Drive Report: GM's New Hybrid Pickups

The full-size American pickup is perhaps the most utilitarian vehicle on the market. Now that most “lifestyle buyers” have left the segment—meaning fewer 110-pound soccer moms toting 60-pound kids in these 18-foot-long behemoths—the remaining truck buyers value capability above all else.

So GM made sure the first pickup trucks that use its Two-Mode Hybrid system would be fully as capable as their non-hybrid brethren. The 2WD versions of the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid—and its all-but-identical twin, the 2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid—proudly trumpet the crucial stats for full-size pickups. They can tow up to 6,100 pounds and still deliver 21 mpg (city) / 22 mpg (highway). Each of the trucks started to reach dealers in early 2009.

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid
2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid height="350" />

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid.

Pricing for a 2009 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 2WD Crew Cab Hybrid starts at $38,995; adding the luxury package takes it up to $44,155. A 2009 GMC Sierrra 4WD Hybrid in the high-line model runs $47,675.

At a February launch in San Antonio, Texas, GM offered an array of hybrid pickups. HybridCars.com also had the choice of towing a 5,400-pound SeaRay powerboat on its trailer, or a horse trailer with 5,100 pounds of ballast. Until now, no hybrid on earth could handle those loads—and no standard pickup capable of towing either could return more than 20 miles per gallon.

Fuel Economy and Payback

Of course, 22 mpg may still seem profligate to your average Toyota Prius driver. And it takes careful explanation to make the case that a truck this big helps cut US oil imports.

But let’s look at the math. GM says the hybrid powertrain adds roughly $3,000 to a comparable non-hybrid pickup, which returns just 14 mpg / 20 mpg. Racking up 10,000 miles a year, split equally between city and highway travel, the hybrid system saves about 140 gallons of gasoline annually. That’s more fuel than you would save by jumping from a Toyota Camry to a Camry Hybrid—although not quite as big a savings as switching from that conventional Camry to a Prius.

Currently, buyers are eligible for a $2,200 federal tax credit. That means the payback, using $2/gallon gasoline, is somewhere around four years—at least until GM’s credits expire (as those for Toyota and Honda already have; Ford credits are all but gone too). Spending more time in stop-and-go traffic, or racking up higher mileage, cuts the payback time. And if gasoline should return to the $4/gallon levels of summer 2008, payback would speed up even further.

Equipment

At least for now, the hybrid pickup is offered only as a four-door Crew Cab (GM’s most popular body style, with roughly a 45-percent share of sales). The engine is a 6.0-liter V8 that shuts off four of its eight cylinders under light loads. The standard trim level includes “pure American pickup” seating, a.k.a. a front bench seat; a luxury package adds goodies like leather bucket seats to make truck travel that much more comfortable.

You can choose 2WD or 4WD; the heavier 4WD system reduces both towing ability (5,900 pounds) and mileage (20 city / 20 highway). Buyers can opt for a few options, including a sunroof.

2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid
2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid

2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid.

The hybrid pickups have a few unique exterior features to set them apart from standard pickups. Most noticeable are the polished 18-inch wheels, which save weight, and the standard tonneau cover for better aerodynamics—cloth on regular models, a three-piece hard shell if you get luxury trim. The front air dam extends 11 mm further toward to the road. And GM’s characteristic chrome hybrid-logo-with-green-leaf is mounted on each front fender and the tailgate.

Under the skin, however, these trucks fit a 1.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack beneath the rear seat, and the Two-Mode Hybrid transmission replaces the standard truck automatic. To offset the added weight, the front lower control arms and differential shaft are made of aluminum. And GM engineered a special hydraulic bushing to attach the cab to the frame, damping new vibrations created by adding the 300-pound battery pack.

Driving Impressions

Anyone familiar with pickups of the 1970s and 1980s will appreciate just how refined these trucks have become. The crew cab model drives less like a truck and more like a full-size SUV, though its vertical rear window offers far better visibility.

Ride quality is good; only certain bumps and surfaces betray the solid rear axle. Everything felt solidly bolted together, and we heard no squeaks or rattles at all. At speed, wind noise was apparent, but tolerable.

Unlike GM’s full-size SUVs built from the same architecture, the pickups have a simple dashboard with larger controls. From the door handles to the radio knob, most can be operated wearing work gloves. It’s a basic design, but logical and pleasant enough.

