(first posted 11/13/2-15) Aspen, Colorado is a beautiful Rocky Mountain playground for well-heeled adventure seekers, with plenty of excellent skiing and snowboarding to be enjoyed. With such desirable connotations – adventure, prestige – it seems only fitting that an automaker would use the name on a car, perhaps a luxurious SUV or crossover. Well, Chrysler did, launching the Aspen SUV in 2007. But they were actually dusting off the nameplate after 27 years, as they had previously used it on a compact sedan, coupe and wagon bearing the Dodge logo. While the Dodge Aspen and the related Plymouth Volaré are most remembered for their deplorable reliability and quality, they also continued a tradition of interesting special editions from their predecessors, the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant. Today, let’s take a trip to Aspen and take a look at some of those special editions.
Dodge Aspen Super Coupe & Plymouth Volaré Super Coupe
Years produced: 1978
Total production: 531 (Aspen), 494 (Volaré)
The Dart and Valiant/Duster had proved to be extremely successful cars for Chrysler, particularly in the post-oil crisis era. With a solid reputation for reliability, a low price and, in coupe form at least, stylish lines, there was quite a lot riding on their replacements, the 1976 F-Body Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré. As we all know by now, these were initially very well-received (Motor Trend’s 1976 Car of the Year) but then the recalls started. Take aside their well-deserved criticism for poor quality control, and these were quite competent Malaise Era compacts.
Although the F-Body Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré were virtually identical, the Plymouth had the Dodge beat in terms of special editions. There was the Volaré Duster, distinguished by its rear window louvers, tape stripes and different upholstery. Then there was Plymouth’s range of “Fun Runners”: Volaré Road Runner, with heavy-duty suspension and sporty trim; Volaré Sun Runner, notable for its standard t-tops or sunroof; and Volaré Front Runner, a bright orange coupe with a body kit. Dodge did get in on the action with special editions, picking the most interesting ones. First, there was the Super Coupe, a $1416 option package.
Lest you think this was just another wheezy, Malaise Era tape stripe special like the Charger Daytona, initial impressions don’t bode well. The standard engine was the same old 318 cubic-inch V8 with a 2-barrel carburettor, with 140 hp and 245 ft-lbs. But to beat those contemporary Camaros, you would have wanted the optional 360 4-bbl V8. Horsepower was rated at 175 hp, while 280 ft-lbs of torque were available at 2000 rpm. The only transmission was Chrysler’s three-speed TorqueFlite automatic. This powertrain made for a Super Coupe that was actually quicker from 0 to 60 than the Camaro Z28, Corvette and Firebird Trans-Am at 8.1 seconds. As for handling, the Super Coupe option added a heavy-duty suspension, rear sway bar and GR60 x 15’’ Aramid-fiber radial tires (regular R/Ts and Roadrunners had only 14-inchers).
Of course, there were tape stripes on the Super Coupe as well. Every Super Coupe was painted Sable Tan metallic (Aspen) or Crimson Sunfire (Volaré), with yellow, blue and orange (Aspen) or yellow, red and orange (Volaré) tape stripes. Other visual changes included a flat-black hood with matching bumpers, black-out grille and moldings, wheel-arch flares, and rear quarter window louvers.
For a sporty domestic compact in 1978, this was as wild as you could get. But the hottest-selling compacts were cars like the Ford Granada, which emphasized comfort above all else. Because of this preference towards luxury, even the Aspen R/T and Volaré Road Runner were niche players. The more wild Super Coupe was a dismal sales failure, not helped either by the F-Body’s rapidly deteriorating reputation, not to mention its corporate parent’s well-publicized struggles.
Dodge Aspen Sport Wagon & Plymouth Volaré Sport Wagon
Years produced: 1979-80
Total production: ?
The Aspen and Volaré Sport Wagons were available at the same time as the Buick Century Sport Wagon but despite outward appearances, they followed a slightly different format. While the Century Sport Wagon came standard with the rallye suspension option, the Mopar wagons were merely a cosmetic option package albeit one you could select with the Handling/Performance package as well as the 360 cubic-inch V8.
The Sport Wagon option package in itself consisted of front air dam, sports mirrors, wheel arch flares, blackout grille, attractive aluminum road wheels and some of the 1970s more subtle tape-striping. Inside, there were standard vinyl bucket seats and a sportier steering wheel.
Chrysler mystifyingly gave the Aspen/Volaré a completely new front fascia for 1980, their last year on the market. The Sport Wagon option was again offered and, with this more modern fascia, looked better than ever, although the 360 was no longer available and engine choices were limited to the 318 V8 and the Slant Six. It would be the last sport-themed wagon from the Chrysler Corporation until the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo of the mid-2000s.
Dodge Aspen Street Kit Car & Plymouth Volaré Street Kit Car
Years produced: 1978
Total production: 145 (Aspen), 247 (Volaré)
The Aspen and Volaré Sport Wagon were almost elegant with their restrained visual enhancements. The Street Kit Car could be accused of no such thing. Another 1978 limited edition like the Super Coupes, the Street Kit Car was mechanically identical but visually quite different. Intended as a tribute to Richard Petty – thus explaining the big “43” decals on the doors – Chrysler was embarrassed when Petty jumped ship to racing GM vehicles in 1978. Street Kit Car production was wound up shortly thereafter; there were originally plans for around 1,000 units to be produced. Those that were produced languished on dealer lots; echoes of the unpopular (at the time) Plymouth Superbird. The “43” decals were allegedly left in the trunk on many examples, much like those Superbirds had their nose cones removed.
