"Fuel-efficient SUV" used to sound like an oxymoron -- like "jumbo shrimp" and "business ethics." But a new crop of hybrid SUVs challenges that perception -- and now a full-sized Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is looking awfully good (another oxymoron). The 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid 2WD will start at $50,490 with a 3 year/36,000 mile warranty, a 5 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty (8 year/100,000 mile warranty on unique hybrid components) and an EPA fuel economy estimate of 21 mpg city/22 mpg highway. Let's drive.
To continue with the oxymorons, Tahoe is a little big. It shares its basic shape and size with the gasoline-only Tahoe -- 202" long, 79" wide and 77" tall riding on a 116" wheelbase. You're not going to miss the hybrid badging on Tahoe. "HYBRID" stickers with big drop-shadow letters run along each rocker panel; no fewer than four Hybrid logo badges sparkle around the body. The body treatment is more than a badge job, though more subtle. A lower front air dam, sleeker running boards and an overall aerodynamic spiffing up has resulted in a lower coefficient of drag (0.34 down from 0.36) and a slightly sportier appearance overall.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to large SUVs. I really like Tahoe's lines. There's something retro and streamlined about the rake of the windshield and the general sleek, windswept look of the body. Since the concept of aerodynamics in vehicle design started during the streamlining age of the 1920s, it's no surprise that I detect a retro cast. That great big gold Chevy bowtie on Tahoe's front grille leaves little doubt about the vehicle's provenance.
Fit and finish on the Tahoe Hybrid was very good. After a few spotty years, GM has really gotten its act together. Paint quality, gaps and seams, and overall solid construction rivals the competition's best.
Continued below. . .
In the Driver's Seat
Newly familiar (oxymoron alert), Tahoe Hybrid's interior is the same upscale cabin that you'll find in the LTZ level of gas-only Tahoe trim. Am I the only one who hates fake wood trim on an SUV? Still, I have to rail against it, even if I can only let out an oxymoronic silent scream. Beyond the plastic wood, dash and interior materials are high quality. The rugged-feeling leather seating surfaces are a great match for an SUV, and give the impression that they'll last a long time and break in nicely. Time will tell.
If you don't pay close attention to the details, you might not realize that you're driving a hybrid SUV. Take a closer look, and you'll notice two distinct differences on the Hybrid's instrument panel. A small gauge on the upper left gives an analog rotary indication of "economy." During operation, when the needle points to the right, you're using more battery power; when it dips to the left, you're operating on gas only (lower economy). The other unique hybrid indication is the tachometer, also an analog rotary gauge. Where you'd expect to find zero rpm indicated on the scale, the tach reads "Auto Stop," and below that "Off." More about those settings later.
Tahoe's second and third rows are very roomy and comfortable, as you would expect from a full-size SUV. Even though there's nearly 17 cubic feet of luggage space behind Tahoe's third row, the area is very narrow. I had to fold down the third row to make room for a light grocery trip -- I could foresee a severe packing challenge on a family camping trip.
On the Road
So, the big details (oxymoron) that you've been waiting for: How does the Hybrid drive? The experience is transparent. It drives a lot like the gas-only Tahoe, which is to say, very well. I like the driving dynamics of this GMT900 platform, which underlies the Tahoe, the Cadillac Escalade, the GMC Yukon and the GM full-size pickups. GM has engineered great stability, responsiveness and road feel into their large SUVs. Steering is almost car-like, braking is immediate and predictable, and the overall driving experience is very pleasant.
The Hybrid powertrain is described as a "Two Mode" system. What that means, very simply put, is that the engine and electric motor behave differently in highway and city modes. In the city and in stop-and-go traffic, the electric motor is the primary force. The gas engine literally shuts down when it's not needed, and the electric motor provides locomotion. When the gas engine takes over, the electric motor helps add additional power for acceleration. In the highway mode, the gas engine is king. The engine management system turns off four of the eight cylinders when they're not needed. The whole operation is synchronous, meaning that the vehicle switches seamlessly from city to highway mode and back again without a hitch and without any driver intervention. You just drive.
The gas engine under the hood is a big 6.0 liter V8 that produces 332 hp and 367 lb-ft of torque; the electric motor is powered by a 300 volt nickel-metal hydride (NiMh) battery -- enough power to move the 5617 lb SUV, and even to tow 6,200 lbs if you need to.
How conspicuously subtle (oxymoron) do you want to be? If you really need a full-size SUV, and you want to be as fuel-efficient as possible, the Tahoe Hybrid might be your best choice. You'll get that evil stare from Prius drivers -- then they'll see your "Hybrid" badges and stickers, and they'll give you a thumbs-up instead of that middle-finger salute they'd been preparing. Because of its increased efficiency in stop-and-go situations, Tahoe Hybrid would be a really good solution for shuttle van operators and other short-hop people-movers. If you're looking at Tahoe Hybrid as a money-saver, you should crunch some numbers. You can pick up a gas-only Tahoe LS with a 293 hp/303 lb-ft 4.8 liter V8 engine starting at about $35,530 -- about $15,000 less than Tahoe Hybrid, and even though your fuel economy will only be 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway, it will take a lot of miles to make up the difference in purchase price strictly with fuel savings.
The interesting thing about Tahoe Hybrid is the potential for trickle-down technology improvements from the Hybrid to GM's gas-only SUVs. The "auto-stop" function that turns off the gas engine when the vehicle is at a standstill seems like a natural for the gas-only. So do the aerodynamic improvements and weight-saving efforts. Why not make a big gas-only SUV as efficient as possible?
For now, the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (or corporate clone 2008 GMC Yukon Hybrid) is the full-size hybrid gas-electric SUV to buy. More will follow -- here's hoping the fuel-efficient SUV is yesterday's news (my last oxymoron).