Chrysler didn't pull the Hemi name off the Chrysler Aspen/Dodge Durango badge altogether. "Hemi" no longer is in large-ish red letters: Badges on the front fenders and rear deck proclaim "Hybrid" in blue letters at the top; below it the cryptic words "Two Mode Hemi." No doubt, "that thing got a hybrid?" commercials are in the can.

This hybrid system, developed with General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, extends the life of the Hemi V-8 that Chrysler diligently built up into a marketing buzzword four years ago. The Hybrid Hemi should power the Chrysler 300C/Dodge Challenger/Charger R/T Hemi of the future.

The AWD-only Aspen/Durango hybrids average 19 mpg city/20 mpg highway, just short of the 6.0L hybrid, 4WD Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon's 20/20 (RWD versions get 21/20 mpg). Chrysler undercut GM on sticker prices; the Durango hybrid is $7055 less than the 4WD Tahoe hybrid and the Aspen is $7285 less than the 4WD Yukon hybrid, about 1720 and 1776 gallons of regular unleaded, respectively. You could buy even more gas with the money you'd save unloading a conventional Hemi Aspen or Durango from your local lot, but who wants to drive around in an automotive Scarlet Letter?

Unlike the GMs, the Mopar hybrids don't make you give up ground clearance or roof racks for efficiency, and their tow rating remains 6000 lb. They benefit from a freshened Hemi, including variable valve timing and redesigned intake and exhaust. The hybrid-electric transmission has two variable modes, four fixed gears and regenerative braking, and the 300-volt battery is under the second-row seat. A trailer-towing package, sunroof and a rear-seat DVD player are the only options on either the Chrysler (which fetches $230 more sticker thanks to a slightly fancier interior), or the Dodge. You can't get remote-start, because the Hemi hybrids start in electric mode when possible, sure to confound valets across the nation. It runs pure electric in reverse and theoretically up to 25 mph in drive. Further, the hybrid system allows more use of the four-cylinder mode for the Hemi's Multiple Displacement System at highway speeds.

Our Aspen Hybrid tester was fun in the high-density East Coast cities of Chrysler's launch, sneaking up on unsuspecting pedestrians near Harvard Square in Boston, or quietly gliding along parking lots in New York's Westchester County. Its 300-volt battery allows for silent, engine-free idle with air-conditioning and other accessories on. The electric motor makes 87 hp; the engine makes 345. The Hemi offers plenty of power on full-throttle launches, but it hesitates momentarily on aggressive partial-throttle launches, throwing a bit of shudder and hesitation into the transition from engine-off stoplights.

On a stop-and-go drive on side roads from Boston to Portland, Maine, the Aspen Hybrid eked out about 20 mpg, then stretched to a 21-mpg (indicated) average returning via Interstate. In the cities average fuel mileage hovered around 18.7-19.3 mpg. Because the new hybrid system was adapted to an aging model, you can't get the nav-system map and the drivetrain gas-electric-MDS diagram on the screen at the same time. Which leads to its biggest drawback. It's still a Dodge Durango/Chrysler Aspen, the most unrefined truck-based SUV in the U.S. fleet. The tall "midsize" sport/utility feels and acts bigger than a Tahoe or Yukon, its suspension skittering over deteriorating roads, causing head-toss (blame the rear leaf-springs), its squat and dive inspiring early braking. This sophisticated two-mode hybrid system is trying to save an inferior entry into a dead segment. It can't possibly save the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango. It can save the Hemi V-8.


2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid/Dodge Durango Hybrid
Base Price $45,340 (Dodge); $45,570 (Chrysler)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 8-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.7L/345-hp/380 lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8 plus 87-hp/235 lb-ft. electric motor
Transmission Hybrid-electric with two variable modes, four fixed gears
Curb weight (dist f/r) 5550 lbs
Wheelbase 119.2 in
Length x width x height 202.1 x 76.0 x 73.6 in
0-60 mph 7.5 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 19/20 mpg (EPA)
CO2 emissions 1.00 lb/mile
On sale in U.S. September 2008