Chrysler pitches gas savings on hybrid SUVs

Chrysler Aspen
PORTLAND, Maine — With sales of mid- and full-sized SUVs plummeting, Chrysler LLC hopes that Two Mode Hemi hybrid versions of the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango will inject the SUVs with new life this fall.

Chrysler's pitch will be simple: Buy a hybrid Aspen or Durango, and you will save roughly 200 gallons of gasoline a year because of 25 percent estimated improvement in fuel economy. With gasoline at about $4 a gallon, that means saving about $800.

That savings, coupled with an $1,800 tax credit, means that in about 27 months, customers should pay back the roughly $3,600 price premium they will pay for the green technology.

The Durango hybrid is priced at $45,340 and the Aspen at $45,570; both prices include shipping.

The Durango and Aspen could use a boost. Durango sales have plunged 48.4 percent for the first half of 2008. Aspen sales actually have increased — by 3.6 percent — but the Aspen was a new model in 2007.

Sticker battle
Although Chrysler LLCs two-mode hybrid SUVs are smaller than GMs, Chrysler thinks it can win some cross-shoppers with lower sticker prices.
-- Chrysler Aspen: $45,570
-- Dodge Durango: $45,340
-- GMC Yukon Denali: $50,945
-- Chevrolet Tahoe: $50,490

More to come

The 2009 Hemi hybrids, arriving in dealerships this fall, are Chrysler's first venture into hybrid powertrains. The Two Mode technology soon will make it into other Chrysler vehicles.

Michael Berube, senior manager of Chrysler marketing, said the Two Mode technology is "scalable" to V-6 engines and front-wheel-drive applications. Chrysler worked with General Motors, BMW and Daimler AG to develop the Two Mode transmission.

Dodge is planning to launch the Two Mode system in 2010 in the Ram pickup, which will be powered by the same 5.7-liter Hemi engine as the Aspen and Durango.

"Hybrids are going to be spreading" in the Chrysler lineup, Berube said here in an interview at the press launch of the two vehicles. "This is a learning platform."

By that, Berube means learning how to integrate the hybrid technology into different vehicles and learning how to sell those vehicles to customers.

The hybrid system allows drivers to operate the vehicles in full electric mode below 25 mph and can give them an extra boost at highway speeds. The 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 also has cylinder displacement so it can operate on only four cylinders.

Drivers can monitor fuel economy in three places on the instrument cluster. There is an analog gauge to the right of the speedometer that shows when the vehicle is operating in all-electric, hybrid and all-gasoline modes. A digital graphic in the navigation display shows how the power is being generated and distributed, and a mileage gauge above the mirror displays overall fuel economy.

Glenn Denomme, chief engineer of powertrain programs, says the information will be more integrated in the Ram hybrid.

Targeting Tahoe

Although the Chrysler and Dodge are smaller SUVs, Chrysler LLC is taking aim at the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs, both of which use the same transmission and have sticker prices above $50,000.

Tahoe prices start at $50,490, while the Yukon Denali starts at $50,945. Both include shipping.

Chrysler says its vehicles, although smaller, are more attractive because they're still below $50,000 — a price that Berube believes is a psychological barrier for many customers.

Said Berube: "$45,000 is a ways away from $50,000. You can buy a lot of stuff for over $50,000."

Jesse Toprak, an analyst for Edmunds.com, said the real success of the two hybrids will be measured by transaction prices, not the stickers.

"The average discount from MSRP for the (nonhybrid) Durango is $6,672. If you look at the average MSRP, it's about $34,000. If you look at net price, it's about $27,200. Now we need to compare $27,200 with $45,000."

So it depends on how much Chrysler discounts the two vehicles, Toprak said.

GM is offering an additional $4,000 in loyalty cash on its Two Mode hybrids, Toprak said. "Now they become a little more attractive proposition with that."

After a slow start, the GM hybrids have picked up steam and are difficult to find in some locations, he said. "Nobody is paying even close to MSRP on large, traditional SUVs," Toprak said. "That's why we have to wait to see actual market difference between the two versions."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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