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Aspen is 281 miles from Durango, Colorado. It's as posh as Durango is down-to-earth. Among the ski resort town's celebrity residents are Don Henley, Mariah Carey and the late Hunter S. Thompson, while Durango's foremost citizens are only famous within the mountain biking world.

It's an important distinction to DaimlerChrysler, which has just introduced its first ever Chrysler-brand SUV, the 2007 Chrysler Aspen. This large SUV is based on the current-generation Dodge Durango, and in every quantifiable way, these two sport-utes are identical. But Chrysler has given the '07 Aspen a more upscale look and feel with the hope that buyers will realize there's more between Durango and Aspen than a few truck stops.

The road to Aspen
Since the Durango is entering the fourth year of its model cycle, company planners knew they couldn't just slap on a set of Chrysler wings and call it an Aspen. So they ordered a series of chassis and equipment changes that benefit both SUVs.

New engine mounts and cab mounts (which hold the body to the frame) were specified to improve ride comfort and minimize noise and vibration, while damping rates and control arm bushings were altered to accommodate the use of 20-inch wheels for the first time. The Aspen's double-wishbone front/coil spring live-axle rear suspension is tuned identically to the Durango, and with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the Chrysler is no less capable off-road. Brake size hasn't changed despite the heft of the new 20s, but steering effort is lower this year.

Although the steering is lighter, the Aspen feels pretty much the same as the last Durango we drove. Body roll is moderate for a 5000-pound SUV, and once you find a groove, you can get around corners more quickly than you might expect. Ride quality is as plush as ever. The Aspen's four-wheel disc brakes are the only major cause for complaint: Pedal feel is vague and stopping distances feel long, even for a truck.

A V8 or a V8
Only the V8s from the Durango lineup carry over into the '07 Chrysler Aspen, and both the 4.7-liter V8 (rated for 235 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque) and the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 (good for 335 hp and 370 lb-ft) have new induction systems to keep them from interrupting conversation in the cabin.

Last year's five-speed automatic transmission returns unchanged, and you still have the option of getting 3.55 or 3.92 rear-end gears, and either two- or four-wheel drive. On 4x4 models, the standard setup is a single-speed, full-time 4WD system with a manually lockable center differential — adequate for driving in snow but not much else. For those who need real all-terrain capability, a low-range transfer case is optional. Fuel economy is average for this weight class — mid-teens in the city, high-teens on the highway, regardless of drivetrain.

We drove a 4WD Aspen with the Hemi V8, and found it potent off the line, strong into the midrange and quiet at a highway cruise. Unfortunately, the five-speed's column shifter still doesn't provide manual access to anything above 2nd gear, resulting in unnecessary gear hunting on mountain grades and heavy brake use on descents.

Same cabin, a little extra style
With the same basic layout as the Durango, the Aspen's cabin has the same strengths and weaknesses. Ergonomics and storage space are excellent, while seating quarters are ample in the first row, average in the third row and surprisingly cramped in the second row. Seven-passenger seating is standard, but an optional three-kid, third-row bench swells capacity to eight. A new quad seating option opens things up a bit in the middle row (while dropping seating capacity to six or seven), but since the captain's chairs are fixed in place, there's no solving the legroom issue. At least the cabin stays quiet: In addition to the chassis tweaks, engineers squirted additional foam insulation into various trouble spots around the body and installed a laminated windshield.

Although materials quality falls short of competitors like the Toyota Sequoia and the '07 Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon twins, the texturing on the Aspen's plastics is smoother and more polished than the low-grade stuff we've encountered in the Durango. An analog clock at the top of the center stack, liberal use of faux bird's eye maple trim and LED lighting throughout the cabin further the impression that this is a more elite vehicle than the workaday Dodge.

Just a few more features
Extra feature content doesn't hurt, either, so Chrysler made key safety equipment like three-row side curtain airbags and stability control standard on the Aspen. In addition to rollover avoidance logic, the stability control system includes a trailer sway control feature that detects trailer movement and applies brake pressure and reduces engine power to help the driver regain control. This is the first system of its kind, and would likely come in handy if you take advantage of the Aspen's impressive 8950-pound tow rating.

In other respects, though, the '07 Chrysler Aspen isn't particularly well-outfitted for a $33,000 SUV. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard on the base vehicle, but you're still sitting on cloth seats, and listening to a four-speaker stereo. To make the Aspen feel like a proper premium SUV, you really have to drop $5 grand for the 28J Package, which adds the Hemi V8, chrome 20s, leather upholstery, heated front seats, an eight-speaker Pioneer audio system, satellite radio, automatic climate control, rear parking sensors and laminated side glass.

Predictably, the options list includes a navigation system, a rear entertainment system and Bluetooth, but if you want to hook up your iPod, you'll still need an FM transmitter.

Twin cities
With three rows of seating, two healthy V8s and plenty of towing capability, Chrysler's first sport-ute can hardly be called incomplete. But the Aspen can hardly be called innovative or swank, either. And now that premium SUV buyers have more choices than ever before, Aspen should be farther from Durango.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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Our local Chrysler dealer just got one in. A black Limited HEMI. VERY nice.
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