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First Drive: 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

March 9, 2009

For the first time, you can get a full hybrid pickup. General Motors, Mercedes-Benz (when it owned Chrysler), and BMW co-developed what has come to be known as the dual-mode hybrid system. It's designed for full-size vehicles that need to keep their capabilities intact. GM was the first company to put the dual-mode hybrid technology into production for 2008, with its full-size SUVs, the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

For 2009, GM has expanded its full-size hybrid offerings with the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid and the pickup truck twins, the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid and the 2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid.

We've just returned from driving these trucks and can report that they are real pickups with genuine capabilities, including the ability to tow three tons. Importantly, when unladen, their EPA city mileage rating of 22 mpg (for two-wheel-drive versions) beats more than a few four-cylinder sedans and coupes. Another fun fact is that a typical 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid will burn some 350 fewer gallons of gasoline per year than a pickup equipped with a mid-size V-8 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

The driving experience is only slightly different from gasoline-powered pickups, and the differences are in no way bad. Before we get to the driving, let's take a quick look at the patented hybrid technology in this pickup. Within a case that looks like a traditional automatic gearbox, GM (along with partners Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Chrysler) managed to package two motor/generators and four fixed gear ratios. GM calls it an electrically-variable transmission (EVT).

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

When acting as motors, the EVT helps propel the Silverado Hybrid. As the SUV coasts or slows, the EVT goes into generator mode, transforming kinetic energy into electricity via regenerative braking. Countless hours of seat time went toward blending the EVT's regen braking with the Silverado's physical braking system, and the transitions between the two are indistinguishable. The recaptured energy goes to a 300-pound, 300-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack that resides under the back seats.

The Hybrid’s lightweight 6.0-liter, all-aluminum V-8 engine utilizes cylinder deactivation (so it can run in V-4 mode) and variable valve timing (that enables the late closing of the intake valves to reduce pumping losses). The 6.0-liter produces 332 horsepower and 367 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration remains strong thanks to the immediate torque of the electric motors (184 lb-ft each) and a high-performance axle ratio.

A control unit manages all of the above elements using software that is much improved over the initial batch of GMC and Chevrolet SUVs from 2008. The result is that the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid runs strongly and smoothly.

The sensation of driving these hybrid trucks is a bit odd if one expects a purely traditional experience. In easy-going driving, the engine RPM and exhaust note don't correspond linearly to acceleration. The EVT works like a continuously variable transmission, so the hybrid's 6.0-liter revs to a particular RPM and hangs there while the vehicle's speed seems to play catch-up.

The oddest sensation is when the 2009 Chevy Silverado Hybrid accelerates on battery power; it's like gliding. The engine's auto-stop feature also catches drivers off guard at first. While the engine shutdown is smooth (as is the restart), a first reaction can be that the SUV stalled. Of course, it didn't.  Running on battery power, the steering, climate control, and other vital functions remain completely operational in the Auto Stop mode.

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

Read our Bottom Line review of the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid elsewhere on to get our full take on this eminently capable, impressively green pickup.

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