2005 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid
2005 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Paul Williams

Toronto, Ontario – Many consumers regard Hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles as small, expensive, and somewhat quirky. Little cars don’t use much fuel anyway, the argument goes, so why endure the upfront costs?

But the technology is becoming more mainstream, with a least 15 HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) introductions expected over the next three years. This fall, look for full-size GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid pickup trucks to enter the market, priced between to $42,680 and $47,045 for the 2WD and 4WD models respectively (the price includes $1,050 freight/delivery).

The Province of Ontario has already ordered eight of them – three for the Ministry of the Environment and five for the Ministry of Transportation. The objective is to, “reduce harmful emissions and save energy,” said Harinder Takhar, Minister of Transportation.

But the GM trucks may not qualify as true hybrids in the minds of some observers, as their electric motors don’t actually drive the wheels.

The General Motors approach to hybrids is to look at vehicles that consume the greatest amount of fuel, and start there. The company is already selling a diesel-electric bus that reduces fuel consumption by 50 per cent.

According to GM engineer Kevin Kidston, the philosophy behind the GM Hybrid pickup trucks is, “If you’re not doing any work, don’t burn fuel.”

This is the key to understanding how the “parallel” hybrid system (as GM refers to its hybrid truck technology) works in the Sierra and Silverado Hybrids.

 Towing capability is not affected by the use of hybrid system
Towing capability is not affected by the use of hybrid system in the Silverado truck. Click image to enlarge

Unlike some other hybrids on the North American market, the GM pickup truck hybrid system doesn’t use a supplementary motor to propel the vehicle. It does, however, use an electric motor to start the vehicle and generate electricity that powers accessories.

The Sierra/Silverado hybrid system is used specifically to reduce the load on the standard 295-horsepower, 5.3-litre Vortec V8 engine, ensuring that it’s only burning fuel when required to drive the truck. Any reduction in emissions, therefore, comes as a result of using less fuel.

In everyday use, these pickups maintain grade-climbing and towing capability of the equivalent non-hybrid trucks (payload is reduced by 159-kilograms to compensate for the weight of the hybrid system) while reducing fuel consumption by up to 15% according to recent National Resources Canada (Energuide) testing.

Here’s how the system works

Regenerative braking converts energy (heat) into electricity that’s stored in a 42-volt Panasonic battery located under the rear seat. The battery powers everything electrical in the truck, including a power steering pump, and convenience features like power windows, air conditioning and the audio system.

As in hybrids from other manufacturers, the engine will shut down when stopped or coasting in heavy traffic, thus conserving fuel. The engine re-starts the moment you take your foot off the brake pedal with the slightest vibration evident to the driver (more audible than physical). To further save fuel, upshifts come at lower engine speeds.

Managing the system is a Hybrid Control Module located under the hood, on the radiator shroud. The result in daily driving is fuel consumption of 13.3/10.7 L/100km, city/highway for the front-wheel drive truck, and 14.3/11.3 L/100km for the four-wheel drive model. This compares to 16.2/12.0 L/100km and 17.0/13.1 L/100km for the non-hybrid version of the same truck.

AC outlets are located inside cab, as well as in the box
AC outlets are located inside cab, as well as in the box

AC outlet in truck box
Heavy power tool can be plugged into AC outlet in truck box

Silverado Hybrid and tradesman
Generating capacity of truck enables tradespeople to use a range of industrial equipment on jobsites

Click image to enlarge

There are other benefits to the GM Hybrid trucks, besides better fuel economy. The Auxiliary Power Outlet (APO) features four ground-fault protected 120V, 20 amp, 2400W outlets (two below the rear seat in the cab, and two in the box) which can be used to power heavy tools and equipment when used in “normal” mode.

When the truck is parked, and the key is removed from the ignition (doors locked), the APO can be placed in “continuous” mode, enabling the engine to run unattended while the truck is effectively used as a mobile generator (the current practice is to haul gasoline-powered generators to jobsites that lack AC). If the truck runs low on fuel in this mode, the horn sounds to alert the owner.

On the road, the Sierra/Silverado Hybrids drive like any other V8-powered GM pickup. One initially unnerving effect of the engine shutdown technology, however, is that on a grade, the truck will roll backwards in the time it takes between removing your foot from the brake, and automatically restarting the engine. This can be avoided by pressing a button at the end of the column-mounted gearshift, which prevents the engine from shutting down (the Smart car expected this fall has a hill-hold feature that prevents rolling back on grades, which would be a good idea on these trucks).

The 42V battery uses step-down technology to power 12V accessories, and can be jump-started using conventional 12V equipment. Hybrid components in the truck are warranted for eight years/160,000 km, in addition to the standard three year/60,000 km warranty.

The hybrid package (which is a $6,900-$7,205 option) bundles bucket seats, automatic climate control, centre console and premium audio, among other upgrades, into the price.

The hybrid technology part of this package costs only $3,500, and consumers will have to wait until the next model year for the premium options to be unbundled from the hybrid specification. This should lower the base price of the trucks.

Contractors, tradespeople and consumers who tow boats and trailers should find the benefits of GM’s hybrid trucks quite appealing, especially with their mobile generating capability.

The question remains, however, as to whether these trucks are really hybrids at all. GM somewhat freely describes this system as “hybrid propulsion technology,” and places “Hybrid” badging on the front fenders to further make the point.

But many would argue that a hybrid vehicle has come to imply a combination of gasoline (or diesel) and electricity that actually drives the vehicle. With these trucks, only gasoline propels them; the electric motor is not connected to the driveline. All other hybrids available in Canada, including the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Ford Escape Hybrid, use the gasoline engine and electric motor for motive power.

Hybrid badge
Click image to enlarge

Future hybrids from GM include the Saturn VUE (2006) and Chevrolet Malibu (2007). According to GM executives, the trend will be toward using the electric motor to assist with propulsion, like the GM diesel-electric hybrid bus, and hybrids from other manufacturers.

“We’re entering the market step-by-step,” said one GM executive. “We want to make sure we get everything right as we introduce this technology.”

Production of 2005 Sierra/Silverado Hybrids begins in August. Look for a limited release in the fall, with 20 dealers in Canada certified to meet sales and service guidelines for the 150 vehicles assigned for Canada this coming model year.

Demand for the vehicles will determine whether additional trucks will be made available, although GM expects to easily sell out the vehicles allocated here.

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