• Aug 1st 2008 at 12:01AM
  • 18
Click the Aspen Hybrid for a high-res gallery

This summer, Chrysler hits the market with the 2-Mode hybrid Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen. Chrysler and former owner Daimler partnered with General Motors and BMW back in 2006 to help bring the 2-Mode hybrid system to light-duty vehicles. The setup was originally developed for use in buses by Allison transmission when it was a part of GM.

The 2-Mode transmission made its passenger vehicle debut last year in the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon. Built by General Motors at its Baltimore, MD transmission plant, the GM and Chrysler systems have identical internals, but there are some packaging differences where the units mate up to the two manufacturers' engines and transfer cases. We attended Chrysler's New England launch event for the hybrid Aspen and Durango. Read on to see our initial driving impressions.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

The Aspen and Durango are Chrysler's first series production hybrids, and aside from some styling and interior trim differences, they're identical. Primary power comes from a 5.7L HEMI V8, with the 2-Mode system blending in the electric drive. That electrical energy is stored under the second-row seat in a 300-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack supplied by Panasonic EV Energy.

Unlike GM, which offers its 2-Mode trucks in rear- or all-wheel drive, the Chryslers are AWD-only. Chrysler notes that this lets them maximize the amount of available regenerative braking, but the other reason for going all-wheel-drive had more to do with the balance sheets: customers opt for AWD on 60 percent of conventionally-powered Durangos and Aspens sold. As such, Chrysler marketers concluded that combination would be the best option for the hybrids.

We gathered at the Portland Head Light in Portland, Maine, where a number of the hybrid SUVs were waiting for us. After the obligatory briefing from the Chrysler reps, we mounted up and headed south along the Atlantic coast for Boston. For those of you unfamiliar with Chrysler's SUVs, they're virtually the same size as the Tahoe and Yukon, giving up 3 inches in girth to the GM trucks, but weighing in at a substantial 700 pounds less.

Chrysler has been roundly and fairly criticized in recent years over the quality (or lack thereof) of its interiors. The Aspen and Durango cabins won't win any awards for style, but their general layout is good, with controls where they ought to be, and aside from overly plasticky wood trim, the interiors work quite well. The light gray primary color scheme inside the Aspen we drove lends the truck an airy quality that probably helps, too. One standout problem area, however, is front corner visibility, which is hindered by very thick A-pillars.

On the road, it's clear that Chrysler engineers spent a lot of time refining the hybrids. When we drove a prototype a year ago, one of the most noticeable flaws was the rough transition between regenerative and friction braking. Not so on the production models, where the only way to distinguish between regen, friction and blended braking is to watch the energy flow meter in the center stack. Brake pedal feel is a bit spongy, though, and the steering would benefit from better feedback as well. While there's little slop in the wheel and the weighting is OK, there really isn't any communication about what's happening where the tires meet the pavement. Overall, however, the Aspen's chassis delivers a very quiet and comfortable drive that doesn't wander on the road and absorbs rough pavement reasonably well.

There is, however, plenty of communication about the energy flow in the vehicle. The tachometer in the main cluster is replaced by an efficiency gauge that monitors the driver's powertrain demands. Hit the gas too hard and the needle swings to the right-hand power zone; under braking it goes to the left-hand charging zone. Most of the time you want to try and keep it right in the middle. Even more detailed information can be seen on the primary LCD display, where the "Hybrid Energy Center" provides a graphical representation of the powertrain behavior, including an engine graphic that lights up halfway or fully to indicate whether the HEMI is operating in V4 or V8 mode.

While Chrysler may have passed on expensive aluminum body parts and lightweight seats, it has implemented other efficiency measures, such as a humidity sensor in the electrically driven air conditioner. When the humidity level is elevated, the climate control chills the air more to compensate for the perceived heat. However, when the humidity is lower it backs off. The goal is to control the temperature to optimize the perceived comfort of the occupants while minimizing energy use. The other usual subsystems like the power steering have also been electrified to cut parasitic losses.

