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General Motors’ new full-size hybrid pickups are now arriving at dealerships, offering an overall 25 percent increase in fuel economy over the base V-8 gasoline-only models, and a 40 percent increase in city mileage.

Prices begin at $38,995 (including freight) for the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab two-wheel drive, and $39,365 for the GMC Sierra Crew Cab two-wheel drive.

So far, these are the only hybrid pickups offered. GM says they’re eligible for a $2,200 federal tax credit for buyers who quality. That helps reduced the extra cost of the hybrid drivetrain to somewhere under $1,000, GM has said.

Unlike some of the higher-priced hybrids from Toyota’s Lexus brand, which emphasize performance rather than economy of operation, the GM hybrid pickups are all about the better fuel economy they offer.

In both the Chevy and GMC models, official EPA ratings are 21 miles per gallon city/22 highway for the two-wheel-drive versions, and 20 city and highway for the four-wheel-drives.

The city mileage for the two-wheel-drive models is the same as the EPA city ratings for both the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry four-cylinder sedans with automatic transmissions.

But the GM pickups are built for the rough duty that such trucks are famous for, with the cargo-hauling and trailer-towing capabilities that consumers expect from a full-size GM truck. Both models have a 6,100-pound towing capacity with two-wheel drive, and 5,900 with four-wheel drive.

GM provided a variety of the vehicles for testing to an invited group of automotive reporters this week at a national media ride-and-drive event in San Antonio.

They performed well in a variety of driving conditions, including routes through downtown San Antonio from the SeaWorld to Mission San Jose, and on separate routes while towing boats and horse trailers.

Offered only in the crew-cab configuration, with four full-size doors and a back seat comfortable for three adults, the Silverado and Sierra hybrids began coming off the assembly line in January, and some have already found their way into consumers’ hands.

GM says it expects about 5 percent to 10 percent of its overall pickup sales this year to be the hybrid models.

And even though pickup sales have taken a huge hit over the past year as gasoline prices spiked and the economy tanked, the segment remains instrumental to GM and the U.S. auto industry, Gary White, GM’s North American vice president and vehicle line executive for full-size trucks said during the San Antonio event.

“Recreational users of pickups are pretty much gone” as a result of last year’s high gas prices, White said. “That was about 20 percent of the market.”

Three-fourths of those casual truck users who left the market went into cars, White said, “Which pretty much shows they didn’t really need trucks. The pickup market is now smaller, but still very important.”

Total large pickup sales of about 1.5 million are expected even in this year’s down economy and weak auto sales, he said, and GM holds a 42 percent share of the market – compared with 32 percent for Ford, and 15 percent for Chrysler’s Dodge brand.

“GM remains number one in full-size pickup and SUV sales,” White said.

The base version of the Silverado hybrid has mostly the same standard equipment found on the regular Silverado’s 1LT model package.

Included in the base price for the Silverado are such features as a heavy-duty towing package, locking rear differential, EZ Lift tailgate and lock, and 18-inch wheels.

Other standard amenities include automatic climate control, steering wheel audio controls and Bluetooth phone connectivity.

An eight-year/100,000-mile warranty covers the components of the hybrid drive system, which includes the electric motors and the computerized control module, as well as the battery pack, which sits under the rear seat.

Both vehicles come with the new GM two-mode hybrid system, which includes a 6.0-liter V-8 gasoline engine, coupled with an electric drive motor that can move the vehicle on its own up to 30 mph, GM says.

With the 26-gallon fuel tank, the two-wheel-drive models have a cruising range of more than 500 miles between fill-ups, and the four-wheel drive more than 470 miles, the automaker said.

Besides the hybrid drive system and 6.0-liter engine, the hybrid models also come with low-rolling-resistance tires, special hybrid badging, a soft bed cover, and standard side-curtain air bags for both rows of seating.

The uplevel Silverado two-wheel-drive model lists for $45,130 (with freight), and includes such extras as a navigation system/radio combination unit, leather seats, a hard bed cover, rear parking assist and more.

The Sierra also comes in two trim levels, with the base model equipped similarly to the Silverado, and the uplevel model, with a sticker price of $45,500, getting upgrades similar to those of the pricier Silverado.

Other standard equipment on both the Silverado and Sierra base models includes electronic stability control, XM satellite radio and OnStar, with optional turn-by-turn navigation service.

The uplevel Sierra model comes with leather front bucket seats with six-way driver and passenger power adjustments; the navigation system with Bose audio and rear-seat controls; rear park assist; power adjustable pedals; and a three-piece hard bed cover.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

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