These are large trucks, and tall. In many areas, as with full-size SUVs, traffic ahead often moves aside as the pickup looms in the rearview mirror. In Texas, though, every other vehicle seems to be a full-size pickup, so the Silverado Hybrid attracted zero attention—even in gleaming black paint with bright chrome wheels.

One complaint applies to all of GM’s other Two-Mode Hybrids: The “efficiency gauge” is confusing. It’s not immediately obvious what its unmarked green bar indicates, so it’s not clear whether drivers are supposed to keep the needle to the right or the left. As it turns out, the aim is to keep the needle centered. Too far to the right means you’re sucking gasoline, but too far to the left means you’ve exceeded the regenerative braking capacity and are wasting energy by using the friction brakes. Colors, symbols, or pictograms could go a long way here.

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid
2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid.

During driving, the engine switched itself off and on seamlessly, with the electronic control system providing a smooth flow of power from any combination of battery and engine. We didn’t get much more than 20 miles per hour on electric power, but the truck’s most impressive feat by far was towing that boat uphill—on electricity alone—for almost a minute.

GM has worked hard to improve the algorithms for its brake blending, and stopping was smoother than in earlier Two-Modes we’ve driven. Neither driver nor passengers noticed when the disc brakes kicked in on top of the regeneration.

Summary

True to the ratings, we measured 21.2 miles per gallon over a mixed 20-mile course of city and freeway driving. Our trailer towing was confined to a large loop around hotel grounds, so we didn’t measure mileage, but we’re confident it would be higher than the standard pickup’s.

If you need a full-size pickup truck, but want to use as little gasoline as possible, GM has built what may be the roughest, toughest hybrid this side of a transit bus. As long as the tax credits last, the payback period’s not bad, and if you’re OK with a crew-cab body, you won’t have to compromise any truck functionality. GM says pickup drivers are its most price-sensitive buyers, so the company thinks most hybrid pickups will be bought by fleets or other users whose duty cycles will keep the payback as short as possible.

Note: The Two-Mode transmission system jointly developed by GM, Chrysler, Daimler, and BMW is also used in the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (and its twin the GMC Yukon Hybrid), as well as the luxurious Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. Later this year, it will launch in the BMW X6 Hybrid and a future Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid sport utility as well.


  • Jerry

    Give the business owners that really need them a tax credit and help get these things sold.

  • Pablo

    Careful with the tax credit!

    There were conditions in 2006, especially affecting negatively taxpayers who take tax deduction and tax credit for kids .
    Are these conditions still there?

    Please see:
    http://www.hybridcars.com/forums/tax-credit-fight-t1228.html

  • Jerry

    Yes its part of the AMT issues that some are not entitled to the credit. Hopefully they could simply allow the credit for a business owner for these trucks.

  • Flex 23

    2009 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 2WD Crew Cab Hybrid starts at $38,995
    20mpgs Sure they will be selling like hotcakes, thanks for using taxpayer bailout money to support mindless products.

  • Tommy Boy

    Well..whoooop de frickin dooo!

  • RKRB

    GM’s hybrid system definitely has merit, if it can get 21 mpg from such a relatively crude,overbulked, overpriced mutant.
    I can understand why GM wants to cover its traditional niche market, but GM seems like it only wants to keep finding ways to sell trucks and SUV’s.
    Why does GM emphasize these obsolete vehicles, instead of more sedans (or perhaps even a fun-to-drive convertible)? GM spent millions developing this hybrid system, which appears adaptable and well-engineered. Why place so much cash, desperation, and hopes on the Volt, instead of using this proven, relatively simple system for more of its existing vehicles? These questions make me wonder if GM would intelligently spend the $30 billion, or $300 billion, or whatever they want, especially since the previous article makes it clear that the Volt may never be a financially sound vehicle. GM still seems to show a lack of direction and focus, but I hope they pull through.

  • Anonymous

    “GM spent millions developing this hybrid system, which appears adaptable and well-engineered. Why place so much cash, desperation, and hopes on the Volt, instead of using this proven, relatively simple system for more of its existing vehicles?”

    It’s not adaptable and well engineered. According to Lutz the system is not simply scalable to smaller vehicles and he insists that making hybrid trucks is better than making hybrid cars. GM has clearly decided that their direction and focus will continue to be trucks and they designed this hybrid system with that in mind. It is increasingly clear that GM is simply not willing or capable of competing with foreign sedans. Their only future after the inevitable bankruptcy will be as a very small manufacturer of hybrid work vehicles.

