- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

Chrysler has broken new ground with its hybrid Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen. Both rigs share virtually identical underpinnings, which include dual-mode hybrid systems that operate on electric motor and gasoline engine power as needed and as directed by the vehicle electronics.

Both new hybrid SUVs are rated to tow 6,000 pounds, which is enough to handle a wide variety of comfortable trailers. The Aspen includes a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine as its prime mover. The engine features flexible displacement and operates on 4, 6 or all 8 cylinders, depending on the current power demands.

Aft of the engine is the big news. The transmission incorporates two large electric motors that work with the balance of the time-proven gear train to provide full electric drive power at lower speeds and under lower power-demand situations, as well as electric assist when running with V-8 gas engine operation and high-demand conditions.

The entire system is automatic and almost invisible to the driver. Apart from seat-of-the-pants sensations and the dash indicator, the driver is scarcely aware that anything unusual is going on under the hood.

At low speeds, the truck is running on all electric and it’s eerily silent. As power demand rises, the gas engine starts up under 4-cylinder power, as indicated by dashboard readout. When vehicle speed rises and the driver lays on the throttle the engine seamlessly switches to 6-cylinder drive, then all 8 cylinders kick in under maximum load.

Slow to a stop and the gas engine shuts down while the powertrain uses the electric drive’s regenerative charging to dump some juice back into the battery bank.

Electrically powered air-conditioning, power steering and power brake boost components were developed to continue functioning when the gas engine is in shutdown mode. These features operate virtually identically to their older versions.

For our Aspen drive we hitched up to a new Shasta retro-style trailer by Coachmen Industries. It’s styled after a 1950s-vintage Shasta right down to the wings out back, the Spartan striping, the teardrop wheelwells and egg-shaped body and the baby moon style hub caps.

The Shasta isn’t cheap, retailing for about $21,091 (nicely equipped), and it’s an electric model with refrigerator, stovetop, water heater and furnace/ air conditioner that require 120 volts AC to operate.

Inside the trailer includes a large U-shaped dinette out back that converts to a bed, a wet bath in the front streetside corner, a curbside kitchen and streetside utility cabinet housing the fridge and storage spaces.

Due to the unfamiliar hardware, the Shasta was explained to us by the pros at Lee’s Family Trailer Sales and Service in North Wyndham, Maine (www. leesfamilytrailer.com) and we appreciated the extra training time. Buyers will need to go back to school to learn to operate the new all-electric systems.

As long as we were plugged in to shore power, living in the Shasta was like any other small trailer. The bed sleeps well, the kitchen functions as it should, and the rest of the trailer helps users enjoy their RVing experience.

The proof is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Our fuel economy figures on the Aspen Hybrid came in with a similar variation between towing and solo that we’d expect with a conventional gasoline or diesel-powered tow vehicle. Solo, on the freeway, we achieved as much as 22.4 mpg, and a bit more than that in town because of running more with the electric part of the drive. We averaged 11.9 mpg when towing on a mix of freeway and two-lane highways and 14.1 mpg in town under stop-and-go conditions.

Chrysler claims a 40 percent fuel economy improvement in the city and 25 percent overall. The Aspen carries a $45,570 starting price. The Shasta is about half the Aspen’s tow rating capability, so it isn’t a bare-knuckle test of the Aspen’s towing prowess. In general the Aspen handled the Shasta like a champ. Cornering and braking are solid, as we’d expect of a truck-based large SUV, and the miles roll up with minimal stress on the driver. Even crosswinds and passing commercial trucks produce no cause for alarm.

Both of these vehicles are somewhat different in their respective classes. The Aspen Hybrid is an interesting alternative for those who truly need a full-size SUV, and the Shasta is one of those RVs that’s unmatched for curb appeal and stand-alone imagery. They make a classy combination.

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