. This could lead to a loss of steering control.

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