Chevy's Jolly Green Giant
The Good: Peppiness; spacious interior; significant fuel savings during in-town driving
The Bad: Only modest fuel economy gains on the highway; premium price
The Bottom Line: If you absolutely must drive a behemoth SUV, consider going green
Pundits have been predicting the death of behemoth SUVs for years. But what amazes me is how many are still rolling off the lots. General Motors (GM) sold nearly 210,000 of its plus-size Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon SUVs last year, three-and-a-half times the number of Cadillac CTS (BusinessWeek.com, 10/22/07) and Saturn Aura (BusinessWeek.com, 10/4/06) models it sold, and seven times the number of Buick Enclave unit sales (BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/07). Big SUVs may be less popular than they once were, but clearly a lot of consumers still want one, even in an era of soaring gas prices.
Enter GM's new "green" jumbo SUVs, specifically the hybrid versions of the Tahoe and Yukon. These vehicles represent the first application of "full" hybrid technology—developed in cooperation with BMW (BMWG.DE) and Daimler (DAI)—to a large truck. Unlike the "mild" hybrid technology in the Green Line versions of the Saturn Aura (BusinessWeek.com, 7/3/07) and Vue, this is a two-mode system that mates a 332-hp V8 gasoline engine with two electric motors and an efficient electronically variable transmission. The Tahoe Hybrid can accelerate on its electric engines alone or with help from the gasoline engine if more power is needed. The V8 engine also can operate on just four cylinders while cruising along at highway speed.
Fuel efficiency during in-town driving is 25% to 50% better than in a conventional Tahoe. An '08 Tahoe Hybrid is rated to average 21 miles per gallon (21 city/22 highway) with two-wheel drive and 20 mpg for both city and highway driving with all-wheel drive. (In 300 miles of mixed, mainly highway, driving, I got 18.6 mpg in an all-wheel-drive Tahoe.) By comparison, a conventional gasoline-powered Tahoe is rated to average 14 mpg to 16 mpg, depending on which V8 engine is chosen and whether it's equipped with all-wheel drive. But it gets 19 or 20 mpg on the highway, almost the same as the hybrid.
At current gasoline prices, an owner driving 15,000 miles annually will save around $600 to $700 a year by going with a hybrid. Savings will be greater if you do a lot of city driving and put more than 15,000 miles on the vehicle annually. (You can estimate your fuel savings at fueleconomy.gov).
Considering the Tahoe Hybrid's premium price, it will take years for most owners to recover the extra cost in fuel savings alone. The Tahoe hybrid starts at $50,490 with rear-wheel drive and $53,295 with all-wheel drive. By contrast, a conventional Tahoe starts at $35,530, rising to $40,460 for the fancier LT with all-wheel drive. (GM offered $2,000 cash rebates on the '08 Tahoe through Mar. 3.)
The hybrid qualifies for a $2,200 federal tax credit and comes loaded with features such as leather upholstery, heated seats, a keyless starter, a fancy Bose audio system, and a navigation system. The only significant options are a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,295) and a power sunroof ($900). But even taking all of that into account, the hybrid still costs at least $5,000 more than a comparable gasoline-powered Tahoe.
The advantage of the hybrid is that it's peppier than a conventional Tahoe. Plus, if one insists on owning such a big, gas-gulping SUV, it seems the driver should make some effort to minimize the environmental effects. The hybrid will save the average owner at least 180 gallons of gasoline per year. And carbon-dioxide emissions—the main source of greenhouse gases—are about 20% lower than in the conventional Tahoe.
Behind the Wheel
Punch the gas in a regular Tahoe, and it just sits there, as if lost in thought, and then builds speed. Punch the gas in the hybrid, and it hesitates for half a beat, then takes off like a bat out of hell. I clocked my test Tahoe with all-wheel drive at about eight seconds in accelerating from zero to 60 mph, which is about a half-second faster than the regular Tahoe and very quick for a vehicle that hits the scales at nearly 6,000 pounds. The Tahoe Hybrid really jumps when you punch the gas at highway speed, too.
You don't give up any of the qualities that made big SUVs popular in the first place, either. You sit way up high, yet the Tahoe Hybrid is surprisingly maneuverable. Its 39-foot turning radius is the same as a Toyota (TM) Highlander's, and a backup camera is standard. You also have a greater feeling of solidity than in smaller vehicles. The Tahoe Hybrid and the regular Tahoe both earned five-star safety ratings from the National Highway Safety Administration in front and side collisions. (The hybrid hasn't been tested in rollover collisions, but the regular Tahoe had a mediocre three-star rollover rating.)
The Tahoe Hybrid's cabin is beautifully appointed, with lots of wood trim, an attractively sculpted dash and leather seats. It's about as roomy as a regular Tahoe's cabin. Hip and shoulder room is listed at more than five feet in both the front and rear seats. A third row of seats raises the maximum seating capacity to eight, though the back seat is so shallow that it's mainly for kids. Adults will be sitting with their knees under their chins, and headroom is limited.
The Tahoe Hybrid has the same cargo capacity as the regular Tahoe. Luggage space is 16.9 cubic feet with all three rows of seats upright, expanding to 60.3 cu. ft. with the back-row seats folded down and 108.9 cu. ft. with the second-row seats also tucked away. The Tahoe Hybrid's maximum towing capacity is 6,200 lbs., vs. 7,500 in the regular Tahoe. Ground clearance (nine inches) is almost the same.
As with other hybrids, the graphic display on the navigation screen and messages in the trip computer provide a lot of information to help you reduce fuel consumption. You can see when you're adding juice to the batteries by easing off the gas, when the big V8 is guzzling gas when you accelerate hard, and when it's operating on just four cylinders. Even in heavy-duty winter driving, I found I could easily keep mileage at close to 20 mpg just by paying attention.
Buy It or Bag It?
The first question to ask about the Tahoe Hybrid is whether you really need such a huge vehicle. Toyota's Highlander Hybrid, which sells for an average of just $41,744 according to The Power Information Network (PIN), is probably roomy enough for most people. It's about 14 inches shorter than the Tahoe and holds a maximum of seven people. Two downsides: The Highlander Hybrid's maximum cargo capacity is only 10.3 cu. ft. with all three rows of seats upright, and maximum towing capacity is only 3,500 lbs. On the other hand, the Toyota is rated to get 27 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway, even with all-wheel drive.
Another possible alternative is the new Mercedes GL320 CDI. It's nearly as spacious as the Tahoe, seats up to seven, and is powered by a 3.0-liter turbodiesel engine that's rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. Diesel fuel is currently pricier than the regular unleaded the Tahoe Hybrid uses, but the price of diesel seems likely to come down over time. The Mercedes' starting price is about the same as the Tahoe Hybrid's, but the price rises rapidly if you load up on options. Watch this space for an upcoming review of the GL320 CDI.
If you don't want all the bells and whistles that come standard on the Tahoe Hybrid, the regular '08 Tahoe's average selling price is $39,371, according to PIN, 11 grand under the Hybrid's starting price. But if you want a loaded-up all-wheel-drive model, the price differential shrinks to about half that amount. And the more in-town driving you do, the better the Tahoe Hybrid looks.
See BusinessWeek.com's slide show for more on the 2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid.