To its credit, DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group has made a profitable practice of creating new vehicle niches, astutely going where the competition isn't. And where a new Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep vehicle's type isn't new, its size or architecture often is. Witness the venerable PT Cruiser, the Chrysler 300 bunker-look sedan, the Dodge Magnum gangster wagon, and the more recent Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass mixed-message compacts.
Now come the 2007 Dodge Nitro and Chrysler Aspen, an interesting pair of segment-buster sport-utes tossed bodily into the crowded - and shrinking - SUV market. But while inventing new niches can be savvy business, reinventing segments might be a tad misleading.
Reinventing segments? Chrysler's marketing minds march to their own internal segmentation somewhat different from your and mine - based on price and perception, as well as size - to determine which competitors their vehicles confront. Thus the likeable new Dodge Nitro, based on Jeep's compact Liberty , grows slightly longer and morphs into "mid-size" - though it's substantially smaller than Chevy's TrailBlazer, Ford's Explorer, and the rest that most of us know as mid-size. And they label their new Chrysler Aspen, a nicely done luxury take on Dodge's 'tweener-size Durango , "full-size" - though it's smaller than the Chevy Tahoe/Suburban, Ford Expedition, etc., that we've long known as full-size.
So Chrysler is stretching its definitions to position these vehicles as larger than they are, a relatively harmless trick that rental car companies (whose Focuses are "mid-size" and Malibus are "full-size") have been getting away with for decades. But wait, there's more.
When Chrysler marketers define their "full-size" SUV segment, they list a raft of mid-size, mid-priced models that includes Honda's Pilot and Mercury's (Explorer-based) Mountaineer and one actual full-size entry, Chevy's Tahoe - then boast "class-leading" power, torque, interior room, and towing capability. And they tout the Aspen as more maneuverable and fuel-efficient than "large" SUVs, a Chrysler class above full-size that apparently includes everything bigger than Aspen except Chevy Tahoe. But doesn't "large" equal full-size?
Segmentation aside, this first Chrysler-brand SUV may be a right-size alternative for buyers wanting substantial towing and hauling capability from an SUV somewhat smaller and more garageable than traditional full-sizers. And it may be a viable choice for luxury truck intenders unable or unwilling to ante up for a Caddy Escalade or Lincoln Navigator. Either way, it fills a hole in Chrysler's line and should prevent some folks from defecting to competitors.
Like its new Sebring mid-size sedan stablemate, the Aspen wears a big, bold Chrysler-trademark grille and a Crossfire-like straked hood. Inside, it's a healthy step upward from Durango in refinement, craftsmanship, and quietness. The seats are upholstered in a choice of two-tone leather or ultra-stain-resistant premium cloth, while the rich woodgrain trim, leather-wrapped armrests and other tactile surfaces send a quality message. Adult-size three-row seating is standard, and cargo room with the third row folded is a "best-in-class" 68.4 cubic feet.
Unlike the Dodge Durango, the Aspen has no base V-6. A 235-hp SOHC 4.7-liter flex-fuel (E85-capable) V-8 is standard, while the optional 335-hp OHV 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 with fuel-saving MDS (Multi-Displacement System), which deactivates four cylinders under light load, delivers respectable EPA economy of 15 mpg city and 20 highway with standard 2WD. Both drive through a five-speed automatic, and 4WD models get standard full-time all-wheel drive and an available two-speed (high- and low-range) transfer case. Both transfer cases split torque 48/52 front/rear in all-wheel drive.
The hydroformed frame provides a rock-solid platform for the surprisingly competent independent front and coil-spring, solid-axle rear suspensions, while the rack-and-pinion steering feels well-connected to the road. Maximum tow capacity (with the 5.7-liter HEMI, 2WD and 3.92 axle ratio) is an impressive 8950 pounds vs. 7700 pounds for Tahoe, but 9100 for the Ford Expedition or the Nissan Armada, for example. The crisp-shifting "tow/haul" transmission downshifts for downhills and holds lower gears longer to reduce gear searching, while a standard "first-in-class" Trailer Sway Control system senses and counteracts (with selective braking and engine control) trailer yaw.
Why? Why not?
When Chrysler unveiled its 2007 Aspen at January's Detroit Auto Show, we frankly wondered why. Did the Chrysler brand really need a (relatively) large SUV when Dodge already had one, especially in light of high gas prices and shrinking sales? And if it did, why recycle the old Aspen name, which once adorned millions of shabbily built Dodge Aspen mid-size cars? But Chrysler says its research shows there's no longer negative baggage attached to the name (their target buyers must be memory challenged?), and they're tired of losing SUV shoppers to cousins Dodge and Jeep, let alone to domestic and off-shore competitors.
We've written before that America 's full-size SUV segment will shrink but won't go away, since there's no suitable alternative for those who really need them for serious towing and hauling. So we understand that Chrysler wants to play with GM, Ford, Toyota, and Nissan in that still-large and lucrative market. And we now believe that nicely turned-out, well-equipped, smooth-driving Aspens in the low-to-mid $30,000 range should be viable players. Just please, Chrysler, don't try to tell us they're larger than "full-size" but smaller than "large."
2007 Chrysler Aspen
Base price: $31,490
Engine: 4.7-liter SOHC V-8, 235 hp/300 lb-ft; 5.7-liter OHV V-8, 335 hp/370 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 200.8 x 76.0 x 74.3 in
Wheelbase: 119.2 in
Curb weight: 4866 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 14/19 mpg (4.7-liter, 2WD); 14/19 mpg (5.7-liter, 4WD)
Major standard features: Three-row seating, fog lamps, power-adjustable pedals, front and rear air conditioning, power windows, locks, mirrors, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD audio, tilt steering wheel, Homelink universal transceiver, Sentry Key engine immobilizer
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability/rollover control; Trailer Sway Control; dual front and side curtain airbags
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles