Mention hybrids, and what comes to mind? Probably smallish gas-sipping cars, like the 50-mile-per-gallon Toyota Prius. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, bigger, heavier hybrids like the full-sized Chevrolet Tahoe SUV just haven't gotten the traction with the buying public that their smaller, thriftier hybrid cousins have.
There's one main reason: Hybrid technology on a smaller car like the Prius or the Ford Fusion Hybrid can come close to doubling fuel economy over non-hybrid model. No such luck with a huge SUV like our 5,835-pound four-wheel-drive Tahoe Hybrid: The EPA rates it at 20 mpg city, 23 mpg highway. Which is certainly an improvement over the 15/21mpg rating of a non-hybrid, four-wheel-drive Tahoe, but for the average consumer, it isn't that substantial. Especially since I've never been able to average the 21 mpg that the EPA and Chevrolet says I should in the Tahoe Hybrid -- more like 19 mpg.
This is not to say there is anything wrong with the Tahoe Hybrid, because there isn't. It's an engineering marvel, with literally dozens of clever, often bold improvements designed to improve mileage without sacrificing -- well, anything. The Tahoe Hybrid tows less than its non-hybrid counterpart, but will still haul 5,900 pounds for the four-wheel-drive model, 6,200 for two-wheel-drive. And that's plenty for the vast majority of towing needs. You still have three rows of seats, though with that third row in place, there is only a rather vertical 16.9 cubic feet of cargo space -- if you need more, fold down the rearmost seat.
Otherwise, the hybrid technology -- to oversimplify, two electric motors, powered by a 300-volt battery pack concealed under the second-row seat, helping out the 6.0-liter V-8 engine -- delivers excellent acceleration. The complex automatic transmission works flawlessly. The ride is smooth, quiet and sure. The optional four-wheel-drive system works well, but is limited off-road by light, smaller tires and wheels chosen for their weight -- the tires aren't that good in the mud.
The more stop-and-go driving you do, the more the hybrid system helps. The battery pack can propel the Tahoe on electricity alone up to 30 mph. It also allows the engine to shut down at stoplights, and even when decelerating. And it continues to power the electric air conditioning, so you won't get hot like you will in some other hybrids when the engine shuts down. The Tahoe Hybrid's V-8 gas engine also has cylinder deactivation technology -- it can run on as few as four cylinders when power from the other four cylinders isn't needed.
There are also other, more subtle changes to aid economy. Lighter seats, for instance. Better aerodynamics up front, including a slick-looking front spoiler. Even the rear brake lights are designed to help cut wind resistance, and use LED bulbs, which use less electricity. Brakes are "regenerative," meaning that they generate electricity to recharge the batteries as you stop. Often these hybrid regenerative brakes have a weird feel -- the hybrid Tahoe's don't.
And you might think that there's a big price penalty for the Tahoe Hybrid, and really, there isn't. Yes, the test vehicle listed for $56,840, but it was loaded -- leather seats, rear-seat entertainment system, navigation system, a fine Bose sound system. In fact, you can add enough options to a non-hybrid Tahoe LTZ model to eclipse the test Tahoe Hybrid's price..
The Tahoe Hybrid, and its twin, the GMC Yukon Hybrid, have been around since late 2009, so the technology is proven. I wish it got 30 mpg, but it will likely be a long time until we see any full-sized SUV that weighs nearly three tons approach that figure -- maybe when we do, it will be a variation of the plug-in hybrid system GM uses on the Chevrolet Volt, perhaps mated to a diesel engine. It can be done. But until someone does it, this is a very appealing placeholder.
2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid
Base price: $53,950
Price as tested: $56,840
EPA rating: 20 miles per gallon city driving, 23 mpg highway
Engine: 6.0-liter, 332-horsepower V-8, aided by two electric motors
Wheelbase: 116 inches
Length: 202 inches
Parting shot: A technical marvel, but mileage doesn't reflect the hybrid sophistication.