Searching for Relevance
Ever since fuel prices dropped back to around two bucks a gallon, sales of hybrid vehicles have cratered. That might be a mixed blessing for the General, because it will give the company something to point to when sales of the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid fail to meet expectations.
It's not that GM's two-mode hybrid powertrain isn't a technological wunderkind. In truth, it's a fairly staggering display of engineering prowess. Rather, the Silverado Hybrid's biggest obstacle will be adequately distinguishing itself from the equally accomplished, garden-variety non-hybrid Silverado.
There's a truckload of irony in here somewhere.
Two Modes, Two Trim Levels, Two Drive Types
We tested a 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid 4WD, which sports GM's sophisticated two-mode hybrid powertrain also found in the Tahoe Hybrid and Escalade Hybrid. Rated at 20 mpg city/20 highway mpg, the Silverado Hybrid 4WD puts up some admirable EPA fuel economy numbers, and the 2WD version does even better at 21 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
You know what they say about free lunches. The battery pack that helps make this truck all hybrid-y is large, and as such, it means that the Silverado Hybrid must necessarily be of the short-bed crew cab variety. Furthermore, the cooling system requirements of its hybrid-ness also eats into the tow rating, which tumbles to 5,900 pounds for the 4WD version we tested.
The 2009 Chevy Silverado Hybrid is available in just two trim levels and the options list is very short for either one. Standard equipment in this test truck with 2HY trim is comprehensive, though, including leather upholstery, parking alerts, a navigation system and other goodies. It is equipped with the only option available — a $995 sunroof — bringing its MSRP including destination to $49,295.
By contrast, GM offers a dizzying array of configurations in its non-hybrid trucks, and ironically, this means you can find competition for the Silverado Hybrid without leaving a Chevy dealership. You're more likely to get precisely what you want, too, since GM offers much more flexibility in feature selection among their non-hybrid trucks. Due to content differences between the hybrid and non-hybrid Silverado, an identical feature-for-feature comparison is difficult, but we'll take a stab at it anyway.
A heavily optioned non-hybrid Silverado LT with the optional 5.3-liter V8 is a virtual match to our hybrid test truck's equipment level and tow rating. Naturally, the non-hybrid's fuel economy of 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway rating falls short of the hybrid, but here's the twist: The LT is about $2,000 cheaper than the hybrid once you factor in the hybrid's $2,200 tax credit (not reflected in the MSRP above). At current fuel prices, the hybrid's payoff period is just shy of seven years.
This situation isn't unique to the Silverado Hybrid, as the same protracted payoff period is characteristic of the Lexus RX 450h and non-hybrid brethren.
What If We Just Ignore the Financials?
So the Silverado Hybrid doesn't make an open-and-shut case for itself among those buyers who are more concerned with the green in their wallets than simply projecting a green image. But let's assume that fuel prices quadruple, thereby sweetening the Silverado Hybrid's situation to a point that it becomes an irresistible financial decision. Is the truck any good?
The cabin is a familiar place to be, as there are very few deviations from the Silverado we know and love, save for a revised instrument cluster. Twist the key and the engine spins up briefly, and then shuts off a few seconds later once a check of the hybrid system is complete. The electric motors alone ease the nearly 3-ton truck forward with minimal noise save for the scrunch of pebbles under the 18-inch Bridgestone tires.
This is no sissy mild hybrid — if you ease into the throttle carefully when the battery is fully charged, the Silverado Hybrid can remain in electric-only mode up to speeds just shy of 30 mph.
Real-world driving, as we found, requires more vigorous use of the throttle, which awakens the 6.0-liter V8 earlier and more often. In a mix of city and freeway use, our tester returned 17.1 mpg. However, this result is based on its brief stay with us. A more complete assessment of the hybrid's ways with fuel would benefit from more than the couple of tankfuls of 87-octane we ran through it.
The gory details of GM's two-mode hybrid powertrain are convoluted, but suffice it to say that it is one impressive piece of engineering.
