The Hybrid Definition Blurs
Unless you've been in a coma for the last five years, chances are you already know what a hybrid is: a vehicle with both a gasoline and an electric motor that gets great gas mileage. Bzzzzt, wrong. In one sneaky swoop, GM has shattered that definition with the introduction of its first hybrid, the Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid (and its twin, the GMC Sierra Hybrid). No longer reserved for tree-hugging vegetarians who drive too slow, the hybrid moniker can now be enjoyed by gun-toting, who-cares-about-gas-prices American pickup truck lovers.
As the hybrid hysteria continues to spread, so do the variations and mutations. The Toyota Prius has always been a full hybrid (meaning it can move under either gas or electric power or both combined), and the Honda Insight a mild hybrid (the electric motor only assists the gas engine), but they still fit the fuel-sipping, high-tech image.
Hybrid, American Style
For now, GM is dipping its toes in the hybrid waters with a more conservative approach, similar to Honda's system. It challenged its engineers to take one of its most ancient platforms, the full-size Silverado/Sierra pickup, and make it a mild hybrid — with benefits. Forget big fuel economy gains and high-tech multimotor powertrains, though. What the engineers spit out is a fully capable truck that shuts the engine off at a stop, uses regenerative braking to charge a small bank of lead-acid batteries and just so happens to double as a 2,400-watt generator.
Instead of a conventional starter and alternator, the Silverado Hybrid uses a 14-kilowatt electric motor/generator sandwiched between the engine and a compact torque converter. Though the motor doesn't provide propulsion (like Honda's IMA systems do), it does operate as a generator during coasting and braking. The icing on the cake here is that this whole setup fits in a traditional transmission case, and bolts right up just like a conventional powertrain. Under the backseat is a box with three deep-cycle lead-acid batteries. Other than a computer to manage the system, the only other major change is an electrohydraulic pump for the steering and brakes.
No Special Training Required
The Silverado Hybrid drives just like its non-hybrid counterpart, with a few variations. The gas engine is always running during acceleration and steady cruising, but shuts down while braking at speeds below about 15 mph. Release the brake pedal and the engine smoothly fires right back up.
In order to maximize charging potential, as well as fuel economy, GM programmed the conventional automatic to lock up the torque converter early, usually in second gear, and keep it locked even when the throttle is released. Thankfully, the idle stop feature can be defeated by pushing the tow/haul button — a lifesaver in crawling traffic and parking maneuvers.
Power up the Miter Saw
Remember we said this was a hybrid with benefits? One of which is electricity, baby, and lots of it. Four grounded AC outlets provide up to 2,400 watts of electricity, making this wannabe hybrid an all-out Swiss Army knife off the tarmac.
Rather than fool with a pollution-belching generator, a contractor can simply plug work tools into one of the outlets in the cargo bed. Likewise, one can haul their camper to the middle of nowhere, plug it into the truck and enjoy the luxury of electricity.
Worried about draining those batteries? No problem. Just start the truck, push and hold the power outlet button and everything but the engine shuts off. Get out, lock the door, set the alarm. She'll stay running to generate as much power as you need. The horn even beeps if the gas tank starts getting low.
The Mothership Silverado
Bottom line, we love miserly hybrids and their loving touch on the environment. But some people really do need larger vehicles, like pickups and SUVs. GM's mild setup in the Silverado Hybrid is an elegant solution to a handful of problems; and we see no reason why this technology, with appropriate variations, couldn't be applied to every single vehicle GM produces. It would be the PR slam dunk of the century. Scoff if you must, but we bet this seemingly half-hearted attempt at a hybrid is actually an indication of future mass-production hybrid technology.