(first posted 4/16/2015) As of 2014, it has been statistically proven that SUVs and CUVs are more popular than sedans, making them the most popular type of vehicle in the United States. With that in mind, it’s surprising that a mainstream brand like Chrysler does not currently sell an SUV or CUV under its own label. Of course, a Chrysler salesman would gladly direct you across the showroom, where you’ll find the Dodge Durango, Dodge Journey, and the whole Jeep lineup.
The automaker has the mid-size luxury-SUV segment well-covered with the top-line Grand Cherokee Overland Summit. And while the Grand Cherokee is easily the most luxurious vehicle next to the 300 that Fiat-Chrysler Group produces (some would argue even more so than the 300), it still seems odd that Chrysler would not tap into the profitable SUV/CUV market with a semi-luxurious entry in any size class.
Well, the fact of the matter is that Chrysler did venture into this segment–twice. Taking an unusual route, Chrysler released a car-based crossover first, the 2004 Chrysler Pacifica. The first new Chrysler released under the Daimler-Benz partnership, the Pacifica was built using a number of Mercedes-derived components and technologies. While this would have appeared to be a positive thing, it made the Pacifica more expensive to produce, which translated to unusually high sticker prices for a Chrysler.
To make matters worse, the Pacifica was a heavily flawed vehicle. Despite its large exterior dimensions, interior space was tight, and its hefty bulk resulted in poor fuel economy. Furthermore, the Pacifica suffered from poor interior materials and build quality, and an unrefined drivetrain unworthy of its price tag. The vehicle was also plagued by numerous reliability issues related to engine, transmission, electrical and interior components, thus essentially sealing its fate. Sales naturally never lived up to expectations, and the Pacifica was dropped in 2008, with no successor.
In rather backward order, Chrysler would release a traditional truck-based, body-on-frame SUV in 2007, just as gas was nearing $4.00/gallon in many parts of the country and as car-based CUVs were becoming ever-popular. Taking a move right out of Lee Iacocca’s playbook, Chrysler took a less expensive Dodge (the Durango), tacked on a bunch of gingerbread, and then sold it as a Chrysler for more money.
While there were no vinyl roofs and wire wheels, this Chrysler SUV’s styling “enhancements” surely would have made Lido proud. We’ll get to them shortly, but I first must address Chrysler’s odd choice of name when it came to this vehicle.
Rather than going for the Full Iacocca™, and naming this SUV some variation of either New Yorker or LeBaron, Chrysler went back to the days just prior to Lido’s arrival, and recycled the name “Aspen”. Now as most of you recall, the Dodge Aspen and its Plymouth Volare twin were among the most disastrous vehicles the company ever produced, with their numerous quality issues and recalls playing a huge role in Chrysler’s near death in 1979. Oh the irony in déjà vu.
Using the Dodge Durango as a starting point, Chrysler piled on the brightwork, with “chrome” mirrors, door handles, window trim, bodyside moldings and bumper caps. A large chrome grille replaced Dodge’s crosshairs and headlights received a rounded bottom similar to that on other Chryslers. As with other Chryslers in the late ‘00s, the Aspen was treated to the in-vogue Crossfire-inspired grooved hood.
Around back, more conventional rectangular units that looked like they came off an early-90’s Voyager replaced the Durango’s taillights. And of course, upsized chrome wheels were a given. Now truth be told, the Aspen didn’t look all that atrocious exterior-wise. Its styling enhancements greatly reduced the Durango’s somewhat toy-truck styling, and its chrome was no more over-applied than on other large upscale SUVs. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the interior.
Climbing up into an Aspen revealed the Durango’s abysmal sea of hard grainy plastic that was bad, even for a Chrysler of this period. Wide panel gaps and numerous exposed screws went without saying. The Aspen’s imitation bird’s eye maple trim, silver plastic trim, and analogue clock “upgrades” did zero favors in creating a more premium environment, as they only highlighted how cheap everything was. At least in the Durango, it was easier to be numbed, as all plastics were the same monotonous color.
Fake wood accents may have been to Lido’s liking, but they looked even worse here than in his ’80s K-cars. If it was any solace, the Aspen’s floor console was, for whatever reason, off-centered with the center stack, much like that of the K-cars.
While Chrysler’s status as a prestigious brand has steadily declined over the past half-century, even today it still has an ever-slight upscale aura, at least when compared to Dodge. In its press release, Chrysler Group Senior VP of Brand Marketing, George Murphy said, “The all-new 2007 Chrysler Aspen offers customers an elegant and sophisticated premium SUV for thousands less than luxury-priced competitors.” The words, “elegant”, “sophisticated”, and “premium” may have been a tad strong to describe the Aspen, but its base price did indeed start only around $31,000 in its inaugural year.
Now of course, for $31,000 you got an Aspen with cloth seats, manual, single-zone HVAC, and rear-wheel drive. Adding options like leather, automatic climate control, four-wheel drive, power passenger’s seat, moonroof, heated seats, navigation system, rear entertainment system, power tailgate, and reverse-sensing system pushed the Aspen’s price north of 40 grand. Most Aspens came equipped as such, so for all intents and purposes, this was a $40,000 vehicle with interior materials barely befitting a $15,000 compact.
If there was one truly bright spot about the Chrysler Aspen (not including its acres of exterior chrome), it was the car’s available 5.7L Hemi V8 (a 4.7L V8 was standard). Offering 335 horsepower and 370 lb.-ft. of torque, the Hemi was capable of propelling the 5,500-lb. SUV to 60 miles per hour in reported 7.1 seconds. It also allowed the Aspen to have a best-in-class towing capacity of nearly 9,000 lbs. All that power did come at a cost, however, as EPA-estimated fuel economy was only 15 mpg in mixed driving.
It should be noted that the Aspen and Durango were Chrysler’s first hybrid vehicles. Using the same two-mode system found in Tahoe/Yukon hybrids, the electric motor was paired with the 5.7L Hemi, producing fuel economy numbers of 20 city and 22 highway. It should also be noted the the very first Chrysler Aspen Hybrid went to Lee Iacocca himself. Unfortunately, not many others got the chance to own a hybrid Mopar SUV, as in October 2008, only two months after they went into production and less than one month after they hit showrooms, Chrysler announced it would be closing the Newark, Delaware plant which produced the Aspen/Durango, and that it would be discontinuing both vehicles. Aspen/Durango production ended in December 2008, with just under 65,000 Aspens produced over three years.
This was at the height of the Great Recession and 2007-2008 financial crisis in the United States, and thanks to rising fuel costs, slumping sales and a number of other factors, Chrysler was once again looking death in the eye. On April 30, 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The subsequent federal government bailout, growing interest and eventual control by Fiat, and reorganization strategy transformed Chrysler into a leaner, better focused, and more efficient corporation. Although its products have greatly improved in the years since, the strategy of doing away with overlapping models has left the Chrysler brand especially thinly spread, with only three vehicles as of 2015.
Though there has been talk of a Chrysler-branded luxury CUV for the past several years, it appears that Dodge will get a CUV instead, as the company is apparently discontinuing the Grand Caravan and investing in an all-new Town & Country minivan. While the question of a future Chrysler CUV is still up in the air, it’s safe to say that a traditional body-on-frame SUV is not in Chrysler’s future, leaving the Aspen as the brand’s sole foray in this field. Although it has been less than a decade, even just a couple of years later few people remember the ill-timed, ill-named, ill-trimmed, and ill-fated Aspen, Chrysler’s only SUV.
Photographed: Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Lake Buena Vista, FL – April 2015