By Bill Moore
Man, it's big! Really big.
That was my first impression of the 2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid as it sat in my driveway, dwarfing my little Honda Insight and towering over my electric bicycle.
How it came to sit in my driveway is a story in itself that goes back to a dinner outside of Detroit in early April. Seated at the table were several General Motor's executives, including Steven J. Harris, VP for Global Communications. I was complaining -- explaining actually -- that I had yet to do any extended test drives of GM hybrids. I had been asking for months to get one of the Saturn mybrids -- mild hybrids -- but my requests never seemed to get anywhere.
Of course, the fact that I live on the far side of the planet when it comes to where car companies stage their press fleets is a big reason why. Omaha might be halfway to everywhere, but as far as the automotive journalism world is concerned, I might as well live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
Steve Harris overheard this exchange and as he got up to leave the dinner later that evening, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "We'll see that you get a vehicle."
Now all 7,100 lbs GVWR of it stood at attention on 18-inch Bridgestone low-rolling resistance tires, covered in a thin film of rain-splattered road dust, the word H - Y - B - R - I - D boldly decaled on its door panels.
This wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but if you're going to write about the company's hybrid cars and SUVs, you might as well start at the top. With an MSRP of $50,945 for the 2WD model -- and this one is loaded with every bell and whistle you can think of with the exception of having its own built-in expresso machine (and even that might be on it somewhere) -- it is close to being the most expensive hybrid I have ever driven. The Lexus GS 450h holds that distinction at more than $61,000).
I let the Tahoe sit the rest of the day after it was delivered from Chicago. My plan was to drive it the next day to a business meeting and then down to Kansas City for the first half of the Memorial Day weekend. Although I needed to buy a few items for dinner -- it was my turn to cook in the Moore empty-nest -- I opted to ride my electric bike instead of taking the SUV, figuring the cost of driving the half mile to the store to buy a couple potatoes, a bottle of wine and other ingredients couldn't be justified. Besides, the two-mode hybrid was parked in front of my Insight.
When my wife got home that night, she too remarked, Little Red Riding Hood fashion, how BIG it was, wondering if it would even fit in the garage. I didn't even try.
The next morning, my sense of self-congratulatory environmental pride at having used the electric bike to shop instead of the Tahoe quickly evaporated as I drove it for the first time to my meeting with Omaha's city planner, which had been arranged by a local developer. Here I was, tooling along Nebraska 370 -- alone -- siting what felt like 12 feet off the pavement in 5,7000 lbs. of reformed gas guzzler.
And to be honest, for a truck, the Tahoe really rides nice. It might not be the ideal commuter car, but for a long-haul people carrier, it's impressive. While I have never been that comfortable driving the Escape Hybrid over 65 mph, the Tahoe feels rock solid at 70. (For reasons of fuel economy and because 70 is the speed limit on I-29, I only briefly took it to 79 mph, letting the cruise control keep us at the legal limit).
The drive to the meeting was a short one, maybe 15 miles round trip, but I still couldn't help feeling like I was somehow violating some private code of ethics. Here I am preaching the "gospel" of sustainability on EV World and driving this behemoth, getting just over 20 mpg (11.7 L/100km).
"Father forgive me".
Still, I had a job to do: put this vehicle through its paces, not in the sense of a GM test track driver bent on wrenching the maximum performance out of the vehicle, but as a careful, conscientious consumer might use it. That plan meant packing a couple small bags and heading down I-29 to Kansas City, some 200 miles south where friends of ours live and where some of the best barbecue joints in America reside.
We've driven this route many times before in our personal cars and in test vehicles, the first one being a 1997 right-hand drive Prius that Toyota loaned me for a month that stretched into nearly four months. And I have to admit, this was the most relaxed and enjoyable ride yet. Between the quiet, comfortable ride, the panoramic view, and the XM Radio set to the Laugh USA comedy channel, the two hours just flew by...
That is until we hit bridge construction north of KC. The state is repairing four bridges and the traffic was backed up for miles in both directions. It was then that the virtues of the GM/Chrysler/BMW-developed two-mode hybrid-electric transmission shown bright.
