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

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.