For many hybrid owners, the full-sized pickup truck represents all that is wrong with the American vehicle: big, overpowered, and thirsty for fuel. But the reality is that pickups are immensely popular. Even in the face of $3.50 gasoline, three of the top five bestselling vehicles in the U.S. are still full-sized pickups. And the auto companies are betting that pickups’ popularity will continue, particularly if their fuel economy can be boosted with hybrid powertrains.

A few years ago, General Motors took a tentative step into the hybrid pickup market, launching the segment with a mild hybrid version of its full-sized pickup twins: the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. But GM’s first hybrid truck was a dog with only two tricks—it shut off its husky V8 engine at idle (resulting in a paltry fuel economy gain of 1 mpg), and offered two standard electrical outlets for tools, toys, or anything else a driver wanted to plug-in while on the go. Sold mainly to fleets, GM’s hybrid pickups were low-volume models, and were quietly discontinued in 2007.

But at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, GM introduced “Version 2.0” of its hybrid pickup. Due to hit showrooms this fall as 2009 models, the Chevrolet Silverado (and GMC Sierra) hybrids will offer GM’s two-mode hybrid system, a full hybrid drivetrain that allows all-electric operation up to 30 MPH. The two-mode system increases fuel economy by 25 percent to 18 in the city and 20 highway—far from Prius territory, but respectable for a three-ton truck with a 6.0L V8 powerplant under the hood. In an effort to keep up with its cross-town rival, Dodge announced in mid-April that it too would offer a hybrid pickup. Promised for 2010, the Dodge Ram Hybrid will use the same two-mode powertrain as the GM trucks, and is expected to get roughly the same fuel economy.