If ever there was a case of a vehicle not being what it seems, the new Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid is it. Remove the exterior graphics and badges, and most people wouldn't give it a second look, taking it for a regular V-8-powered Tahoe. That would be unfortunate, though, because this is a hybrid in the fullest sense of the word.
The Tahoe Hybrid driving experience is rather ordinary, too, but buyers of full-size SUVs should be fine with that, as this SUV gives them the space and utility they desire along with fuel economy that's as much as 50 percent better in city driving than the gas-only Tahoe. It can also carry up to eight and tow a good-sized camper trailer if the mood strikes you. What won't be as pleasant is the price, which is steep, even when you consider its long list of standard features.
Exterior & Styling
It's no surprise that the Tahoe Hybrid retains the general shape and size of its gas-only sibling, but there are a number of hybrid-specific cues on the outside. The most notable changes are large "Hybrid" graphics on the side doors and smaller ones on the windshield and rear window. The Tahoe Hybrid also has an aluminum hood and liftgate, a lower air dam, low-rolling-resistance tires and D-pillars that have been shaped for better aerodynamics.
Even with these changes, the SUV doesn't scream "hybrid." Part of that has to do with its sheer size; it goes against the popular notion of small, odd-shaped hybrid cars that was created by pioneers like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. The other factor is that the Tahoe Hybrid's subtle exterior changes could easily be overlooked. That could be a problem for some shoppers, but those not concerned with how green they appear will still get a stylish full-size SUV in the Tahoe Hybrid.
Ride & Handling
There's no denying the Tahoe Hybrid's substantial size, and if you don't regularly drive a vehicle this large it could definitely take some time to get accustomed to its dimensions and how they affect its performance on the road. Even after you've had time to get familiar with it, the thing still feels pretty large when you're behind the wheel. Proper adjustment of the side mirrors is a must to minimize blind spots and avoid overlooking small cars that pull up next to you as you're about to change lanes.
The SUV's independent front suspension and solid rear axle design deliver a rather stiff, trucklike ride that'll be familiar to those who've traveled in truck-based SUVs before. Dips and bumps in the road make the SUV bob up and down, which can make you feel like you're on a boat, rolling with the waves.
Despite that sensation, the Tahoe Hybrid feels planted when cornering and stable when cruising at 70 mph on the highway. You sit up high in the Tahoe with commanding views. This factor alone makes it easy to understand why full-size SUVs appeal to consumers: Visibility is great and you can look down (literally and figuratively, if you feel like it) on most of your fellow motorists. Basically, you're on top of the motoring universe.
Thanks to direct steering response, the Tahoe Hybrid changes direction right on cue. Unfortunately, the steering wheel doesn't provide much feedback.
Going & Stopping
One of the best aspects of the Tahoe Hybrid's gas/electric hybrid drivetrain is its ability to smoothly blend power from the system's two electric motors and 6.0-liter V-8 engine. Unlike some other hybrids, it's difficult to tell when the Tahoe Hybrid's gas engine kicks on when accelerating from a stop — there's no jerkiness or even any engine noise. The drivetrain also delivers strong acceleration at highway speeds.
Like hybrids from Toyota and Ford, the Tahoe Hybrid can cruise on electric power only when conditions are right. It's relatively easy to accelerate up to about 25 mph on electric power alone, and if I really babied the gas pedal I could get it up to 30 mph without the V-8 awakening.
When that gas engine does fire, it has its own fuel-saving measures: cylinder-deactivation technology that allows the engine to operate on either four or eight cylinders, plus late intake valve closing. This valvetrain design is specific to the Tahoe Hybrid's 6.0-liter V-8, which Chevrolet says is used because of the engine's "more favorable torque characteristics" compared to the 5.3-liter V-8 available in the regular Tahoe. The end result is gas mileage of 21/22 mpg city/highway for the two-wheel-drive Tahoe Hybrid and 20/20 mpg for the four-wheel-drive version.
|2008 Full-Size SUV Fuel Economy|
|Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid||21/22||20/20|
|Chevrolet Tahoe w/5.3-liter V-8||14/20||14/19|
|Toyota Sequoia w/5.7-liter V-8||14/19||13/18|
|Dodge Durango w/5.7-liter V-8||13/19||13/18|
One of the most interesting components of the Tahoe Hybrid's powertrain is what Chevrolet calls the Electrically Variable Transmission. The EVT features the two 60-kilowatt electric motors as well as four regular forward gears, and it's managed by a Hybrid Optimizing System that's responsible for making the various components of the EVT and gas engine work in harmony and deliver the best possible efficiency.
