Timing Isn't Everything. Pricing Is.
Depending on your perspective, the introduction of any permutation of a trucklike thing these days could be a blessing or a curse for an automaker. It comes as no surprise that the full-size pickup truck market is shrinking at a rate related inversely to fuel prices, and adding to the glut of truck choices helps this situation not one bit.
Unless, of course, a new pickup promises substantially better fuel economy. The 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid does just that, and we've driven it.
Two-Mode Hybrid System From SUVs
If you're familiar with the 2008 Tahoe/Yukon Hybrid, then the Silverado Hybrid will be instantly recognizable. The 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid shares the same two-mode hybrid transmission, 300-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack and aluminum-block 6.0-liter pushrod V8 as the full-size hybrid SUV twins. This transmission packs four fixed gear ratios and two 60-kilowatt electric motors with planetary gearsets into the space of a conventional gearbox and forms the heart of the hybrid's namesake.
The approach taken in creating the Silverado Hybrid is not a carbon copy of the full-size SUVs, however. Unlike the SUVs, the pickup did not receive an extensive weight-reduction program, and as a result the Silverado Hybrid weighs about 300 pounds more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid Silverado. The pickup also wears a less extreme front airdam than its SUV brothers in order to provide a more useful approach angle, which is the kind of real-world issue you'd face on a job site.
Other enhancements include liquid-filled cab mounts located beneath the aft portion of the cab to isolate the interior from vibration, low-rolling-resistance Bridgestone all-season tires to improve fuel mileage and a tonneau cover over the cargo bed to reduce aerodynamic drag. And, of course, plenty of "Hybrid" stickers to remind others that the driver within is progressive-minded.
The cab mounts were developed to soak up the "beaming" mode of the chassis that was exacerbated by the additional mass of the hybrid's battery pack. According to Silverado chief engineer Jeff Luke, they proved so effective in improving ride quality that GM has applied them to all non-hybrid 2009 Silverados as well.
Driving This Daisy
Just as with GM's two-mode hybrid SUVs, the additional weight of the hybrid powertrain is noticeable from behind the wheel as the Silverado deals with pavement undulations with additional deliberation. The extra mass is more than offset, however, by the additional grunt provided by the electrically augmented powertrain. With a power output of 332 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and 367 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm, speed climbs in a deceptively insistent manner from low speeds.
GM reckons that electric-only operation is possible at speeds of up to 30 mph and, sure enough, we saw a highest of 26 mph during our time behind the wheel. When the cylinder-deactivation-equipped V8 finally kicks in, every effort is made by the complex powertrain management to keep it operating in four-cylinder mode. "[In terms of reducing fuel consumption,] the mission of the hybrid system is to enter V4 mode as soon as possible and stay in it for as long as possible," says engineer Mark Cieslak.
Indeed, we observed much more frequent forays into V4 mode in the hybrid than our 2007 Chevy Silverado long-term test vehicle could muster, and the transitions between modes were more transparent as well. It turns out that the electric motors in the hybrid transmission serve as ideal torque dampers, and they have been utilized to great effect in creating a hybrid driving experience that is seamless and unobtrusive.
The fully electric power steering made necessary by the hybrid's electric-only operation feels slightly synthetic, and the regenerative brakes are somewhat grabby. These are minor side effects that aren't likely to be sticking points when you consider the EPA fuel economy numbers of 21 mpg city/22 mpg highway for two-wheel-drive hybrids and 20 mpg city/20 mpg highway for four wheel-drive variants. Furthermore, the GM engineers tell us confidently that in their real-world testing, the hybrid produced even better fuel economy results than the EPA numbers.
Still a Pickup
Towing remains part of the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid's repertoire, although its total capacity is eroded somewhat by the additional avoirdupois of the hybrid bits as well as by cooling requirements. Two-wheel-drive Silverado Hybrids will manage 6,100 pounds, while four-wheel-drive variants can deal with 5,900 pounds. Still, the hybrid tows like a champ thanks to ample low-end torque and the additional slowing power of the regenerative braking system.
The Silverado Hybrid will be available only in a crew cab configuration, as the batteries stored beneath the rear seats are too large to be packaged in the standard or extended cabs.
If this package sounds appealing, you'll have to wait until midway through 2009, as that's when the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid reaches the lot at your Chevy dealer. Pricing of the pickup has not yet been announced, although lessons learned from the Tahoe/Yukon Hybrids — which have languished on dealer lots — will no doubt be applied to the Silverado Hybrid.
Indeed, pricing will prove to be the tipping point in determining whether the Silverado Hybrid is a runaway success or simply a footnote in pickup truck history.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.