“Aren’t hybrids supposed to be small cars nobody wants to drive?” asked a snarky observer checking out the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid that I rolled up in.
“Well, that depends,” I retorted. “If your goal is to appear green, a small car is best, but if you truly want to save vast quantities of fuel, a large SUV like the Tahoe is the perfect hybrid candidate.”
What’s that again? Drive a big truck to save the most gas? The rationale is a bit circuitous, but here’s the crux — because a behemoth normally consumes much more gas than a compact, even small gains in fuel economy in the larger vehicle add up, saving many more gallons of gasoline over time compared with a hybrid econobox.
Listing for a spicy $56,810 (starting at $53,525), our “red jewel” Tahoe 4WD Hybrid had an advanced, dual-mode hybrid system capable of electric-only propulsion. It’s aimed at folks with a lot of disposable cash to spend on technology, interest payments and, we hope, snowmobiles that need towing.
It’s rated at 21 mpg in the city, 22 on the highway — a combined 21, which isn’t bad from a vehicle with a 6.0-liter V8 under the hood. Compare that to a gas-only Tahoe, which returns 15/21 with a smaller 5.3-liter V8, the only engine available for non-hybrid models. On paper, the big mileage gains come in around-town driving.
2011 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: Options, Options
Our Tahoe’s window sticker was full of electives, as all near-$60,000 vehicles should be. The Vortec 6000 LFA is GM’s fourth generation small block V8 that’s optimized for hybrid use with Active Fuel Management shutting down four cylinders when driving under light loads, like a flat road at constant speed.
Mechanical features include a four-speed transmission (instead of the six-speed found on the rest of the Tahoe lineup), a “premium smooth ride” suspension, automatic two-speed transfer case, locking rear differential, stability and traction control, a trailering kit and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Creature comforts are practically infinite, including the usual battery of air bags (with head curtain bags for all rows), OnStar with turn-by-turn directions, anti-theft, remote starting, keyless entry, tire pressure monitoring, heated leather seats with power adjustment, rear audio and climate controls, in-dash touch screen navigation, Bose premium sound with XM satellite radio, auto-dimming and heated mirrors, sonic rear park assist and a power sunroof.
It’s a long list of features, which makes riding in the Tahoe a relaxing experience — without being too fancy for a dirty day of towing and off-road riding, which is just what we had in mind.
2011 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: Driving To The Range
Since our Tahoe test buggy arrived in the spring after the snow was gone, we loaded an enclosed trailer with a Can-Am Outlander ATV and Polaris RZR side-by-side before driving three and a half hours to the Iron Range OHV Park in the mining country of northern Minnesota.
First impressions confirmed GM’s full-size SUVs are still among the most comfortable road-trip vehicles. The wide, comfortable seats make it easy to board, the powerful Bose stereo thumps with vigor, and that premium suspension provides an exceedingly supple ride over Snowbelt freeway expansion joints. Electric power steering is precise, but with no heft or excessive feedback to the driver’s hands.
The hybrid propulsion system is largely transparent, but noticeable to the exceptionally observant. Power rolls on like any other GM small block, muscular, smooth with a nice V8 growl and plenty of torque. Cylinder deactivation cuts off half the engine only at low speeds, or when cruising flat at highway speeds — and it’s almost impossible to detect.
Regenerative brakes have an oddly artificial feel that makes them touchy at low speeds, like creeping ahead at stoplights, but provide adequate stopping power with or without a load. The grabby brakes combined with a too-soft suspension made for a bit too much bobbing and front-end dive at stop signs for our taste.
2011 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: Half-Breed Hauler
Only in around-town driving under 30 mph did we run solely on electric power — evident when the tachometer drops below zero to “AutoStop.” With practice and a very gentle right foot, the driver can prolong electric cruising at slow speeds, but the acceleration curve is very gentle — meaning you could annoy fellow motorists if trying to stay electric. Electric-only AutoStop was quite helpful for shuffling around trailers and loading up machines at our shop, where it can lug a fully packed trailer to and fro without firing up the engine at all. We also found we could sneak up on pedestrians unlike any other big vehicle.
Without a trailer or cargo load, the engine invisibly cycles between four- and eight-cylinder modes during highway cruising, and it’s possible to coax out mileage in the high teens or low twenties. That’s outstanding for a 6,000-pound truck. Drive with gusto, though, and electric-only scooting is out of the question.
That old-tech four-speed transmission sticks out like a sore thumb with a trailer in tow, wandering between gears as the engine roars. It’s a disconcerting sensation, and suggests the vehicle isn’t operating as efficiently as it could. The hills we encountered on the Range exacerbated this, which lowered our mileage and makes one wonder what a lowly four-speed is doing in a vehicle meant to deliver MPGs.
We recorded 10 mpg towing our buggies in varied driving, which is no gain over a typical V8 SUV. That may disappoint some, but it’s also the beauty of the Tahoe Hybrid — use it like a commuter or grocery getter and your mileage gains will surprise, or use it like a regular truck with no penalty. Well, no penalty except a lower tow rating. Rated to tow 6,200 pounds, the techno truck gives up 2,000 over tougher Tahoes.
Driving cross-country gave us the chance to play with the in-dash nav system, which was, and remains, mystifying to us. We even pulled out the owner’s manual, but never figured out how to program a new destination. Good thing OnStar’s turn-by-turn directions are the push of a blue button away, but it is still amazing two GPS owners couldn’t figure out the system. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
2011 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: Our Take
That General Motors can produce a dual-mode system as painless and practical as the Tahoe Hybrid is impressive, even if it comes up short in the price category. Drivers who use their SUVs for in-town driving as much as serious towing will save money by burning less gas — and the more commuter-type driving involved, the more you’ll save. As breathtaking as the hybrid setup is for its technology, purchasing one should not be based on economic grounds. It’s just too expensive to recoup the cost through gains in fuel efficiency while you’re still paying it off.
If a lot of towing is on your agenda, some may want to skip the hybrid setup and get a traditional Tahoe with more gears in the tranny, a gentler sticker price and 2,000 pounds of additional towing capacity. However, if you’re a commuter who likes owning the latest technology, insists on a large vehicle and has only sporadic towing needs, the Chevrolet Hybrid was built for you.