2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid 4×4 Review
By Roger Boylan
Once you brush aside the cultural prejudices and filter out the various strains of urban snobbery, the main rap against full-size pickup trucks, apart from their ungainly size, has always been their Falstaffian guzzling of fuel. Well, that era might be coming to a close: Enter the Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra Hybrids. Unlike previous GM “hybrid” trucks, which used a simple mechanism to deactivate the engine at rest but had scant effect on highway consumption, these beasts are true Prius-style hybrids, running on a 332-hp 6.0-liter V-8 (with cylinder deactivation and variable cam timing for greater frugality), making 367 lb.-ft. of torque, and a 300-volt electrical system that marries the gas setup with two electric motors powered by a huge battery sealed in a box under the back seat (and warrantied for 8 years or 100,000 miles). GM’s mileage claims are 20 mpg in town and 20-22 mpg on the highway, up to 40% better (they claim) than the regular Silverado/Sierra.
After my week at the wheel of a Silverado Hybrid Crew Cab 4X4 I can pretty much endorse those claims. In-town mileage has improved over the standard truck by an order of magnitude, thanks in large part to the Auto Stop feature, which shuts off the gasoline engine when the truck slows down to speeds below 30 mph but keeps the AC, radio, etc., running on the electrical power system, result: Utter silence from under the hood and no gas consumption at all at red lights and in bumper-to-bumper traffic, where so much dino juice is usually squandered. Magic! As for the highway mileage, of course, the Priuses and Insights will still rack up the brownie points there, but even at an average cruising speed of 70 my Silverado managed a very decent average of 19 mpg overall. The bottom line is I didn’t need a refill, even after five round-trip 70-mile door-to-door commutes and sundry side trips. There wasn’t much left at the end, but with a fuel-tank capacity of 26 gallons, that works out at a range of about 480 miles after every fill-up. Not at all bad. (And we’re talking regular.)
But the best part is that the sophisticated technology that makes all this possible operates nearly seamlessly, except for occasional vague groaning or whining sounds as things turn themselves on or off, or the two-mode Electrically Variable Transmission, or EVT, switches over from the infinite gear ratios of a CVT to the four fixed ratios of a normal automatic. (These alternatives theoretically enable the engine always to run as economically as possible: the CVT for varied driving, the four-speed auto for freeway cruising.) The brakes are regenerative, meaning the battery recharges every time you hit ’em. They felt a little squishy at first, but either they firmed up or I got used to the feeling; it wasn’t an issue. Acceleration is brisk and muscular, just as in the normal Silverado, and only a tad slower. I timed 8 seconds ticking away between immobility and 60 mph, right boot firmly down. The steering was light and precise; the wheel, leather-wrapped, was welcoming to the grasp.
Of course, any road test of a pickup also necessitates ascertaining how well the “pickup” part does its job. After figuring out–not without difficulty, being all thumbs–how to unfurl the soft tonneau cover that comes standard on the Hybrid (saving fuel through better aerodynamics), I popped over to my favorite big-box home improvement emporium and loaded up the Silverado’s 5- ft. 9-in. bed (all Hybrids are short-box Crew Cabs) with 500 lbs. of cypress mulch, 10 paving stones weighing about 200 lbs. in all, and 150 lbs. of gravel, a total payload of around 850 lbs., well short of the truck’s 1450-lb. capacity. There was no noticeable effect on acceleration or fuel consumption; if I maintained a gentle touch on the throttle, the electric motor was still the main power plant up to about 30 mph. The truck’s ride, which was smooth to start with, seemed only a bit smoother than with an empty bed (under which condition, I hasten to add, the ride was already nearly as smooth as my Jag’s).
Hauling the week’s grocery shopping was even easier, by a few hundred pounds, and most of it fit quite nicely into the back half of the capacious Crew Cab, which sacrifices only a small amount of storage space to accommodate the battery beneath the back seat. The tonneau cover on the cargo bed, once I’d mastered the rocket science necessary to snap it on and off, struck me as being an excellent feature, not only taming the air flow and thereby saving an extra smidgeon of fuel, but also by transforming the open bed into a huge waterproof trunk, in the event of family trips.
My test truck was resplendent in what I would have said was Royal Blue, but which GM has apparently upgraded to Imperial Blue (no doubt in response to the question “What would Napoleon drive?”) The interior is nicely laid out, with a bit too much of the dreaded hard plastic but overall enough of the soft-touch variety, in pleasingly boring tints of charcoal and beige, to present a sober, clean, even elegant, aspect. The chrome-ringed gauges are clear and readable; on the upper left of the display is a special Hybrid gauge labeled “Economy,” which wags its needle at you to tell you if you’re driving in the most economical way (needle left) or not (needle right).
The HVAC controls are the usual fussy and annoying GM-truck buttons, but I’m used to them now; still, I wish they would go away. Ordinary knobs would be much better. In front of the passenger there are two piggybacked glove boxes, one only about big enough for a couple of pencils and maybe a ruler, the other sufficiently large for a work crew’s work gloves. A thoughtful detail: Smaller storage spaces abound, disposing of “dead space.”
The center third of the bench seat folds down into a vast armrest-cum-console, yielding three excellent, rubber-rimmed cup holders and another storage area, wide and flat enough for my lord’s or lady’s laptop, sunglasses and Blackberry. Bracketing the console, and forming the ends of the bench, are two of the hest and most comfortable seats in the market, tailor-made for those of us with lumbar trouble and whose buns might better be described as loaves. I honestly can’t remember being more comfortable in any vehicle, so much so that I enjoyed just sitting there, listening to the Satellite XM radio, or the whirring and clicking as the myriad electrical gnomes went about their business. (Yes, well, I’m still tired out from my wild youth.)
Disadvantages of this truck are few. Price is one: $38K to $45K, depending on number of bells and whistles, although trim levels are limited to basically two, and in these grim times discounts are widely available. Another is its size; it’s not the easiest thing to maneuver around a crowded parking lot. But there’s a real benefit to being in a three-ton truck, especially one with five-star safety ratings and colonies of airbags ready to pillow you gently, in the event of a crash. Another negative might be the fact that towing capacities, at 6100 and 5900 lb. for 4X2 and 4X4 Hybrids respectively, are down from 8700 and 8500 lb. for the normal models, and payload capacities decrease by around 200 lb., but most owners will hardly notice, unless they try to tow a yacht.
Too, it must be said that the marvelous technology is untested in day-to-day endurance. Despite the generous warranties, one wonders if all those little gears and gadgets will prove to be up to the daily rigors of a truck’s life. My bet is yes; this family of trucks has generally held up very well. And GM badly needs this one to succeed. Truck-buying public, take note! I know if I were in the market for a truck…well, enough said.
All in all, few test vehicles have given me greater pleasure than this one, and I’m still enough of a New Yorker, in my Texas exile, to find this fact somewhat incredible. On the other hand, I’ve become enough of a Texan to appreciate the virtues of a full-size pickup truck, especially one that gets 20+ mpg. And both the Yankee and the Texan in me can agree that saving bucks is good, especially if it comes with no sacrifice in comfort and performance. Way to go, GM–if you’re still out there.
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