We were housed at the Liberty Hotel when we first arrived here to test drive the new Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango HEMI Hybrids. What seemed an oxymoron was that the Liberty Hotel used to be the jail for Suffolk County and now it is the anchor for a luxury hotel.
The same could be said of the Aspen/Durango two mode hybrids. The full size sport utilities promise a fuel economy improvement of up to 40 percent in the city and 25 percent overall. That sounds great for a vehicle that delivers a combined 385 horsepower, 380 pound-feet of torque and that is capable of towing 6,000 lbs.
However, with gasoline prices hovering at $4.00 per gallon, a vehicle that gets 19 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the hwy doesn't seem all that impressive. Still, the technology behind the two vehicles is impressive. Officials here said the Aspen and Durango hybrids would save consumers about 200 gallons of gasoline annually. You do the math.
Two mode hybrid technology was jointly developed by General Motors, the BMW Group, Chrysler Corp. and Mercedes-Benz. Simply put, it works at both low speeds and high speeds. Thus, it's called Two Mode.
At the heart of the system is an electric continuously variable transmission that works at virtually any speed. It uses two electric motors to aid acceleration. They also act as generators to recapture energy from braking that is stored in batteries under the second row of seats. One electric motor works at low speeds, while the other works at high speeds.
At low speeds, the Aspen or Durango can operate using only electric power (up to 25 mph), engine power or any combination of the two. The vehicles' engines also shut off when they aren't moving and they have a multiple displacement system that shuts off four of the eight cylinders of the 5.7 liter HEMI V8 when not needed.
During high speeds, the high speed electric motor can help the Aspen/Durango accelerate for passing, add extra oomph for towing a trailer or for climbing a particularly steep grade.
On a drive to Portland, ME, we drove up the Atlantic coastline through towns like Essex, Gloucester and Ipswich and found the hybrid grid display particularly helpful. It told us when we were using power, when we were in economy mode and it also told us when we were using four or eight cylinders. In other words, the Aspen and Durango two mode hybrids can help you become a more fuel efficient driver.
We had a Durango HEMI Hybrid and found it very comfortable. Acceleration was very good for a vehicle of its size. The big Dodge was really easy to drive. And though it had three rows of seats, the vehicle didn't seem oversized.
The Aspen and Durango two mode hybrids come chock full of equipment. They have only three options: a rear seat DVD based entertainment system, satellite TV and a sun roof.
Meanwhile, standard equipment includes a rearview camera, park assist, a trailer tow package, a premium audio system, a navigation system, leather seats with the front ones heated, and Uconnect that turns compatible cell phones into hands free car phones.
With base prices of $45,570 for the Chrysler Aspen HEMI Hybrid and $45,340 for the Dodge Durango HEMI Hybrid, the question is will consumers think the prices are too high to be offset by better fuel economy.
Still, Chrysler says those prices are $8,000 below the competition. The success of these vehicles doesn't depend on the price on the sticker; it depends on the price at the pump.