  • old school

    no truck is worth $44k – and they wonder why they are going out of business… Get these prices down under $20k and then they will sell like hotcakes! If they dont in these times noboady will ever buy enough of them, to keep the greed going.

    Almost all european vehicles sell for under $20k, american corporations are just to greedy… they don see the long picture frame.

  • Hurls

    All Auto companies foreign and domestic sell their “big” vehicles for about the same price. Toyota Tundra is no lower than the Chevy/GMC Fullsize 1500. In addition, the foreign companies sedans are not really less money than a comparably equipped domestic sedan. I agree, if they were lower more people would purchase them. However, in today’s environment the vehicle must be economical (mpg) as well as value priced. Businesses and contractors are about the only people that still look at purchasing these large vehicles and they’re all hurting right now. Personally, I would love a GMC Hybrid because my “old” pickup gets a lousy 16 mpg freeway and a small hybrid or sedan does not work for me. However, I do not expect GM to sell too many of these considering the tight economic conditions and the guaranteed return of high fuel costs.

  • schanie

    I don’t know why there’s so much hating when it comes to the large hybrids like this. I live in a place where half the vehicles on the road are full-sized trucks or SUVs and everyone I personally know that drives one uses it as a work truck (farming, construction, horses, etc.) at least during the day. I don’t like seeing these vehicles used as a suburban commuter or as a status symbol car that never see a work day in their life but there are people who truly need them and they’re not going to go out and replace their work truck with a car of any type, much less a compact hybrid. The full-size hybrid trucks truly have a legitimate niche to fill and are just as important as the small hybrids in reducing fuel consumption.

  • Collin Burnell

    I was doubtful at first… but I really think a Hybrid work truck with only a $3000 premium makes sense even without the tax credit. There is a reason why more Americans buy (pickup) trucks than any other segment. Because (just about) everyone in construction, farming, electrical, etc., etc. needs one. This segment is not going away! These vehicles are not ‘obsolete’ or ‘mindless’! These vehicles are building America!!!

    Some out there still don’t get it! A Hybrid (platform) is just the beginning of a vehicle that over time will get better and better. It’s not just about getting a few more miles to the gallon and whether the return on investment is there! This is about saving the (freakin’) planet! You know, that rock in space that we all live on! As far as I can tell, we’re not getting off this thing any time soon. Why are (some of us) oblivious to our own destructive ways? Why is OK to day after day spit out tones of poison and make this big (sealed) container in space uninhabitable???

  • Samie

    I have to say the timing is not hot and GM will need to reduce hybrid costs along with changing strategy, that is only placing some hybrid types in premium vehicles. But overtime this could be a great market to develop if GM is committed to innovating their hybrid systems and passing lower costs to consumers.

    As for now I sketch my head and ask why not more diesel options for trucks? Smaller less expensive diesel engines have been developed in the last few years so why not. As I said before the only thing I can think of is they want to keep diesel’s in expensive mega crew cab trucks for profit reasons. The domestics I feel need to shake it up sometimes. Maybe GM should move headquarters to Kansas who knows it may do them some good… Again I don’t think that this hybrid system is wasteful but lets see if GM is willing to make improvements overtime like Toyota, Ford, and Honda has in some of their models.

  • Paul Barthle

    Truck owners despise Prius drivers, and vice versa. GM doesn’t need to please the latter to attract the former to a bridge to the future. Just make a good truck that saves fuel and you’ll have buyers. Keep the price competitive with incentives and even patriotism and get more such vehicles on the road. New regs will probably be necessary in the short term as well.
    If I had the knowledge and wherewithal to do so, I would be designing and building trailer axles with regenerative braking and a heavy duty wiring loom/battery pack to improve towing efficiency. Boats might be problematic but utility trailers, campers and even the “spare trunk” trailers for small cars could benefit from extended range or even refrigeration.

  • RKRB

    Yes, there is a defensible need for trucks and GM should be commended for their efforts to make them more fuel efficient. If you need a truck, then nothing else may do the job. My compliments to those who help build America with trucks.

    On the other hand, GM appears to be addicted to selling trucks that people do NOT justifiably need (although “need” is open to definition), at considerable social cost. The US supply of trucks and SUV’s has apparently far exceeded the actual need for many years, and GM has neglected smaller car development for even longer. Trucks have been marketed to many whose need is rather marginal (who could probably rent them on occasion), and sales of these boutique trucks will probably drop because of the economy and the expected rise in gas prices if the economy ever picks up. This should generally be unlamented, for environmental, geopolitical, and safety reasons (yes, trucks are deadly for drivers of lighter cars in multi-vehicle accidents, and trucks are not safe in many single-vehicle accidents like rollovers or side impacts). Boutique trucks are a nice luxury we may not be able to afford any more, just as we may not be able to afford taxpayer-financed bonuses for destructively incompetent bankers and politicians. GM should probably get some government assistance, but in areas related to their business environment.

