The new Chrysler Aspen hybrid and its near-twin sibling, the Dodge Durango hybrid, are part of the new wave of high-tech towing-rated vehicles designed for the demands of today’s market.
We drove the Aspen for several days under real-world towing circumstances and for someone unaccustomed to driving a hybrid, this SUV is an education in many regards. Its dual-mode system is state-of-the-art and, according to Chrysler, delivers up to a 40 percent fuel-economy improvement in town and 25 percent overall improvement. We achieved some interesting driving results and enjoyed some beautiful Maine scenery along the way.
We had great fun matching the Aspen to the retro-styled Shasta Airflyte trailer, a new release from Coachmen RV, and it made for an eye-catching combination. Even while paying attention to one’s driving it’s not difficult to notice the admiring and interested looks from pedestrians and other drivers alike.
Will an expensive full-size SUV that’s still in the high teens and lower 20s for fuel mileage go far in today’s market? It’s a start.
Hybrid Tech in a Heavy-Duty SUV
At the heart of the hybrid system is a dual-mode transmission equipped with a pair of electric motors integrated with the gear train. A large 300-volt battery bank amidships in the truck provides the juice. Also vital to the truck’s functionality is the Multi-Displacement System (MDS) 5.7-liter V-8 engine that runs on four, six or eight cylinders, or not at all, depending on demand.
A look at how it works, from behind the wheel, is probably the best way to describe it.
First, it’s quiet. Switch the key on, and the gas engine doesn’t start. A light touch on the pedal starts the truck moving under electric power. With a light load, the electric motors provide the propulsion energy up to about 25 mph, and there’s a decent feel of seat-of-the-pants power in electric mode.
Somewhere around 25 mph, according to Chrysler (we consistently found it was closer to 22 mph), the gas engine automatically starts up in four-cylinder mode. The transition is seamless and the gas engine is exceptionally quiet. An LCD readout in the dash, which also serves as the GPS mapping direction readout, radio monitor and so on, indicates which mode the truck is using. Add a bit more gas, and the engine goes from four to six-cylinder mode, then on to full V-8 when the demand for power is greatest.
When driving with the gas engine, the alternator is recharging the batteries to top them up for the next low-speed electric driving spell.
Decelerating, likewise, charges the batteries. As soon as the driver’s foot is off the pedal, the gas engine shuts down and the powertrain turning the electric motors acts as a generator and provides regenerative charging plus some dynamic braking. At this point, the dash readout indicates, via arrows, that power is flowing back into the batteries.
As the truck comes to a stop there’s almost no noise apart from the radio or climate control. Speaking of which, the air conditioner, power brakes and power steering are all new electric-powered systems now that the gas engine spends part of its time shut off.
The truck is really quiet at the stoplight – something that takes some getting used to – and it rolls off silently while accelerating. The lower volume didn’t let us catch any moose unaware, but being able to drive up quietly, we did get to watch some snapping turtles laying their eggs in the sun-warmed sand next to a broad river.
Our drive included freeways, winding coastal roads, smooth highways in Acadia National Park and rough gravel in the backcountry near Mount Kathadin. The Aspen was up to the job under all conditions.
The main change in performance when towing is that the gas engine kicks in much earlier due to the greater load. We enjoyed some puzzled bystander looks when cruising slowly through a campground on electric power because the truck is so quiet it sounds like there’s no engine running.
On the road the Shasta tows easily and effortlessly. It’s only about half the truck’s towing capacity so it’s a modest load. Steering and braking felt great, and the trailer’s compact size meant backing into some smaller-size Maine campsites and maneuvering through some narrow roads in small towns were no problem.
Due to the lightweight payload, hill climbs were done at any speed we wanted and downhills were easily controlled by light braking or manual downshifting.
According to the fuel-economy readout, we averaged 14.1 mpg while towing in stop-and-go town driving. This figure dropped to 11.9 on the road because we ran more with the gas engine and less with the electric drive.
The People Hauler
Attractive body lines and a clean interior with upscale trim and appointments make the Aspen a classy, comfortable people mover. The body has been restyled just enough to tame its earlier bulging-biceps persona into a trim, buff machine.
Wood-accented panels complement the primarily neutral gray interior color with splashes of brushed metal and darker gray in subtle spots. The leather-trimmed seats are extra comfortable for long hauls and it didn’t take long to grow accustomed to the vehicle-control array. We liked the look of the instruments and found them easily readable, day or night.
Full-size adults will find the rear seat accommodating enough for longer-duration rides, but younger, more limber types will best appreciate the third-row bench seat.
A quiet interior helps the stereo quality and our enjoyment of same, and the Aspen’s factory-stock stereo was wonderful.
A supple but well-controlled suspension is vital for a successful tow rig and luxury people hauler, and the Aspen combines both. The combination of torsion bars and coil springs keep the ride as smooth as possible for a rig of this stature.
