Stretching the hybrid: 2009 Chevrolet Silverado

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Maybe there should be a movie called "Honey, I Grew the Hybrid."

While other car companies have been dutifully putting gasoline-electric hybrid power into relatively modest-sized cars, General Motors had a different idea: Put the fuel-saving technology into some of the biggest passenger vehicles, including the company's best-seller, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.

Not even GM's financial struggles and approaching bankruptcy could prevent the debut early this year of the new, 2009 Chevy Silverado Hybrid, the nation's first full hybrid full-size pickup truck.

It differs from earlier Silverado Hybrids because it can travel on electric power at up to 30 miles per hour. Earlier Silverado Hybrids did not have this so-called two-mode hybrid system.

This is no wimpy pickup. The 2009 Silverado Hybrid comes only as a four-door crew cab with 5¾-foot-long bed, so it's 19.2 feet long from bumper to bumper.

It has a V-8, so it can tow up to 6,100 pounds, and its top payload rating is 1,459 pounds.

Yet, with a government fuel economy rating as high as 21 miles per gallon for city driving and 22 mpg on the highway for a two-wheel drive model, the 2009 Silverado Hybrid is tops in fuel mileage among all pickup trucks except for the much-smaller Ford Ranger and Mazda B2300 compact pickups with four-cylinder engines.

Indeed, the Silverado Hybrid, with city fuel mileage that's 40 percent better than a regular, gas-only Silverado, can travel some 500 miles on a tank of fuel according to the government's fuel mileage estimate.

It's just too bad that the Silverado Hybrid is so pricey, even after factoring in the federal government's $2,200 tax credit.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $39,015 for a two-wheel drive model and $42,165 with all-wheel-drive.

This compares with $30,050 and $33,200 for two- and four-wheel drive base versions of Silverado crew cab that don't have hybrid powerplants and run on gasoline only.

The government fuel mileage estimates for the gas-only Silverado are no better than 15/21 mpg. Even so, it would take years for a buyer to recoup the premium price of the hybrid, even considering the $2,200 tax credit that comes with it.

Sure, surveys show that consumers are more attuned to the environment. But with the economic doldrums, it remains to be seen how this newest Silverado pencils out financially for most truck buyers.

At stoplights, the gasoline engine turns itself off and stays in silent "Auto Stop" mode until the driver needs the vehicle to move again.

Then, the truck can propel forward in silence slowly up to about 30 mph, as electric power alone moves the 5,600-pound-plus vehicle if the driver works the throttle gently.

As speed picks up, the gas engine starts up and propels the truck.

The Silverado Hybrid uses the same 6-liter, overhead valve Vortec V-8 that's used in the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid sport utility vehicle.

In the Silverado, the engine generates 332 horsepower and a peak torque of 367 foot-pounds at 4,100 rpm. It also works to get everything it can from its fuel through an economical Atkinson cycle of operation and GM's Active Fuel Management system that deactivates some engine cylinders during coasting and other driving conditions.

Power is delivered to the wheels via an electrically variable transmission with four fixed gears and mostly smooth operation. I did notice, however, a brief stumble or hesitation when the engine switched from pure electric power to gas engine power.

It's similar to what a driver can experience if an engine is about to stall, and it's not uncommon in gas-electric hybrid powerplants where software controls the mixing and matching of power flows. Still, in the test truck it was a regular reminder that this wasn't a normal pickup.

So were the dirty looks I got from people walking in parking lots at the grocery. They'd look behind, if they were aware at all, and find this big truck creeping behind them silently.

Braking was different, too. Brakes in the test truck had a distinctly artificial feel. Try as I might to stop smoothly, the brakes would grab right at the end of the stop, so even at slow speed, there was an abruptness to any stop.

Note the brakes here are regenerative, meaning they seek to capture energy as the vehicle slows and store it in the onboard 300-volt battery storage system for use later by the hybrid system's two electric motors.

I drove the test all-wheel drive Silverado Hybrid as normally as possible, carrying furniture and people. My mileage rating was 16 mpg combined city/highway and compared with the government's 20/20 mpg rating for the test model.

Beyond the powerplant, the Silverado Hybrid tester felt and looked like a regular Silverado. There was a truckish bounce over severe road bumps and highway expansion cracks. The truck bobbed up and down on some concrete pavement.

Steering was comfortable, and there was good space inside for all passengers. And there was a little tire noise that came into the passenger compartment. I also heard the strong sounds of the V-8 when I mashed the accelerator for fast passing on the highway.


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