Living In Harmony

By Jerry Garrett

August 15, 2008 6 min read

LIVING IN HARMONY

Hybrid SUVs maintain utility while increasing gas mileage

Jerry Garrett

Creators News Service

The words "hybrid" and "SUV" don't seem to belong in the same sentence. But an increasing number of SUVs are being offered with new hybrid technology -- some of it on the cutting edge. SUVs still are too heavy and too large to achieve fuel economy numbers like a Toyota Prius, but they do score quite well compared to other SUVs.

The newest technology on the market is the two-mode hybrid system now available on high-end Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon models. It will soon be available on the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs. The technology was jointly developed by General Motors, the old DaimlerChrysler and BMW.

In the GM application, a 332-horsepower 6-liter V8 gasoline engine with a cylinder deactivation system kicks in when cruising instead of accelerating. This is hooked up to a CVT automatic transmission and an electric motor. Depending on driving demands, the vehicle can operate on one or both of their power sources.

The resulting fuel economy, as rated by the EPA, increases city driving economy from the low to mid teens as on the gasoline-engine only powered versions to 20 miles per gallon. Highway mileage is also boosted by one mpg to 20.

On paper this is a significant improvement for these three-ton behemoths. But in real-world testing, they are lucky to average much more than 17 or 18 mpg.

Also problematic is the price of a Tahoe or Yukon hybrid: $53,000 and up. Buyers may be able to qualify for a tax credit of $2,200 and possible rebates of several thousand dollars since sales have been slow since their introduction earlier in 2008.

A more economical, popular and lower priced option is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV. The seven-passenger Highlander Hybrid is just like a regular Highlander, right down to its comfy handling, simple cabin design and 81 cubic feet of cargo capacity. But the Hybrid is more powerful and it gets better fuel economy.

The mid-size Highlander Hybrid has the same V6 as the standard model, calibrated for hybrid duty and linked to three electric motors. One of the motors is responsible for starting the gas engine and recharging the 288-volt battery pack. Another teams with the V6 to drive the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. The third motor powers the all-wheel-drive unit, sending extra power or traction to the rear wheels, if needed.

The system may sound overly complex, but it all operates seamlessly without driver input required.

It is a powerful setup too, turning out 270 horsepower (same as the regular Highlander). During track-testing, the Highlander Hybrid needed only 7.2 seconds to go from zero to 60 miles per hour, which makes it one of the fastest SUVs in its price range. Mileage is rated at 31 city/27 highway, but in testing, 23 mpg was a more realistic average. (A long freeway drive, with air conditioning running, yielded only 18 mpg fuel economy -- worse than its gasoline-powered counterpart.)

The base price starts at $33,700, but it can escalate to more than $40,000 if it's fully equipped. That's nearly as much as the closely related but much more plush Lexus R400h hybrid. The Lexus is also offered in a two wheel drive version; a 2WD version of the Highlander is no longer offered. The Lexus, by the way, is EPA rated at just 26 city/24 highway.

The hybrid technology in these Toyota products adds about $3,000 to the price of each. The hybrid premium for the GM models is harder to calculate, but base models of gasoline-powered versions of the Yukon and Tahoe start almost $20,000 less.

The highest rated hybrid SUV, the Ford Escape Hybrid, lists for $26,640 in 2WD, and $28,390 for AWD models. A base gasoline-powered Escape starts at $19,140. But like the GM and Toyota SUVs, the hybrid models are equipped with a lot of nice standard features such as leather upholstery.

The compact Escape Hybrid is has the highest EPA rating of any SUV at 34 city/30 highway. In testing, the Ford did the best job of delivering on the promise of its lofty EPA rating. Mixed driving averaged 31 mpg under a range of driving conditions.

No gasoline powered SUV can top that, and neither can any of the Escape Hybrid's competitors -- odd, since the hybrid technology in the Escape is very similar to that in the Toyota (Ford, in fact, licenses some of the software from Toyota). The Escape is also eligible for a tax credit of $2,200 to $3,000 for its buyers.

Escape's cargo dimensions, however, are the coziest of the category, at 66 cubic feet. Seating is also limited to five.

Mazda offers a very limited number of Tribute Hybrids, which are just re-packaged Escape Hybrids. Like the Escape, it offers the same tax credit. That is, of course, if you can find one.

Depending on how many miles you drive, it will probably take years to amortize the higher initial cost of buying these hybrids against the amount of gasoline they save. But there's more to it than improving your fuel economy or amortizing costs. There's the satisfaction of knowing you've opted for the greenest form of transportation possible without giving up a bit of utility.

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