    IMHO, GM probably doesn’t need taxpayer money just to keep pushing $44,000 luxury trucks that get 21 mpg and few people need, when other companies could build comfortable working trucks as part of a balanced marketing plan. Good luck, GM.

  • Shines

    So I went to Autotrader to see if the hybrid is truely only 3000 more than a comparable truck.
    Well the hybrid is only $3000 more than their top of the line 4X4 fully loaded crew cab (their most expensive non- hybrid truck). But if you want a “standard” 4 X 4 crew cab (do we really need a 4X4? and do we really need a crew cab?) they are $5000 – $15000 cheaper.
    So it is only $3000 more if you are talking top of the line most expensive models (and I looked at 4 different Chevy dealers in the Seattle area).
    So if I were a business and I NEEDED a truck (in today’s economy) would I be looking at a top of the line model with a $3000 premium to save 5 – 7 MPG in the city?
    For GMs sake I hope so…

  • Collin Burnell

    I guess the only fair comparison would be to match all of the options on the Hybrid (of any vehicle) to it’s non-hybrid counterpart. But what about power? Is it fair to compare a 4-cylinder Hybrid to a 4-cylinder engine or to a V6? In some cases the 4-cylinder Hybrid has the same or more torque than the V6. In the case of trucks, I think you really need to compare torque and match options and accessories to get a clearer comparison.

    So RKRB, how would you distinguish between a truck buyer that needs a truck verses a truck buyer that does not? I hate the Hummers and Excursions just as much as any tree-hugger. To me there is no clearer way of communicating how much you don’t care (about anything) than to drive one of these road beast’s.

  • Cotton Eye Joe

    We dont need these facny new contraptions. wht we really need is some 1984 dodge pickups. those were the good days were style and horsepower were fused into one. and enough woth these hipies and their “greener” planet.

  • Cotton Eye Joe

    back in my day i was happy just to look at a horseless carriage. now everybodys gettin all worked up about mpg and savin the plaent, but ill tell you what it aint as important as all those fancy pants scientists and green peace hippies say. wjhat we really need to do is give out free money, oh wait obamas already doin that. in that case how bout free whiskey reply so i can know what yall think.

  • Bill

    If it was left up to GM none of use will ever have an electric car. there in bed with the oil companys and they deserve everything they get. our opinion don’t matter to them, that’s why i buy TOYOTA…. as for the EV-95 battery lie, and killing the EV-1 … go ”F” yourself GM!!! you lost a customer FOR LIFE!!!

  • RKRB

    People may be down on GM for this vehicle but . . .

    Just read the article on Volkswagen’s proposed Touareg diesel hybrid, and it looks like the VW gets about the same mileage as the GM pickup, for about the same price and with far more complexity (and repair prices). For a few thousand more you can get a Mercedes diesel SUV, with even worse mileage and less efficiency.

    GM is not the only company turning a silk purse (a hybrid) into a sow’s ear (a 20 mpg vehicle). The economy can’t be so bad if marketers are peddling this stuff. At least the GM truck has a legitimate use for many people, whereas the Touareg is just some kind of reverse status symbol, like a $30,000 handbag.

  • Cotton Eye Joe

    Bill u r very closed mioned and dnt respect any1 elses opinion. i must say that i am very dissapopinted that a grown adult would be so rude to a fellow blogger. i respect ur lifestyle i hope u respect mine. i would like to hear back from u if possible.

  • Anonymous

    all this new technology is making it harder for us machanics to work on something that we have to have 300 to 5000 dollor tools and we cant afford it. we just need to slow down so that everybody can make what they can with what they can.

  • Brenda_davis

    Top hybrid seller Toyota has taken an early direction, and lately set a goal to sell 1 million hybrids internationally per year by early next decade – but American automakers are not sitting back silently.
    GM declared 12 models to be introduced into the marketplace within the next two years with many more in the works. Ford has also jumped on the wave and ramped up its hybrid manufacturing, and even more manufacturers are following in their awakening.
    I followed this guide (Complete Auto Guide http://www.wheel411.com)

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