At one of the stops along our drive, Chrysler had a pair vehicles setup for towing demonstrations. We took an Aspen with a 4,200 lb horse trailer over a 5-mile test loop and found the combination of the HEMI V8 and hybrid system to be up to the task. Acceleration was no problem and slowing down was aided by the regenerative braking. The addition of regen braking to these types of vehicles should prove advantageous when descending mountain passes, helping to keep the friction brakes from overheating. The stability control system also includes trailer sway control that selectively applies the brakes when it senses a trailer beginning to move around too much. Fortunately, we didn't get to sample this feature.

Over the course of the 150 miles or so from Portland to Boston, we drove through a number of towns and along every kind of road, ending on the streets of Beantown in the hours following the Celtics celebration parade. By the time we reached the Liberty Hotel, our final destination, the average fuel economy display was reading 22.1 mpg. This won't challenge smaller hybrid cars but it's excellent for such large vehicle. Along one stretch through a small town in Maine, we managed to keep the Aspen in electric-only mode virtually the entire way -- over a mile. The engine only started briefly going up a hill and then shut off after cresting it. The final EPA numbers haven't been released yet, but Chrysler is expecting the SUVs to be rated at 19 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. The highway number matches the 4WD GM hybrids while the city number is 1 mpg lower.

Chrysler realizes that the launch timing of these vehicles couldn't have been much worse. Nonetheless, the automaker still feels that there's a market for the hybrids and is pricing them aggressively compared to GM's offerings. Those who desire such a vehicle might want to think about the mileage in terms of people miles per gallon. If you actually take multiple passengers regularly via activities like carpooling, that 22 mpg could translate into a much higher number. If there are four people who would otherwise be driving four cars, that's 88 pmpg . Of course, this calculation only works if you are taking other cars off the road and doing so on a regular basis. If however, you do displace multiple vehicles with one larger vehicle, the savings could be significant.

Even with that in mind, it's still going to be a tough road for Chrysler until it can get the hybrids into some smaller vehicles. Chrysler execs have stressed that they are indeed doing that, with the minivans and Journey crossover rumored as candidates, but the Ram is the only one confirmed so far. In the meantime, we look forward to having a chance to run the Chrysler hybrids against their GM counterparts soon.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      Anybody hear how these 2-Modes do while backing up an incline while having 5000lbs on the back of the truck? From what I understand, reverse is geared for electric mode and there's virtually no power to push 2 tons+ UP - the thing runs out of juice!! Granted, not a lot of towing is done going backwards AND up. But for those with driveways this is vital. Can anybody verify this?
      Also, timing for trucks might be off right now but there are those who still need a large SUV for carrying a family. Some have more than one kid, a dog or two, and need to trailer something. This market still needs to be filled (and no, a minivan can't tow more than 3000lbs!!) and to abandon it for small unibodies is foolish.
        • 7 Years Ago
        That shouldn't be a problem.

        Moving something (even heavy somethings) slowly doesn't require much power. Remember, horsepower is the rate of energy expenditure (force * speed). If this vehicle has enough HP to tow that 5,000lb load up an incline at 60mph, it only takes 1/12th the HP to move it up the same incline at 5mph.

        Since you typically back up very slowly, there should be plenty of power to back up your driveway. All you have to worry about is is there enough torque and traction. Well, it has enough traction to move forward, it can do so backward. And as to torque at low speeds, electric motors specialize in that, that's why they are used in trains.
      • 7 Years Ago
      22mpg is very impressive. Remember this thing is huge and can do a lot of things that a commuter car cant. Different vehicle for different needs. Besides the MPG are in line with luxury wagons even the tiny A3.

      A6 Quattro Wagon = 17/22
      A3 Quattro Wagon = 18/25
      VW Passat Wagon = 16/24

      Huge Aspen = 19/20
        • 7 Years Ago
        Yes, those Audi V6's are thirsty, but their 4 cylinders are efficient. The Saab 4 cylinder wagons are efficient too (and have more cargo room than many of the thirstier small SUV's).