As every other car, SUV and truck -- with the exception of the odd Prius here and there -- crept along with their gasoline engines idling away, the Tahoe Hybrid slipped into stealth mode, engine off, running on electric power only. The owner's manual claims the 300 volt, NiMH pack has enough energy to propel the vehicle 2 miles in EV mode, roughly the same distance as the smaller, lighter Prius. As long as you keep the speed below 30 mph and don't accelerate heavily, the Tahoe Hybrid will function just like an electric car, recharging its battery from regenerative braking, vehicle kinetics and the gasoline engine.
However, the slightest demand for power, and the big (there's that word again) 6.0 L V-8 engine -- which is not rated to handle E-85 ethanol, the manual warns -- almost imperceptibly powers up. GM/Chrysler/BMW engineers have done their homework on this hybrid transmission. Although there are times when you sense the transmission needs to shift up another gear, overall, the way it blends both electric and gasoline power is virtually seamless.
The vehicle's size, weight and 0.34 Cd mean it isn't going to rival the Ford Escape Hybrid; on fuel efficiency. Going south into a quartering headwind, we got 20.9 mpg at a steady 70 mph with the AC running. On the trip home, with a slight tailwind, we got 21.8 mpg. This is equivalent, GM reports, to a 25% improvement over the stock Tahoe with a 5.7L V8.
The term 2-mode refers to the combination of the hybrid transmission and the V-8's Active Fuel Management, which shuts off half of the cylinders to conserve fuel. GM lets the driver monitor his performance through a small analog gauge on the upper left-hand corner of the instrument panel. Keep the needle in the narrow green band and the vehicle achieves its best performance in both acceleration and deceleration. This is such a good driver training tool that I encourage GM to make it more prominent than it is now.
The larger, central, color information screen provides only a visual depiction of where the energy is going in the hybrid system. It is the Driver Information Center -- a digital display -- below the tachometer that provides feedback on fuel range, average economy, fuel used, timer, transmission temperature, instantaneous economy, Active Fuel Management and battery voltage, as well as the vehicle odometer and trip odometer. You toggle through them using a button on the dash.
The Navigation/Entertainment screen controls access to the radio (AM/FM and when equipped, XM satellite radio), CD, DVD, MP3, well as GPS system. My test vehicle is also equipped with a roof-mounted DVD video console for the center row passengers (this Tahoe has a third row of seats giving it the ability to haul eight passengers). The entertainment system also comes with a pair of wireless headsets and the ability for the folks in the front to listen to a CD or radio, while the kids in the back can watch a movie, making a long trip, hopefully, shorter.
Unlike the Prius or Civic Hybrid, I look on the Tahoe Hybrid is a niche vehicle that would be ideal for say an engineering firm that needs to send crews out to conduct surveys or a limousine service wanting to provide a secure, comfortable ride for their clients. While the Tahoe Hybrid does have a 6,000 pound towing capacity, I question whether the average up-scale family will be willing to justify the added expense compared to the non-hybrid V-8 Tahoe.
Ultimately the success -- or failure -- of the vehicle will be the price of energy. At $4 a gallon, it will cost nearly $100 to fill the 24.5 gallon tank, which will take the SUV just under 500 miles. For some individuals or organizations who need its spacious cabin and hauling capacity, the cost of fuel may not be that big a factor when compared to the Tahoe Hybrid's $50K price tag. But if I am just concerned about moving people from A-to-B, then a Prius or Civic Hybrid at half the price and twice the fuel economy will make more sense.
However, I have to report that the Tahoe Hybrid -- like that apple in the garden of Eden? -- won over my wife, who has always had a hard time understanding why other women like their big (I promise that's the last time I'll use that word) SUVs. She very quickly came to appreciate the pleasure of being up high compared to our Honda Accord and even more our tiny, low-slung Insight.
Like eating rich chocolate, riding in, or for that matter, driving the Tahoe Hybrid is a guilty pleasure.
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