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2007 Chrysler Aspen Full-Size Near-Luxury Sport Utility Vehicle

What was tested? 2007 Chrysler Aspen Limited AWD ($33,520).

Options: Order package J (3,800), navigation system ($1,295), rear-seat video system ($1,200).

Price as tested: $39,815.

2007 Chrysler Aspen Full-Size Near-Luxury Sport Utility Vehicle

Everywhere I drive the new Chrysler Aspen, the big SUV gets compliments.

It has almost the same aura as the Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator, those huge, expensive vehicles that are cool simply because they're so irrational. The Aspen is covered with acres of shiny chrome and has a fancy looking nose, complete with the signature Chrysler ripples running lengthwise down the hood. It looks like a piece of jewelry when the sunlight hits it just right.

It's a shame I had to disappoint the admirers by telling them the truth. This Chrysler is nothing but a tarted-up Dodge Durango.

And that creates a quandary.

You see, the Aspen looks and feels like a graceful hippo, giving you the same basic feeling as in the uber-expensive Escalade or Navigator. Its interior seems to be stolen from a Turkish palace, with blonde wood trim and sparkling bits and pieces sprinkled all over the cabin. It rides smoother and quieter than the Durango, so for all practical purposes the Aspen is a full-blown luxury SUV. From that perspective, it's a bargain at $31,490 for the base model.

At the same time, if you paid that much for a base Durango, you'd be out of your mind.

The Durango was never intended to be a luxury vehicle. It was designed from the outset to be a blue-collar, utilitarian SUV, one that can do serious towing while also carrying your spouse and kids around town in relative comfort. On a scale between Mack Truck and Mercedes-Benz, it definitely leans toward the 18-wheeler side of the spectrum.

Chrysler, though, never had a true SUV in its lineup. If executives at Chrysler had a lick of sense, they would have cashed in on the SUV craze in the late '90s rather than waiting until now, when the SUV market is drying up because of a combination of save-the-Earth activists and high gas prices. It's far too little, far too late.

In any case, Chrysler tried to save some face in 2007 by tweaking the Durango and calling it an Aspen. It has the same basic strengths as the Durango -- an available Hemi V8, solid chassis and excellent towing capacity -- along with some luxurious touches, like a softer ride and much nicer interior.

The Aspen also has some tasty options for people with a healthy bank account. A fully outfitted model will have heated first- and second-row seats, a power rear liftgate, DVD player, remote starter and navigation system. All these features combine to make the Aspen comparable to a GMC Denali, only for a lot less money.

The 5.7-liter Hemi is also optional, along with a 4.7-liter V8. The Hemi has a feature called Multi-displacement System that shuts down some cylinders when they're not needed, giving you more horsepower for roughly the same gas mileage as the smaller V8. Still, that's pretty pathetic mileage, with 13 mpg around town and 18 on the highway for 4x4 models.

The best part of the Aspen, though, is how everyone walks away from the Chrysler dealership looking like a genius.

If you buy it, you got yourself a great SUV that's comparable to a Cadillac without the bloated car payment.

And if you don't buy it, you're not getting suckered into driving an overpriced Durango.

Pros: It's comparable to a luxury SUV with a lower price. In many ways, it feels like a Lincoln or Cadillac.

Cons: It's an overpriced, gussied-up Dodge Durango.

RATINGS (1-10)

Style: 9

Performance: 9

Price: 5

Handling: 4

Ride: 8

Comfort: 8

Quality: 7

Overall: 7