Chrysler LLC has arrived late to the hybrid-powertrain party. Long after Honda and Toyota launched battery/electric vehicles, and four years after Ford introduced its Escape Hybrid, Chrysler is finally offering a pair of hybrid models. Rather than smaller-size, economy-minded vehicles, however, the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango Hybrid are full-size SUVs with Hemi V-8 engines.
Used for both models, the 2-Mode Hybrid system was developed as a joint effort between Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and GM. Chrysler claims a fuel-economy boost of more than 25 percent (nearly 40 percent in city driving), compared to an Aspen or Durango with the Hemi V-8 gasoline engine only. Part of the mileage improvement is credited to the Multi-Displacement System, which cuts off half of the engine's cylinders while the vehicle is cruising.
Developing 385 horsepower, the Hemi V-8 engine works with a 300-volt battery pack and electric motors to drive an ECVT transmission. Lacking the belts or bands that are used in most continously variable transmissions (CVTs), Chrysler's "electronically variable" unit includes four fixed gear ratios. According to Chrysler, this setup helps keep the V-8 engine in four-cylinder mode more often. Chrysler says shifts betweeen the two modes are synchronous, requiring no change in engine speed.
During two of the ECVT modes, elecric motors help acceleration, improve fuel economy, or provide regenerative braking, according to Chrysler. The first mode is for low-speed, light-load driving, using electric, gasoline, or both power sources. The second mode is for highway driving, with electric assist - but the gasoline engine keeps running, ready for more demanding conditions.
Because both the Aspen and Durango Hybrids come in top-end Limited trim, with all-wheel drive, their standard-equipment lists are extensive. Seating up to eight occupants, the Durango includes leather-trimmed bucket seats, and eight-way power driver's seat with memory, four-way power passenger seat, heated front seats, a second-row bench, and a 60/40-spit third-row bench seat. MyGig Entertainment and a navigation system also are included.
Standard safety features include antilock braking, an electronic stability program (with electronic roll mitigation) and trailer sway control, and side-curtain airbags that cover all three rows. A ParkSense Rear Park Assist System and ParkView Rear Back-up Camera System are installed, too. Aspen standard equipment is similar.
While driving, there's little to indicate that a battery/electric powertrain is operating. No tachometer is installed on the dashbarod, but a large Charging/Economy/Power gauge can help the driver get the best mileage out of the vehicle.
Like their gasoline-engine counterparts, the Chrysler/Dodge Hybrids are pleasant vehicles, relatively easy to drive but awfully big. Not as large as some competitors, true; but bigger than many people need. Despite its fuel-saving Multi-Displacement operation, too, the Hemi V-8 is more than what's necessary, even in a large SUV.
Those factors might not matter if fuel economy improved sufficiently. In real-world driving, particularly in cold weather, the gasoline engine doesn't shut off as often, or for as long a time, as Chrysler suggests. Therefore, gas mileage improvement is limited. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both models get a fuel-economy estimate of 20 mpg in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. Driven in the wintry Midwest, test models barely topped 16 mpg. That's closer to the EPA rating issued for the gasoline-engine Aspen/Durango with Hemi V-8 power: 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway with two-wheel drive, and 13/19 mpg with 4WD.
Pricing is no bargain, either. Offered only in Limited trim, with all-wheel drive, Dodge Durango Hybrid stickers for $45,890 (including destination charge). In contrast, a comparable gas-engine Durango goes for $40,635. Chrysler's Aspen Hybrid is just slightly more expensive, at $46,120; but the gas-engine Aspen Hemi is cheaper than Dodge's version.
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