        For the few people that need a large body-on-frame vehicle like the Aspen for towing and 4WD, it is impressive with 22 mpg. But then the Tahoe is a bit more impressive.

        Regardless, few people need this type of vehicle when they once thought they did. With $4/gal gas, reality is hitting home.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Steve B. - The investment in putting this vehicle together was already spent. Its not something you can turn around and shoehorn into another vehicle, that is another investment entirely.

      They paid for it, they might as well bring it to market and hope that some of the R&D is paid for.

      In regards to the MB Diesel, I am glad they did not work a deal for them. They are non-rebuildable and are expensive to manufacture and maintain. The VW engine is a possibility, but from what I understand VW is selling every one it makes in its OWN vehicles leaving no supply for other makes.

      From what I hear, diesels ARE in the works, and I believe the president of Chrysler stated recently that EVERY vehicle will be coming out with a hybrid option at some point.

      It may seem like we have been suffering high gas prices forever, but the buying public did not really transition to smaller vehicles until quite recently. Plus, car buying as a whole is down market wide. Just ask Toyota.

      Things are getting better - the best run companies will survive. Those that are run poorly will go bankrupt and be bought by someone else. Wishing everyone luck!
      • 7 Years Ago
      Just maybe, when it comes to cars, gas and the environment, we CAN'T have our cake and eat it too.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Yep we cant have it all. Like everyone said nothing is perfect.
      • 7 Years Ago
      No. 15: The "Series" type of hybrid you speak of, is that the same thing that the Volt is running? It sounds like it. So far, is the Volt the only Series type, or is it the only one that a major man. is building? (I'm new to this and don't fully understand everything, yet.)

      As someone wrote above, the major car mans., like anyone would, have to start somewhere. It appears GM is the first with the truly serious EV targeted more or less for the general public. From all I've read they're recieved kudos for several features having to do with tradeoff-type choices: skipping the nickle-metal-hydride (Is that what it's called?) battery technology and reaching some for the superior lithium/ion tech.; using the "Series" type of hybrid. People seem to consider that a reasonable trade-off/ transition to total electric which, I take it, is still prohibitively expensive; making an honest attempt to target the general public with a "real" EV.

      At the same time, being GM and having their dinosaur rep, a lot of bloggers/posters are roasting them in terms you might expect to see: "They'll never make it by 2010"; "This is their last gasp";"They started too late"; "It's too expensive. It'll never sell in mass quantities;" "Mitsubishi's li batteries will become the industry standard."

      The way I see it, the manufacturers are in a difficult spot. The situation is totally fluid and therefore just as totally unpredictable. Suppose GM's investment in Li technology doesn't pan out because another technology leapfrogs IT. Then this new battery technology is so efficient that it supplants hybrids altogether, making the Volt nothing but a grand experiment. Suppose the Volt IS prohibitively expensive just because it uses so much new technology in the battery and whereever else? A manufacture has to bring the car in at a reasonable price or it will never sell in mass quantity. Critics forget this. For example, I often see message-board posters criticizing the car mans. for not using carbon-fiber and stuff to reduce weight. Is the public willing to pay an extra $10,000 or more for a bunch of high-tech light-weight material? No.

      It's hugely risky to strike out into the unknown on all this. You might lose all or most of an enormous investment. That alone might sink a car company, I imagine. These aren't new car styles, but all new car types. I imagine they're much more expensive to develop than say, investing in developing a new compact line with a conventional ICE. Yet it might be suicide to do nothing and fall too far behind. Do you wait, see how the Volt turns out in terms of whether the public buys it in quantity?

      I can see how the major auto manufactures might be in a huge quandary about all of this, though they have to do something. I wouldn't care to be in their shoes right now.
      • 7 Years Ago
      "The Saab 4 cylinder wagons are efficient too (and have more cargo room than many of the thirstier small SUV's)."

      My wife's '04 SAAB wagon (L4 2.3T) is no better than this Durango. It has barely averaged 22mpg over its first 60k, and the cargo space is no better than a hatchback. Our previous wagon was a V6 Taurus which had more room and got much better mileage, but at the expense of some style and luxury.

