Automakers have spent the last several years making SUVs smaller on the outside and bigger on the inside. Sometimes, however, there's just no substitute for a big truck -- but big trucks have big appetites. Enter the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which promises full-size SUV capability with compact-CUV fuel economy. Is that even possible? Let's drive the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid and find out. $51,405 base, $56,500 as tested, EPA fuel economy 20-21 MPG city/20-22 MPG highway, warranty 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5 years/100,000 miles powertrain, 8 years/100,000 miles on hybrid components.
The Chevrolet Tahoe first appeared in 1992, part of a nameplate shuffle that allowed the Blazer moniker to be affixed to Chevy's smaller S-10-based 4x4. Fast-forward 18 years: Both the small 4x4 and the Blazer nameplate are gone, but the full-size Tahoe is still going strong. The Tahoe received a complete re-do in 2007. Personally, I think the new look is a bit too blocky; I like the rounded corners of the previous-generation Tahoe, but it's not as if this is an ugly SUV.
The Hybrid version I tested has a few exterior design changes intended to improve fuel economy by improving aerodynamics. The front bumper and airdam extend lower down than they do on the standard Tahoe, smoothing the flow of air underneath the truck, and the running boards are more streamlined than the regular Tahoe's. The Tahoe Hybrid is festooned with HYBRID badges and decals, including one on the windshield, one on the rear window, and a gigantic shadow-letter job along the bottom edge of the doors. The decals don't improve fuel economy, but they may spare you a few dirty looks from smug Prius drivers.
As with the regular Tahoe, the Hybrid is offered in both 4x2 (rear-wheel-drive) and 4x4 versions, the latter with an automatic four-wheel-dive system with manually-selectable low- and high-range 4WD modes. EPA fuel economy estimates are 21 MPG city/22 MPG highway for the Tahoe Hybrid 4x2, 20/20 for the 4x4 -- compare that to 12-14 MPG city and 19-20 MPG highway for the non-hybrid Tahoe.
In the Driver's Seat
Jason Fogelson, our 6'2" Guide to SUVs, predicted that much hilarity would ensue when I tried to haul my 5'6" self into the 6'5" tall Tahoe. I hate to disappoint you, Jason, but I had no problem getting in thanks to the well-placed running boards, which are perfectly positioned for stepping on rather than tripping over.
When I opened the driver's door, I figured it was going to be an uphill battle for the Tahoe Hybrid. The interior was finished in black leather and dark wood, my least-favorite combination. But once inside, it didn't take long for the Tahoe to win me over -- I found comfortable front seats, soft padding wherever I put my elbows, straightforward controls and a center console storage bin the size of a walk-in closet. The Tahoe gives its driver a 747 pilot's view of the world. Sightlines are good, but the Tahoe's size can be a bit intimidating if you're not used to such a big vehicle.
One of the Tahoe's star attractions is the second-row seat; this is one of the few SUVs than can seat three abreast with no crowding. On the downside, the small doors make getting in difficult and the center position doesn't have a headrest, so there's no whiplash protection.
Chevy has done what they can to make the third-row seat habitable, scooping out the headliner and providing easy access via a flip-and-tumble second-row seat. But that doesn't change the fact that the seat is flat on the floor, and sitting with your knees up is never comfortable. If you need seven seats, you'd be better off with the long-wheelbase Suburban -- or a minivan.
On the Road
The Tahoe Hybrid features GM's Two-Mode hybrid system, with a 6-liter 332 hp V8 assisted by an electric motor. The gas engine shuts itself off when the Tahoe is stopped and puts four of its eight cylinders to sleep when power demand is low. At slow speeds, the Tahoe Hybrid can run on pure battery power, just like a Toyota Prius. Does all this technology work? Yes sir: I averaged 18 MPG, not bad for such a big, heavy SUV.
But will it save you money? The hybrid costs about $2,300 more than a similarly-equipped Tahoe (the hybrid's unique equipment list makes it difficult to compare directly to other Tahoes). Per the EPA, fuel economy is 6 MPG higher. At $2/gallon, you'll make up the difference in 65,000 miles; at $4/gallon it'll take 30,000 miles. Very reasonable.
Here's the problem: The Hybrid comes loaded with stuff -- heated leather seats, navigation, you name it. The only options are a sunroof and a rear-seat DVD player. That makes it a very nice SUV, but also a very expensive SUV -- well over $50k. If you can't swing that kind of dough, consider the $40,465 Tahoe XFE, which gets the improved aerodynamics and lightweight components from the Hybrid. Fuel economy is just 2 MPG better than the regular Tahoe, but it only costs $200 more ; you'll recoup that in 15,000 to 30,000 miles.
The Tahoe's handling is good by pickup-truck standards but heavy and sloppy compared to smaller, trimmer CUVs. To say the Tahoe is less than graceful in panic swerves is putting it kindly. Luckily, the Tahoe has standard electronic stability control to keep it upright and out of trouble.
What I like about the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid is that it returns reasonable fuel economy without sacrificing too many of the things that full-size SUVs do so well. Towing capacity is 6,200 lbs (compared with 8,400 lbs for the standard Tahoe), and with 332 horsepower and 367 lb-ft of torque, it's certainly not lacking for power. If only it weren't so darn expensive.
Which begs the question: Do you really need this much SUV? If you don't need three tons of towing capacity, I'd urge you to check out one of the new large crossovers. You'll find one of my favorites right there in the Chevrolet showroom: The new Traverse, which has better second-row access, a roomier third row, tows 5,200 lbs, and is way easier to drive than the Tahoe. (It's also way less expensive -- for the price of the Tahoe Hybrid, you could buy a Traverse and a Chevrolet Cobalt, upping your seating capacity to 13.) I'd also consider the Honda Pilot, which is even roomier than the Traverse. Need to tow more or go off-road? The body-on-frame Kia Borrego is smaller than the Tahoe on the outside but almost as big on the inside, offers an optional V8, and can tow 7,500 lbs. If you need a full-size SUV, check out the Ford Expedition; its independent rear suspension makes it more sure-footed in a swerve, but it doesn't offer a hybrid version.
All that said, I like the Tahoe Hybrid. More importantly, I respect the Tahoe Hybrid. It delivers full-size SUV capabilities while reducing our dependence on oil. And that's not a bad thing at all.