When Chrysler originally introduced its Hemi engine in - what, 1951? - the last thing on the company's mind was improving gas consumption.
The Hemi was all about wringing as much power and torque as possible out of the company's OHV engine and its domed combustion chambers, which allowed the valves to be angled, dramatically improved breathing and overall performance. This is old hat now, but it was state-of-the-art engineering back in the '50s. In motorsports and on the street, it was hugely successful and achieved almost legendary status among hot-rodders and tuners.
It was also used, briefly, in a hybrid application, in the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid.
In tandem with a "two-mode," four-speed automatic transmission and a pair of alternating current (AC) electric motors, the 5.7-litre V-8 Hemi developed 385 horsepower, returning fuel economy in the neighbourhood of 10.5 litres/100 km city/9.2 highway. According to Chrysler, this made the Aspen Hybrid 25 per cent thriftier than its non-hybrid stablemates, and capable of saving most owners around $1,000 a year in fuel costs.
This variety of the Hemi engine also featured a multi-displacement system that would, depending upon driving conditions - on the highway, for example - deactivate up to half of the engine's cylinders. The engine also shut off automatically at stoplights and restarted when the brake pedal was released.
The Aspen's Hybrid system featured a "dual mode" hybrid drive setup that propelled the vehicle on pure battery power alone up until 40 km/h, and reactivated itself again during highway driving, when the MDS kicked in.
The battery itself was of the nickel metal-hydride variety and guaranteed for eight years. It was supplemented by regenerative braking, and the whole system was very similar in concept to that found in the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. Perhaps this is because both systems were manufactured at the Hybrid Development Centre in Michigan, which is co-owned by GM, Chrysler, Mercedes and BMW.
Eight adults will fit into the Aspen, and standard equipment on the Hybrid version included leather interior, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control system, power-adjustable pedals, one-touch power windows, door locks, Sirius satellite radio, tilt steering, power seats with memory and three 12-volt power outlets.
Options included power sunroof, rear video entertainment system, and a trailer towing package. This latter feature made the Aspen Hybrid one of the few vehicles of its kind capable of towing anything.
The Aspen Hybrid also had a full-time 4WD system, with a 48/52 torque split between the front and rear driving wheels.
With all the seats folded, there was 2,898 litres of interior cargo room and the proverbial 4x8 sheet of plywood fit in snugly between the wheel wells. The Hybrid also ran on regular gasoline and received a five-star rating for front-crash impact from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Unfortunately, buyers never really got the chance to love this full-size hybrid SUV. Introduced in 2008, the Aspen was history by the end of 2009.
No safety recalls to report, either from Transport Canada or NHTSA. However, NHTSA does have nine technical service bulletins on file for 2008-2009 models. They concern sketchy windshield wipers that may not "park," headlights that can fog up, a possibly faulty "low oil pressure" warning lamp, incorrect information in the warranty documentation and various minor electrical glitches.
A small thumbs-up from Consumer Reports here. While it has some issues with things like the fuel system, suspension and audio system, the magazine gives the Aspen a "better than average" overall grade. That said, this rating is based on the non-hybrid models. Some comments from owners: "very appealing interior, great sound system," "powerful, good ride, luxurious" and "A/C system freezes up." Sub-standard fuel economy is also a common refrain with the non-hybrid models.
Market research company J.D. Power, meanwhile, gives the Aspen - in all its variations - an "average" rating for predicted reliability. Overall quality doesn't seem to be up to snuff as far as this organization is concerned, and areas such as features accessories quality and powertrain quality aren't what they could be either.
From a base price of just a titch less than $60,000, the Aspen Hybrid has dropped to about $33,000 to $38,000. It seems to be fetching about $2,000 more than the non-hybrid Aspen models.
2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid
Original base Price: $55,995; Black Book: $38,100; Red Book: $32,975
Engine: 5.7-litre V-8 with twin A/C electric motors
Horsepower/Torque: 385 hp/390 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed, "two-mode" automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 10.5 city/9.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, Toyota Highlander Hybrid
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