Chevy Silverado hybrid — more generator than gas saver

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The storm hits with ferocity knocking out electricity for miles. It will be hours, maybe days, before power is restored as the storm rages.

Most people will be eating, reading and sleeping by lantern light. They’ll get their news on a battery-operated television or radio. And if the outage stretches from hours into days, they will worry about their food spoiling in the refrigerator and freezer.

You’re astounded when you learn that Joe down the street has powered up some lights, kept his refrigerator humming and has the living room television and DVD player cranked up to keep the family entertained.

You’re astounded because you know Joe doesn’t own an expensive generator. But Joe does own a new truck, a Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid pickup. And the pickup comes with four three-prong outlets in the cargo box and back seat providing 120 volts to run everything from a computer to a television. A drop cord will keep the household comfortable.

Amazing, indeed!
But, there is an asterisk. The gas engine needs to be running to keep the charge up. Chevrolet says you could draw electricity for up to 32 hours without refueling. And a safety system prevents the fuel tank from running dry.
Outdoorsmen may also find the truck handy for a variety of uses at the campsite. And construction workers likewise can benefit with the ability to operate or recharge power tools at a remote site.

We drove the new hybrid for a week, and fortunately the weather was picture perfect and we didn’t have to test the truck’s ability to keep our meat and produce cold. And we of limited courage didn’t hit the back woods for an overnighter, either.

One of several drawbacks of our 2005 test truck was its horrid Kermit the Frog “lime green” color. It was part of the hybrid package. Thankfully, if you decide to purchase the hybrid, it comes in other more conservative colors.

Another drawback - the truck will be sold only to retail customers in California, Washington and Oregon for 2005. Presumably, it will hit the rest of the country when the 2006 model arrives.

And finally, the $2,500 price of admission to get the hybrid technology might be a bit daunting when you figure you only gain three miles to the gallon over the Silverado LS 4-wheel drive Extended Cab.

General Motors may offer help with the hybrid cost. Our test vehicle came with a “power pack savings” of $3,000, reducing the $40,040 bottom line to $37,040.

The hybrid comes with the 5.3-liter V-8 and is rated at 17 miles to the gallon in city driving and 19 mpg highway. The non-hybrid version is rated at 14 and 16.
One reason fuel savings isn’t greater is that the General Motors system does not provide any power boost to the gas engine. Its main function is to conserve fuel via automatic engine shutdown and startup at stops.

Instead of a conventional starter motor and alternator, the GM hybrid pickup uses a compact 14-kilowatt electric induction motor or starter generator integrated between the engine and transmission.

Three, valve-regulated, lead-acid batteries store power for the 42-volt system that powers the electric motor. The batteries are housed in a box mounted under the rear seat. A conventional 12-volt battery powers all the normal electrical items in the cab.

GM says the batteries have a four-year life cycle.

The Silverado is what has been tagged a “mild” hybrid in that the electric motor does not add to the performance. It merely keeps the vehicle alive when the gas engine is shut down.

The Toyota Prius and Ford Escape Hybrid, to name two, are “full” or “strong” hybrids in that the electric motor can power the vehicle,  either by itself or in tandem with the gas engine.

If you haven’t driven a hybrid vehicle, you may find it a bit disconcerting to hear the gas engine turn off as you brake to a stop and remain off as you wait for the stoplight to change.

A hydraulic pump powered by electricity keeps the steering assist and other auxiliary equipment operating until the engine restarts.

Fear not as you ease into the gas when the light turns green. The Silverado surges forward in the same manner as any other V-8-powered Chevy truck. In fact, other than the electrical technology, the hybrid runs, handles and hauls the same as a standard extended cab Chevrolet truck. That means a competent vehicle for work or play.

Our test truck was loaded with a lot of good stuff, which translated into a healthy price tag. Base price of the LS 4-wheel drive Extended Cab is $31,505 including destination charge.

Our test truck carried the Safe and Sound package that includes upgraded stereo with Bose speakers and XM satellite radio and the OnStar system; the Light Duty Power package that includes the 5.3-liter V-8, trailer equipment and locking differential;  the hybrid system; and several other options including leather seating,  aluminum wheels and dual-zone climate control.

Even if you don’t find the gas savings worthwhile, you might like the idea of plugging in your power lug wrench while changing a tire on a busy highway. Or you might just want to be the first in your neighborhood with new technology.
We have a hunch we will see more of this type of hybrid application in the future.

If you’re on the West Coast check your favorite Chevy store to determine availability.