The usual array of electronics, including an electronic stability program and four-wheel ABS, three-row side-curtain airbags, the ParkSense rear parking assist system (a backup monitor/alarm), the ParkView rear back-up camera system and a tire-pressure-monitoring system help the driver and passengers with safety and control.
It Hasta Be Shasta
There are several RV companies producing new reproduction models of classic RVs – nominally the smaller, earlier units – and the Shasta is a great example of this genre. The resemblance to the older rigs is amazing. From the signature wings out back to the raised emblem, the body shape and color scheme, the teardrop wheel wells and the classic Baby Moon hubcaps, the trailer would be right at home behind an antique car.
The terrific crew at Lee’s Family Trailer Sales & Service in Windham, Maine (800-640-9276, www.leesfamilytrailer.com), meticulously prepared our test unit. During our initial walkthrough, the trailer was attracting so many onlookers that we almost had to shoo some potential Shasta buyers aside to exit the Lee’s parking lot.
A step in through the entry door reveals where the classic styling ends. The interior forward-wall seating bench, large U-shaped dinette out back, curbside kitchen and streetside wet bath and utility cabinetry are as contemporary looking as anything on the road. Curved surfaces are all the rage in RVs today and the Shasta is right in there. The kitchen counter, overhead storage units, and the continuous walls involve curves everywhere.
There’s no LP-gas cylinder on the Shasta’s A-frame, and that’s for a good reason. This is an all-electric trailer, an element that’s not good for dry campers but works well for those who always seek full-hookup campsites.
Each of our Maine destinations had electric hookups – albeit some, just barely; when the campground ad says “electric hookups” and the front desk helper hands us a tangled extension cord to connect us to the plug on the wall of the shower rooms, that’s “barely” in my book – so we always had power for our trailer hardware.
There’s a trick, something of a learned process, to comfortable camping in such a small trailer. Most of our fair-weather journey was spent out and around and our time in the trailer was primarily before and after bedtime. As such, most of the time the big U-shaped dinette was converted into a bed, although we set the table back up for laptop computer work and the like.
We were surprised at how comfortable the bed was for sleeping. Many beds made of rearranged dinette cushions tend to be spotty at best, but this one found us sleeping like hibernating bears.
The wet bath, at 2 feet 9 inches deep by 3 feet 3 inches wide, is good sized for a small trailer and does what it was designed to do with a reasonable amount of available maneuvering room.
Our trip was during mild weather, so we didn’t need the furnace or the air conditioner this time around. Neither can operate on 12-volt DC power, so their use is strictly when plugged in or connected to a small AC generator.
A 19-inch LCD TV is standard and readily viewable from the dinette, but there’s no built-in AM/FM/CD radio in the trailer. An iPod docking station is included as standard equipment but it only works if you bring your own iPod.
The Waeco brand refrigerator is a compressor type, much like a home residential model. It’s powered by 120 volts AC or 12 volts DC, and it functions very well. However, it would draw down a 12-volt battery in short order if the trailer’s not plugged in to shorepower.
A portable two-burner hotplate accommodates stovetop duties. A countertop spot in the galley and a nearby wall-plug receptacle make for easy operation by the cook. After use, once it’s cooled down, the cooktop can be stored in a below-counter cabinet. A single large curved door provides access to the broad end of the under-counter kitchen storage.
While the cooktop can also be used outdoors, a Coleman stove/grill powered by a portable LP-gas canister comes with the trailer and can be used on its provided folding stand for outdoor meal prep.
At $21,091 msrp as tested the Shasta is priced at an upscale market considering its small size. As such, we would have hoped for more upscale-type hardware and appointments, such as door latches, and name-brand electronics would be preferred over a Coby DVD player and Haier TV.
The forward-sitting bench is a convenient place for changing shoes, with its convenient shoe-storage cubbyholes, but the space could be better used with about half for seating and half as a closet storage of sorts. Storage space is minimal inside the Shasta, and every bit of extra room for clothing and such would be a help. During our short-duration trip we lived out of our duffel bags and shifted them around as needed for different inside activities, and we suspect longer-term users will probably do so as well.
A small pass-through exterior storage compartment, near the back wall on each sidewall, was all we needed to store our minimal leveling blocks, tools and other supplies.
In general, the Shasta does a good job as a small trailer, given its need to be plugged in to electricity for full functionality. It is a fun RV, and coupled to the Aspen and its interesting hybrid drive system, the lash up made for an enjoyable Maine outing. The Aspen may not set the world on fire, but it’s an interesting alternative – and a step in the right direction for Chrysler – for those who truly need a full-size SUV.
Recreational Vehicle Company LLC, (800) 353-7383, www.easyrving.com.