The system is juggling the operation of the engine (including its cylinder deactivation), two electric motors and three planetary gearsets with clutches. It's the vehicular equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy while walking, chewing gum and spinning plates.
It's not totally seamless in operation. There are slight bumps in the power delivery and intermittent muted whirrs, but these hiccups are certainly acceptable considering the complex coordination going on.
Ultimately the hybrid system attempts to minimize use of the gasoline engine. And when it is absolutely necessary to fire up the engine, the hybrid system aims to operate that mill as efficiently as possible for the conditions. Strong hybridization such as this necessarily dictates that accessories like the air-conditioning and power steering are driven electrically, as engine-driven ones would only function when the engine is actually running.
Using the Controls
As in most hybrids, the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid's electric steering provides a clue that you're not driving a conventional truck equipped with a conventional hydraulic rack. Even so, it's pretty transparent in that it doesn't call attention to itself quite as much as electric power steering does in other hybrids.
The regenerative brakes, however, walk the line between artificial and downright frustrating. There's a delay in actual braking force when you apply the pedal, and then they get grabby. Try creeping this truck down a boat ramp at a walking pace and you'll feel like you're learning to drive all over again.
Outright braking performance is equally unimpressive. In our testing, the beefy Silverado Hybrid reached a stop from 60 mph in a leisurely 144 feet. This is the sort of result we'd expect from a truck equipped with off-road-biased tires rather than the street-friendly all-season rubber found on the hybrid.
Carrying some 500 pounds in hybrid bits has other consequences, too. Give this big truck the spurs and it ambles to 60 mph from a standstill in 9.2 seconds (8.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). Hold your foot down and the quarter-mile slides by in 16.7 seconds at 84.7 mph.
For reference, our recent long-term 2007 Silverado LT2 crew cab (equipped with a 367-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 and the old-school four-speed autobox) did the same tasks in 7.2 seconds and 15.5 seconds at 88.1 mph, respectively.
It turns out the hybrid's 6.0-liter V8 has been tweaked for improved fuel economy and in the process it's lost some power. Generating 332 hp and 367 pound-feet of torque, the V8 power plant is paired with taller overall gearing, reducing its urge on the street even further. And then there's the fact that the electric motors provide minimal assistance to the engine as throttle load and vehicle speed increases.
A Hard Sell
As a matter of green philosophy, the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid makes sense. The math backs this up — over, say, a year, an improvement of 1 mpg saves more gallons of fuel when it is applied to a thirsty truck instead of an already fuel-efficient small car.
Truck buyers are becoming a much more pragmatic bunch than they were just a few short years ago, so it will take more than fuel savings to convince them that this hybridized pickup is for them. Once you factor in the Silverado Hybrid's attendant functional compromises, limited option selection and the reality of its long payoff period, its potential market is very narrow indeed.
As impressive as its hybrid technology is, this baby's got an uphill battle.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath says:
There's a scene in The Simpsons that has Homer and Marge walking through a town fair. Homer's shirt isn't the traditional white-collar affair he's known for. Instead it's a brown, textured material that doesn't look quite right.
Homer says, "See, Marge? I told you they could deep-fry my shirt."
She looks at Homer, slightly irritated and slightly sad, and says, "I didn't say they couldn't. I said you shouldn't."
GM could use a few Marge Simpsons.
Maybe it's a holdover from the COPO (ask your dad) days. Maybe it's GM not wanting to disappoint a single buyer. In any case, GM has this thing about drivetrains. If it fits, the General will put it in any kind of vehicle and slap a price sticker on it.
The 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid certainly has an innovative and complex drive system that needs to be spread around to a lot of vehicles in order to amortize the investment cost. To me, it makes a ton of sense in the Escalade. Putting a hybrid powertrain in the Escalade is a statement on top of a statement, like diamond studs on a mink coat.
But putting the two-mode hybrid system in a truck which then loses a disproportionate level of utility compared with the fuel savings is certainly a statement, too. But this one is more like gold-plating your diamonds or deep-frying your shirt. Of course you can do it, but why would you?