Brake pedal feel is another of the Tahoe Hybrid's strong points. A number of hybrids suffer from braking systems that don't provide progressive stopping performance, but the Tahoe Hybrid's regenerative braking system offers natural pedal feel that is better than the regular Tahoe's.
Like the outside of the Tahoe Hybrid, the cabin differs little from the regular gas-powered SUV. The contemporary dashboard design features decent graining and is accented with simulated wood trim that has a so-so appearance. Three color schemes are offered for the interior: black, gray and a mighty appealing two-tone design that features tan and black materials.
Overall fit and finish is good, and the standard touch-screen navigation system is easy to operate and can show an animated diagram of the hybrid drivetrain. The instrument cluster has a different tachometer than the non-hybrid, including an "auto-stop" position to indicate when the gas engine is off and the Tahoe is running on battery power. In place of the regular Tahoe's voltmeter is an economy gauge that shows whether fuel efficiency is being maximized at a given moment.
The Tahoe Hybrid's heated leather front bucket seats offer OK comfort and thigh support. They weigh less than the seats in the regular Tahoe. The seat cushion has power adjustments, but the backrest and lumbar support are manual.
The second-row bench seat is generously sized for adults and offers adequate legroom, but it lacks a reclining backrest. That's a feature often found in other SUVs, though not the gas-only Tahoe. The bench seat can fold down and flip forward to make it easier to get in and out of the third row, but the hybrid isn't available with the second-row power-folding mechanism that's offered on conventional Tahoes.
The third row of all Tahoes is disappointingly small considering the SUV's large overall size. I'm 6-foot-1 and had to wedge myself into it. Though it's fair to say I'm probably taller than the typical third-row passenger, the Ford Expedition's third row does a much better job of providing comfortable space for tall passengers.
Standard features include side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats, all-disc antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. The SUV also has brackets attached to the front of its frame that are designed to help it better engage with the structure of a smaller vehicle during a crash. Provided free of charge for the first year is GM's OnStar communication system that can notify the service if the SUV is involved in a crash or unlock the doors if you lock your keys inside.
Cargo & Towing
Compared to the regular Tahoe, the hybrid's cargo capacity is unchanged at 16.9 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, which isn't all that much room; it's slightly less than what the Ford Expedition and Nissan Armada offer. With the third row removed, the Tahoe Hybrid has 60.3 cubic feet of space, and when you fold the second row there's a grand total of 108.9 cubic feet of room. The aluminum liftgate requires little effort to operate.
The Tahoe Hybrid's maximum towing capacity of 6,200 pounds for the two-wheel-drive model and 6,000 pounds for the four-wheel-drive version falls well short of the conventional Tahoe's 8,200-pound maximum. However, if you look at only hybrid SUVs, the Tahoe Hybrid and its sibling, the GMC Yukon Hybrid, are far and away the towing leaders.
Though part of the Tahoe Hybrid's significant price premium can be attributed to the 2-Mode Hybrid system it uses, the SUV's long features list adds to the bottom line as well. Standard features include things like a nine-speaker Bose audio system, a backup camera, power-folding and heated side mirrors, and remote start. The only options for the Tahoe Hybrid are an engine block heater, a sunroof and a DVD-based backseat entertainment system.
Tahoe Hybrid in the Market
The Tahoe Hybrid is definitely going to challenge consumers' perceptions of hybrids. While some may scoff at its seemingly low-for-a-hybrid gas mileage estimates, when you consider them alongside the capabilities it offers, the Tahoe Hybrid is an accomplishment.
Some consumers may wish that full-size SUVs would go to the corner of the scrap yard and die, but the fact is many folks use them to tow their campers or boats. If they're going to do it anyway, it makes sense to do it more efficiently, and that's what Chevrolet has achieved with the Tahoe Hybrid.
The question is, will people ante up to take advantage of that increased efficiency? With a well-equipped base price of around $50,000, it's certainly not a done deal, especially when gas-powered Tahoes can be had for much less while still offering competitive fuel economy for a full-size SUV. On the other hand, if you can afford a nice camper or boat, a $50,000 towing vehicle might not be out of the question.
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