Sierra, Silverado Take Hybrid Trucks to Next Level

By dancurranjr On April 11th, 2009

silveradoWhat kind of idiot builds a 20-mpg hybrid pickup truck? Everybody knows that hybrids are 40-mpg-plus small cars like the Toyota Prius.

As often happens when you look beyond the obvious, what “everybody knows” is wrong.

Switching from a conventional pickup to the new 2009 Chevrolet Silverado or GMC Sierra hybrid pickup actually saves more gasoline than trading a fuel-efficient compact car for a Prius.

Add the fact that automakers sell millions of pickups annually and hybrid pickups start to look smart, despite their high cost.

Using the EPA’s calculations, here’s how the numbers add up:

A pickup owner will save about 181 gallons of gasoline annually by switching from the most fuel-efficient conventional pickups – the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150 and GMC Sierra – to a hybrid Silverado or Sierra.

That compares with saving 168 gallons by driving a Toyota Prius rather than the most fuel-efficient conventional compact cars, the Chevrolet Cobalt XFE, Kia Rio or Toyota Corolla.

Thirteen gallons a year won’t save the polar ice caps or end America’s oil dependency, of course.

Various pieces of hybrid technology will find their way into every type of vehicle over the next few years as automakers increase fuel economy and reduce emissions.

Unless you think pickups will join the polar bear on the endangered species list – and if you feel that way, don’t share it with a farmer, carpenter, gardener or the host of small-businesspeople who need pickups – the question becomes not whether to use hybrid tech in pickups, but how to do it well.

The 2009 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra crew cab pickups do it well, despite a few shortcomings.

They combine GM’s proven 6.0-liter V8 engine with the slick dual-mode hybrid system GM developed with BMW, Chrysler and Daimler. The system dramatically improves fuel economy without reducing towing or payload capabilities.

Prices for the hybrid pickups start at $38,020 for a rear-drive Silverado and $38,390 for a rear-drive Sierra. Four-wheel drive models start at $41,170 for the Silverado and $41,540 for Sierra.

Both hybrids come only in four-door crew cab models and cost about $4,000 more than comparable non-hybrid models.

I tested a nicely equipped four-wheel drive $41,445 Silverado and a loaded four-wheel drive $47,675 Sierra. All prices exclude destination charges.

The EPA rates the four-wheel drive hybrid pickups I tested at 20 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. Rear-drive models scored 21 mpg city and 22 mpg on the highway.

Those figures beat other full-size pickups by a whopping 6 to 8 mpg in the city and 3 to 5 mpg on the highway.

Over more than a week of driving that included highway trips and plenty of city driving, the Silverado and Sierra I tested matched or slightly exceeded the EPA’s projections.

The hybrid system functioned smoothly, routinely shutting the engine off and powering the trucks in all-electric mode at speeds up to about 30 mph on surface streets.

The system’s ability to provide power at highway speeds – unique to GM’s pickups and SUVs, and the reason the automaker calls it a two-mode hybrid – allowed the V8 to shut down four cylinders in steady highway cruising at up to 70 mph.

That’s the key to the improved highway fuel economy. Most hybrid systems only work in city driving, making the system dead weight in the highway runs the EPA says account for around 45 percent of most Americans driving.

The hybrid pickups can tow up to 6,100 pounds and offer plenty of passenger space in their roomy crew cabs.

The battery pack under the rear seat eliminates the ability to fold the seat up to increase interior cargo space, but the trucks’ functionality and comfort are otherwise unchanged from GM’s conventional pickups. The lid for the door to the upper of the trucks’ two gloveboxes was slightly misaligned, but fit and finish were otherwise fine.

The engine shut-off and four-cylinder modes function imperceptibly, with no vibration to tell the driver the hybrid system is at work.

Brake feel, however, is poor. The pedals feel stiff and provide very little feedback, making it difficult to modulate them for smooth stops. The electric power steering felt heavy at low speeds and could also use further refinement.

The fuel economy is unbeatable, however, and the ability to drive a 5,000-pound-plus all-wheel drive crew cab pickup as an electric vehicle for blocks at a time elevates the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups to a level where they simply have no peer.

SOURCE: Modesto Bee

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