It wasn't long ago that the idea of a hybrid SUV was as inconceivable as basing an entire movie franchise on a certain swashbuckling theme-park ride. But times have changed, and now there's a number of earth-friendly people-haulers. The latest automaker to hatch a hybrid SUV is Chrysler, whose Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen were in sore need of an mpg boost. Both hybrids will hit showrooms for 2009. We had a chance to drive an Aspen prototype at Chrysler's test track in Michigan.
Both SUVs hitch a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 to a two-mode hybrid system developed jointly by GM, BMW and Chrysler. It can scoot along in electric mode up to 25 mph for a mile or two, though anything beyond tiptoe acceleration calls the engine up for duty. Like most hybrids, if you tread lightly, the Aspen has enough power to crawl from one stop sign to the next. Harder acceleration sounds a telltale whump as the engine churns to life, signaled at times by the right-hand gauge shifting from "Economy" to "Performance." Chrysler chief engineer Glenn Denomme said his team is still working to iron out the shift in power, and the gauge will probably be replaced with something that shows the transition in more definite terms.
The good news is, should you need it, the Hemi and electric motor will combine to muscle the Aspen up to highway speeds in a jiffy. The motor emits a noticeable whirr as the engine revs hard, but we have no complaints with the system's overall sound.
We weren't as impressed with the brakes. Typical of a hybrid, they incorporate a regenerative function that recharges the battery. That leaves the brake pedal's resistance feeling like a brick. Actual deceleration is equally underwhelming.
There's no such beef with the Aspen Hybrid's steering system. It has a bouncy feel, but it springs back to center well.
With the EPA's new testing procedures, city gas mileage should be around 19 mpg, with highway mileage a bit lower. That may not sound hybrid-esque until you consider the regular Aspen, which gets 13 mpg in the city. Denomme said our prototype is at least three revisions away from production status. The drivetrain seems ready for prime time, and if they can fix the brakes, this could be the spark these slow-selling giants need.
— Reported by Kelsey Mays, Cars.com