      It's all about MASS, people. The SAAB weighs 500# more than the larger Taurus. I'm just glad neither car had to lug around 1200# of batteries.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I have a friend at the gym in White Marsh, MD (where the transmission plant is actually located). He told me last week that there has been some preliminary production runs for the next generation hybrid transmission, and it has an even greater increase in efficency over the current one.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Dave, FWIW you don't need a body on frame vehicle to tow something heavy:
      • 7 Years Ago
      Some of the comments on here really amuse me as it serves as a reminder that for some people things will never be good enough.

      Here we have a really good thing, a really good step forward... and yet it's still not good *enough*, so we must bash it.

      I hate to be the bearer of unwanted news here... but the simple fact of the matter is that there are still those out there who can't get by driving around in a VW Rabbit... or one of those God-awful Prius'.

      Frankly, I find it absolutely amazing that a vehicle of this size, propelled by an engine of this size can average in the 22mpg range... and even more that in certain city driving situations, virtually no gasoline is needed at all.

      I look at this and see progress... honest to goodness, much needed progress. This segment isn't going to just go away completely and out of all the segments the manufacturers compete in, these light-duty vehicles need technology like this more than any other.

      Just look at the mpg figures these full size trucks/SUVs were getting only 5 years ago... 13-16mpg. At that time, most cars were only getting 20-25mpg (and still do). Further still... I look at this and compare it to my old Grand Wagoneer which only gets about 10mpg... downhill... with a tailwind, and think - this is absolutely fantastic!

      Perspective is everything... some folks should invest in it..
      • 6 Years Ago
      Nice looking SUV, now without roof rails, with lighter wheels and an aerodynamic front end, a lowered suspension and smaller side mirrors it would get even higher MPG.

      I wish them well, but that interior is horrendous.
      • 7 Years Ago
      While I don't doubt the fuel savings over the conventional gas setup, this is the symbol of the arrogance of car companies thinking that they can just keep chugging away with the overpriced SUV model.

      You would've thought that they learned their lesson with the ill-timed Jeep Commander introduction. That would've been the perfect time to reevaluate the hybrid application and adapt it for the Nitro/Liberty.

      Instead, Chrysler chose to try and keep the SUV cash cow dream alive. This isn't a rant as much as an expression of disappointment that Chrysler let themselves be caught with their pants down when it comes to fuel efficient cars.

      They desperately need to hit up VW for their new diesel engine to slap into the caliber/compass/patriot platform. You'd think they could get at least something from the minivan deal....but perhaps not. They couldn't even get a proper diesel from MB for their small cars, outsourcing VW diesels for the caliber in Europe.
        • 7 Years Ago
        do you people realize how long it takes to develop these vehicles, these companies are coming out with vehicles today that have been set in motion YEARS ago. they cant just make a spur of the moment change in their product planing.

        chrysler was still putting money into these vehicles because people were still buying them.

        im not saying they are completely faultless..... but once a product has been set in motion, A LOT of money gets poured into it,abd when it seems it may have been a bad idea, its usually too late to do anything about it.

        hindsight is always 20/20
      • 7 Years Ago
      "I'm just glad neither car had to lug around 1200# of batteries."

      I take it you're a fan of converting billions of gallons of petroleum into heat, noise and pollution by burning it in internal combustion engines at single-digit efficiencies? All-electric vehicles are way more efficient than even the most efficient gas guzzler (well-to-wheel). Who cares about 1200lbs of batteries? It the vehicle is properly designed and manufactured, you won't even notice it.

      These SUVs are a joke. If the auto manufacturers got their heads out of their asses and started shedding some weight in their vehicles (carbon fiber anyone?) and at least making SERIES hybrids (engine drives a generator that charges a battery that propels an electric motor) or better yet, all-electric vehicles, then we'd see some real improvements in efficiency.

      Don't let them fool you with their lame, half-assed "hybrids" whose efficiency improvements are somewhat better than their dismal non-hybrid counterparts.
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