PALM SPRINGS, CA – The ’07 Chrysler Aspen represents a new pinnacle of achievement for large SUVs.

Too bad that segment is over the hill.

The pentastar-brand’s first SUV delivers the power and performance expected of a luxury marque when equipped with Chrysler’s trademark Hemi V-8. The optional 5.7L 335-hp Hemi transforms behemoth into a street cruiser with surprising agility.

More impressive, overall, is how neatly Chrysler has parlayed this new entry’s synergy with its platform-mate, the Dodge Durango. Refinement supplants the rough-and-ready look and feel associated with the Durango.

Credit a new engine air-induction system, as well as a uniquely tuned resonator that filters out engine noise – four decibels’ worth, according to Chrysler. But enough aural feedback remains so the driver is reminded, with every assertive throttle input, there’s a Hemi under the hood.

Meanwhile, vibration is non-existent, despite the engine’s ability to generate 370 lb.-ft. (502 Nm) of torque. This comes courtesy of pre-loaded elastomeric bushings that insulate Aspen’s hydroformed frame from its prodigious mill.

Equally impressive is its suspension, which – like the resonator – mutes feedback without amounting to a disconnect between driver and vehicle.

The solid-axle rear, which contributes to Aspen’s 8,950-lb. (4,060-kg) towing capacity, produces predictable but tolerable harshness for third-row passengers. But its torsion-bar, double-wishbone independent front suspension complements a rack-and-pinion steering system that converts Aspen’s 119-in. (303-cm) wheelbase and 201-in. (510-cm) overall length into a surprisingly maneuverable package.

Chrysler lays claim to a 39.9-ft (12.2 m) turning radius.

Its elegant styling is, intentionally, the antithesis of Durango’s sportiness. Subtle highlights include chrome accents on the door handles and beltline moldings. But the dominant feature is Aspen’s bold grille, which inspires a comparison to Chrysler’s 300, a runaway success in the sedan market. Marketing materials call Aspen “the 300 of SUVs.”

Chrysler also rolls out another application of its fluted-hood design, first seen on the Airflite concept car in 2003 and introduced to the market on the Chrysler Crossfire sports coupe. For ’07, it also appears on the Pacifica cross/utlity vehicle and Sebring midsize sedan.

Available 20-in. wheels evoke fantasies of chamois cloths and leisurely Saturday afternoons. But in a climate where gasoline prices are as volatile as gasoline itself, how many consumers will plunk down $30,745 ($33,520 for the 4x4), plus $745 destination, for a passenger vehicle that gets less than 19 mpg (12 L/100 km), combined city/highway?

Chrysler is counting on Type-A 40-somethings who crave chrome and aren’t bothered by fuel economy. But with large SUV sales down 24.1% through the first three quarters, it’s clear Chrysler may have peaked too late with Aspen.

emayne@wardsauto.com