Hybrid Technology Gets Big

Synergy Boost: Hybrid Technology Gets Big
Kicking the Tires of America’s First Two-Mode Hybrid SUVBy Wendy O. Dixon

Not long ago, there were only a few hybrid cars on the road, chugging and jerking down the street. Drivers who bought these cars were willing to sacrifice drivability and comfort for fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness. The vehicles were funny looking, small and not personally satisfying to drive.

The hybrid has changed dramatically and is going mainstream. Now, as the popularity of the hybrid is quickly emerging, carmakers are designing hybrid pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, mid-size sedans, even luxury and sports cars. And hybrid SUVs are becoming some of the most popular vehicles on the road.

Preston Hood Chevrolet in Fort Walton Beach offered me a test drive in a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which won the 2008 Green Car of the Year Award from Green Car Journal. I drove the SUV down U.S. Highway 98 in jammed streets and stop-and-go traffic from Destin to Fort Walton Beach, making a couple of stops along the way.

Chevy’s claim is that you can have it all with this hybrid: a luxurious SUV that seats eight, a 6.0-liter, V-8 engine that economizes fuel rivaling the gasoline powered mid-sized sedan, and all of the fancy bells and whistles, gizmos and gadgets we’ve come to expect in a new car. I was expecting to be impressed.

HOW IT WORKS: The strategy behind the Tahoe Hybrid is to provide the power and capability of the conventional Tahoe and still reduce the dependence on gasoline. Using hybrid technology, the Tahoe Hybrid optimizes fuel economy with an intuitive dual-mode transmission. The SUV can operate three ways – via electric power, engine power or a combination of the two. The powerful V-8 engine and the extra torque from the twin electric motors make this SUV run like a non-hybrid. And with 6,000 pounds of towing capability, you can still haul a boat or trailer.

THE UPSIDE: I’m not usually a fan of the SUV because of the huge size and the poor gas mileage. This one, however, won me on fuel economy. With a significant advantage over the conventional Tahoe, the hybrid can accelerate up to nearly 30 miles per hour on electricity alone, gets nearly 23 miles per gallon and shows a 50-percent improvement in mileage over the gasoline-only Tahoe. The automatic gears shifted smoothly and the vehicle cornered gracefully. As a busy mother of two boys, I can see the value of the rear-view camera system (I’ve backed over a stray bicycle before) and the DVD system (No more “Are we there yet?” comments).

If you’re a gadget lover, you’ll enjoy features inside the car. The Bose speaker system is outstanding, and you get a three-month trial of XM Satellite Radio. A touch-screen navigation system includes a 6.5-inch-diagonal color display and voice recognition. The remote keyless start-up feature lets me crank the engine before entering the car, which is immensely helpful on a hot day.

THE DOWNSIDE: As I said, I’m not a fan of the big SUV. And this one’s a monster. Though I might have been embarrassed to be driving such a mammoth, the emblems clearly marked “Hybrid” all over the vehicle let my fellow Emerald Coast drivers know I’m not killing the environment. Even with the huge size, the lack of storage behind the third-row seats is prohibitive for those of us who bring home 20 bags of groceries. The Tahoe Hybrid retails for around $50,000, which is steep in this economy. But GM is not after volume sales with this SUV – it’s about large luxury. The hybrid is approximately $2,000 to $5,000 more expensive than the conventional Tahoe, although some buyers qualify for a tax credit to compensate for the difference.

Chevy Tahoe Hybrid Features & Specs» MSRP: from $49,590
» MPG: 22.7 mpg
» Vortec V8 engine with Active Fuel Management
» Two-mode Hybrid Propulsion Electric System
» 18-inch aluminum wheels
» Ultrasonic rear parking assistant
» Heated, hybrid-specific custom leather-appointed front row bucket seats
» Driver and right-front passenger air bags
» Head-curtain side air bags for all outboard seating positions
» Remote vehicle starter system
» Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with regenerative capability
» OnStar with one-year Directions & Connections plan
» Touch-screen navigation display
» Rear-view camera system
» XM Satellite Radio