Aspen Kit Cars were painted in a two-tone red scheme, while the Plymouths were two-tone blue. The wheel arch flares had a bolt-on look and there was a prominent rear spoiler, along with de rigueur visual modifications like window louvers and raised white letter tires. There wouldn’t be an uglier NASCAR-themed car until the limited edition Monte Carlos of the early 2000s.
Chrysler Aspen Hybrid & Dodge Durango Hybrid
Years produced: 2009
Total production: 800
One of these is not like the other. One of these just does not belong. Obviously, this is no 1976-vintage compact, but Chrysler decided to right a wrong and re-use the Aspen name on a more appropriate vehicle, as well as one that was more reliable and better-built. The short-lived Chrysler Aspen was introduced in 2007 as the Chrysler marque’s first SUV. But Chrysler would be a victim of bad timing twice during the Aspen’s short, three-year run. Firstly, the Aspen was launched right after fuel prices spiked and tanked SUV sales. Chrysler would partner with General Motors and BMW on a two-mode hybrid system, introducing an Aspen Hybrid and Dodge Durango Hybrid for 2009… Right as Chrysler entered bankruptcy and had to shut down the Newark, Delaware plant where they were manufactured.
The 2009 Aspen Hybrid and Durango Hybrid featured a 5.7 Hemi V8 and two liquid-cooled electric motors. The regular 5.7 produced 376 hp and 401 ft-lbs, but the electric motors were claimed to bring horsepower up to 400 hp although torque was listed at a slightly lower 390 ft-lbs. An electronically controlled planetary gear continuously variable transmission featured two modes, controlled by the transmission’s clutches: four fixed forward gears for higher speed driving and a second mode which functioned much like a regular hybrid’s CVT.
The trucks could be propelled by the electric motors alone at speeds up to 25 mph. Like the regular 5.7 Hemi, there was Multi-Displacement System (MDS) cylinder deactivation technology that could switch off four of the cylinders; in addition, there was regenerative braking that utilized energy ordinarily lost in deceleration and stored it in the batteries for later use.
The two-mode hybrid system was innovative and boosted fuel economy overall by 25% and an impressive 40% in the city. That put EPA-estimated gas mileage ratings at 20/22 mpg, with the Tahoe/Yukon 4WD Hybrid achieving 20/20 mpg. The 4.7 V8 Aspen 4WD achieved only 13/17 mpg, the 5.7 slightly more with a rating of 13/18 mpg.
Unlike the GM hybrids, which employed various weight-saving measures like an aluminum hood and tailgate and lighter seats and wheels, there were no such changes with the Mopars. The extra hybrid gear added 400 pounds, bringing curb weight up to almost 5700 lbs. Of course, the slightly smaller Mopar duo weighed 700 pounds less than the GM trucks to begin with, which put the Mopars and GM hybrids on a fairly equal footing weight-wise. When the towing package was selected, the Mopar trucks could tow up to 6000 lbs, just 200 pounds less than the GMs.
The two-mode system commanded a $4000 premium over the regular 5.7 V8. However, both trucks came fully-loaded – options were limited to sunroof, rear-seat DVD and a towing package – and yet undercut the GM trucks significantly. List prices of the Mopars were $45,340 and $45,570 for the Durango and Aspen, respectively; the GM trucks listed for $53k. In that comparison, the Mopars came out looking like bargains, even though they were older designs (the Durango debuted in 2004) and thus not as good to drive. The Mopar hybrids also came only with four-wheel-drive, a logical decision by Chrysler to reduce complexity on the production line; 60% of gas-engined Aspens and Durangos were optioned with 4WD anyway. One could argue the extra $8k wasn’t worth it for slightly better road manners and a nicer interior (albeit one that was less practical; the GM trucks’ rear-most seats didn’t fold flat), but one could also argue that the extra cost of opting for the hybrid engine would have taken quite a while to recoup.
Chrysler Aspen dash (top); Plymouth Sundance dash (bottom)
The Aspen and Durango Hybrids were little changed to drive, with the hybrid technology operating seamlessly. The most glaring flaw of the trucks were their cheap interiors. These were some of the most expensive Mopars for sale and yet their interiors were swathed in the same cheap, nasty plastics that permeated the Mopar lineup in the mid-2000s. When your $45k luxury SUV has an interior that resembles a Plymouth Sundance from 15 years before, you know you have a problem. In comparison, the Tahoe and Yukon Hybrid had a much more attractive interior, even though their wood trim was just as fake and there were still plenty of cheap touches like the door locks.
The light color scheme of the Aspen’s interior would have been nice had the materials been of a higher quality and the wood a little less fake. The Durango’s interior, thanks to an oppressive black color scheme, was somewhat less offensive although you could still opt for fake wood. Both trucks had an economy dial in lieu of a tachometer, as well as hybrid system readouts on the dash screen.
Alas, given Chrysler’s financial troubles – déjà vu, weren’t we talking about that earlier? – we will never know how successful the Aspen and Durango Hybrids could have been. Given that, in 2012, GM sold 533 Tahoe Hybrids (0.8% of Tahoes sold that year) and sales were generally slow throughout most of the GM Hybrids’ 2008-13 run, it’s probably fair to say the Mopar trucks wouldn’t have fared much better.
I hope you enjoyed your stay in Aspen. Be sure to visit again at the links below. For our next two instalments, we will be looking at some short-lived high-performance Mopars as well as some big, bad trucks.