David Letterman's "Oprah, Uma. Uma, Oprah" bit from the 1995 Academy Awards was both one of the most awkward and most memorable moments in TV history. We now have the automotive equivalent.
Hybrid, HEMI. HEMI, Hybrid.
Yes, this is the world we now are living in. Chrysler's 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine, the one nearly everyone, including Sen. Barack Obama, aspired to possess just a few short years ago, is muscle in the form of metal. Its stock may have fallen of late as gasoline prices have gone up, but it remains an automotive legend with a reputation that will surely outlive the global supply of oil it has helped to deplete.
An 87-horsepower AC Synchronous Electric Motor/Generator may not have quite the same ring to it as 'HEMI,' but to people who consider internal combustion a manifestation of toxic, spewing evil, the clean and quiet hum of its operation must sound like the song of songs.
In a show of bipartisanship aimed at saving from extinction that which we Americans hold dear to our hearts — the full-size SUV — these disparate powerplants have been brought together to create the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid.
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The EPA has given Chrysler's first gas-electric vehicle a city rating of 20 miles per gallon, which is over 50 percent more than the 13 mpg the pure HEMI version delivers. Highway mileage makes the nearly as impressive bump from 18 mpg to 22 mpg, not common in the hybrid game.
These figures compare very well to the Aspen Hybrid's only direct competitors, the four-wheel drive versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon twins, both rated at 20 city/20 hwy.
Chrysler claims the electric motor can propel the vehicle on its own up to 25 mph for short distances, but 20 mph was the best I ever saw before the HEMI piped up to remind me who the real king of the road is. Still, with a light touch on what used to be called the gas pedal, I was able to coax the Aspen several city blocks in traffic, not to mention down a drag strip, without dipping into its petroleum reserves.
When the V-8 does kick in, it punches the time clock with a light shudder then disappears into the well-insulated cocoon under the hood. Only at full throttle does it provide any aural pleasure. Perhaps this is intentional, so not to encourage the wasteful spending of fuel.
Even before the electric appendage was installed, the HEMI made an effort to be economical by employing a fuel-management system that allows it to run on just four cylinders under light loads. The engine in the Aspen Hybrid seems to enter this mode more easily than in other applications, and you can track its operation on one of those nifty flow charts on the multimedia screen that show you where the power is coming from and going to at all times.
As with all hybrids with this feature, it can be very entertaining, and about as distracting as having a hitchhiking political pundit in the passenger seat. I'll never understand why the nanny state allows the driver to watch this, and not the DVD of "An Inconvenient Truth" while the vehicle is in motion. Both are equally capable of inspiring environmental consciousness and road rage.
For those times when the screen is occupied with more pressing issues, like what deep track is playing on the Sirius satellite radio or the directions to the nearest gas station, you don't need to stop at so often anymore, the tachometer has been replaced with an analog gauge that monitors what mode the system is in, with sectors marked "charging," "economy," and "power."
The last one, of course, is the most interesting. Hybrid math is different from the traditional 1+1=2 thing. In grammar school, 87 hp added to the 345 hp provided by the HEMI would give you 432 hp. In today's brave new world of efficiency you end up with 400 hp.
I won't go into detail on why that is, mostly because I don't understand it myself, but it doesn't matter much anyway because four hundred horses deserve plenty of respect. Not only do they make the Aspen Hybrid a reasonably fleet beast, but help it maintain a tow rating of 6,000 pounds.
Aside from all of this, the Aspen Hybrid is pretty much identical to the Aspen regular that was introduced in 2007, which is to say that it is OK. The interior is filled with far too much hard plastic for a luxury vehicle and screams out for more leather, or at least something soft to touch.
The seats, steering wheel and armrests are the only things covered in hides, and are nice enough for a truck, but far from plush. You'll notice this as the firmly damped suspension bobs you around on rough pavement.
Four-wheel drive is standard, though the blingly 18-inch aluminum wheels will probably discourage you from using it for anything more daunting than driving through the mess left in a parking lot after a campaign rally.
Where the Aspen Hybrid does excel is in the amenities department. Chrysler is king of the doodads and whatsits, and has stuffed what is arguably its flagship vehicle with many of the entertainment features honed it its family friendly minivans.
Behind the video monitor lurks the company's Uconnect entertainment system, complete with the previously mentioned satellite radio, a hard drive to store music or, oddly, photos that you also shouldn't be looking at while driving, and a navigation system that will automatically route you around traffic, if not bumpy roads.
You can watch DVDs, but only when parked, or one of the three children's TV channels offered through the optional Sirius Backseat TV service.
On the move, rear-seat passengers can take a trip to Higglytown on a screen that folds down from the ceiling in the second row. It comes with two wireless headphones, and if you listen through the weak-sounding eight-speaker audio system, you'll wish it had six more. Headphones or speakers, either will do.
The Aspen Hybrid is priced aggressively at $44,770, only about four grand more than a standard HEMI 4x4 with similar options, and $7,000 less than the slightly larger Tahoe and Yukon. Good or not, it's yet to be seen what the market is for this type of truck.
As a stopgap to the next generation of large vehicles, the Aspen Hybrid does a pretty good job, but old-fashioned, full-size SUVs may have had their moment in the sun as far as everyday use is concerned.
If this is as green as they get, they may not get invited back to the show. Letterman never did, and it worked out pretty well for everyone, including him.
Now, if they could just install this powertrain into a Chrysler 300...
Update: Chrysler has announced that it is discontinuing the Aspen Hybrid, along with its entire lineup of full size SUVs, including the Dodge Durango, when it closes the Newark, Delaware assembly plant on December 31, 2008.
2009 CHRYSLER ASPEN HYBRID
Base Price: $44,770
As Tested: $46,420
Type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, 8-passenger SUV
Engine: 5.7L V-8 and AC Synchronous Electric Motor/Generator
Power: 345 hp (V-8), 87 hp (electric), 400 hp (combined)
What do you think of the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid?
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