Several years ago, I interviewed a high-level Toyota executive who said that eventually there would be gas-electric hybrid versions of every type of vehicle in their lineup. I asked if that included pickup trucks, since those are a big part of the company’s U.S. sales, and his answer was “yes.”
Well, while Toyota continues to lead the way in hybrid vehicles, General Motors beat them to the punch in introducing a hybrid pickup truck. The Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid and GMC Sierra Hybrid are fully-functional, full-size pickup trucks that are the latest to employ GM’s 2-mode hybrid system, the same one introduced in their hybrid SUVs.
Essentially, General Motors had already developed the hybrid transmission (the key part of the system) for municipal buses that are currently in use around the world. The beauty of this transmission is the fact that the electric motors for the hybrid drive are built right into the actual housing. So it doesn’t take a whole lot of re-arranging to add the hybrid system to any large truck.
Although the transmission makes it easy in terms of placing the mechanical bits into the frame, a lot of work still had to be done to integrate the rest of the hybrid system into a pickup like the GMC Sierra I drove for a week. This truck, along with its nearly identical Chevy Silverado sibling, could replace the conventional trucks that at least 90% of pickup buyers currently use.
Like most hybrid vehicles today, the ignition key is turned, but there is no conventional starting sound. Instead, the engine will either leap immediately to life, or in some cases, it remains off as the electric portion of the hybrid system quietly activates. It’s even possible to roll off and drive quite a distance at up to 30 miles per hour in electric mode alone.
When hauling and pulling power are needed, the big 6.0 liter V8 engine is up to the task, and it gets a boost from the electric motors. Rated towing capacity is up to 6100 pounds, and GM says that the Sierra Hybrid can actually tow in electric-only mode, though I wasn’t able to test out that claim. Even if you’re just carrying heavy loads, the combined torque of the gas and electric systems gets the truck moving smartly.
There are some limitations to this pickup, but mainly just in configuration. The most noticeable is the fact that it’s only available as a Crew Cab 4-door model with a relatively short bed. Why? Well, as in the SUV versions, the 300 volt hybrid battery is placed beneath the rear seat. (It’s about the size of a large suitcase.) If there were no rear seat, there would be no practical place to locate the battery.
You can get the Sierra and Silverado in four wheel drive, though that not only costs about $3000 more; it hurts fuel economy a little bit. While the two wheel drive model is rated at 21 mpg city and 22 highway, the 4×4 gets 20 mpg in both cycles. Those numbers might not sound too impressive when compared to small hybrid cars, but they represent about a 25% improvement over the conventional non-hybrid versions.
Other fuel-saving tricks were employed to make these trucks to aid efficiency, most of which are also being incorporated into the non-hybrid GM trucks. The V8 engine has the ability to shut down half the cylinders when not needed (the driver will never notice). There are also special low rolling resistance tires, as every bit of drag costs a little in fuel mileage.
Saving fuel will help offset the higher cost of the Sierra Hybrid, which starts at $38,390. Considering you can get a fairly comparable conventional Sierra for about $30,000 or so (it’s sometimes tough to compare hybrid prices, as they’re often packaged in a distinct way), you’d have to go a whole lot of miles to make the gasoline savings pay off.
But people buy hybrid vehicles for reasons other than just financial. Sure, it’s nice to save on the monthly fuel bill, though the higher sticker price means you’re starting out “in the hole” in terms of real money spent. Eventually, the fuel savings could catch up to and surpass the purchase premium, especially if we should see a return of $4+ per gallon gas prices.
Most people who consider this truck will be doing so for environmental reasons. Suppose you’re a contractor who installs solar electric systems in businesses and residences. Wouldn’t it be a nice marketing tool to show your customers that you bought the most eco-friendly full-size pickup truck on the market? Probably so. I imagine movie studios will add Silverado and Sierra Hybrid models to their fleets in short order too, as Hollywood looks for ways to be more “green.”
It’s been easy to kick the domestic auto industry while it’s down these days. But sometimes it’s nice to see that they can do something right. Something like a hybrid full-size pickup truck that offers impressive fuel economy.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.