- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

The vehicle business is loaded with contradictions and compromises. If you design a big vehicle, you want to make it drive small. If you’re developing a small car, you want to make it drive big.

If it doesn’t have much power, you want to make it feel powerful. If it has a lot of power, you’d like to emphasize that it can be driven economically as well. If it’s a truck, you want its handling to be more carlike. If you have a car, you want the driver to sit up high so it feels more like a truck.

Such matters come to mind in assessing the 2007 Aspen, Chrysler’s first full-size sport utility vehicle. It is an unabashed knockoff of the existing Dodge Durango, but with enough differentiation and luxury touches to give it a completely different character.

One thing it does, noticeably, is to drive small. Despite a length 3 inches shy of 17 feet, the Aspen responds quickly to steering and handles rapid lane changes and curving roads with aplomb.

Built on a truck chassis with a solid rear axle, it’s obviously not a sports sedan, but it handles as well as or better than any big truck out there — and most big trucks have improved markedly in recent years.

Moreover, it has a comfortable ride and is library-quiet, with little intrusion of wind, road or mechanical noises — just the thing for folks who like their luxury to be suave and debonair.

Some prospective customers likely will equate the Aspen with the Cadillac Escalade and the Lincoln Navigator SUVs, which are roughly the same size and, like the Aspen, are top of the line at their respective companies.

The Aspen does feature many of the same performance and luxury touches as those two nameplates. But it is priced so that it actually undercuts lower-totem vehicles such as the Chevrolet Tahoe, on which the Escalade is based, and the Ford Expedition, which provides the underpinnings for the Navigator.

For example, the tested Aspen Limited had a starting price of $34,295, compared with a Tahoe LTZ tested earlier, which had a base sticker price of $46,815. With options, the Aspen topped out at $43,875, while the Tahoe’s optional equipment ran it up to $52,585.

In other respects, the two vehicles are similar. They can seat up to eight, with 155 cubic feet of passenger space in the Aspen and 153 in the Tahoe. The Aspen, at 16 feet 9 inches, is an inch shorter than the Tahoe, at 16 feet 10 inches. At 5,537 pounds, the Tahoe is 418 pounds heavier, but it delivers better fuel economy — 15/21 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city/highway cycle, compared with the Aspen’s 14/19.

Power gets to the pavement through a five-speed automatic transmission, which also is nearly seamless in operation.

Some observers might question why Chrysler chose to introduce a full-size truck-based SUV at a time when sales of such behemoths have been slipping. Despite that, the segment is still huge, with sales in seven figures.

Moreover, Chrysler dealers had griped that they had nothing to sell to people who liked their other products but wanted a full-size SUV. So a customer might love his Chrysler 300, but be forced to shop at the GMC store for something to tow his boat. The all-wheel-drive Aspen can tow up to 7,250 pounds.

The tested Aspen Limited had a full complement of safety, comfort and convenience features, including electronic stability control, antilock brakes, side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, 20-inch chrome wheels, leather upholstery, heated front and second-row seats, a navigation system, a motorized sunroof, rear-seat entertainment system, remote locking, a power rear tailgate, and an audio system with six-disc CD changer and Sirius satellite radio. Remote starting and power-adjustable pedals also are available.

As with any big SUV, you have to climb up to get inside. But the Aspen has a running board to ease the trip. Access to the third row of seats takes a bit of athletic ability, although the second-row seats easily flip up and out of the way with the pull of a single lever. There’s enough knee and head room back there for three adults, as long as they’re skinny.

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