For many of us, the New Year in today’s economy means eating out less often, putting off big purchases and perhaps laying off a few employees. Everyone is on the lookout for efficiency wherever it can be found, including the latest in work-truck vehicles. But a new hybrid pickup, while intriguing from a fuel-sipping and technology standpoint, still falls short of delivering the goods.

Photo: General Motors
The hybrid system consists of a 6.0L V8, a two-mode transmission and a 300-Volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.
The hybrid system consists of a 6.0L V8, a two-mode transmission and a 300-Volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.

Energy prices ran contractors through the ringer last year, and among the rides that seemingly address the need for cutting back on fuel is the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid, a full-size half-ton pickup that delivers up to 22 mpg. But to do so, it offers a towing capacity of only 6,100 lb. Couple that lack of capability with a higher sticker price, and you’ve got a truck that seems to address half the fuel-economy equation.

When it goes on sale this month, the Silverado Hybrid (and its sister model, the GMC Sierra Hybrid) will be available as a two-wheel-drive or 4WD crew-cab model priced from $38,995, not including a federal tax credit worth up to $2,200. Packaged under this comfortable pickup’s hood is a 6.0-liter V8 that cranks out 332 horsepower and 367 lb-ft of torque and delivers 21 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on highway. This represents a loss of 35 hp and 8 lb-ft of torque compared to the gasoline-only version of the 6.0L, which returns 14 mpg in city and 19 mpg on highway. Unique to the hybrid version is a two-mode, electrically-variable transmission, shared with Chrysler, and a 300-Volt nickel-metal-hydride battery.

We recently took General Motors’ latest green machine out for a spin. During our evaluation, power proved plentiful, and, as advertised, we were able to hit 30 mph in electric mode, albeit requiring us to cruise at a snail’s pace. The electric steering was extremely light at slow speeds, with more resistance dialed in as speeds increased. The brakes slowed the nearly three-ton pickup with ease, though the hybrid’s regenerative braking system sometimes made the pedal difficult to modulate.

Our main complaint is focused on the heart of the truck’s hybrid powertrain: its two-mode transmission. Under normal conditions, shifts were smooth; however, when the accelerator was pinned down for quick highway passes there was a noticeable delay, followed by a downshift and a corresponding drop in fuel economy. Overall, our unloaded Silverado Hybrid returned 18.9 mpg.

Despite the truck’s overall efficiency gains over its gas counterparts, work-truck users considering a hybrid vehicle for their fleets will have some serious soul-searching to do. Gasoline prices have plummeted, creating an environment in which it is hard to justify a $6,000 premium. Also consider that buyers may need to drive 200,000 miles before recouping their investment. Adding insult to injury, a properly outfitted gasoline version boasts a maximum 10,600-lb tow rating compared to the hybrid’s 6,100 lb.

Of course, the cost of fuel at the pump has a way of inching up as the weather gets warmer, so an inevitable rise in fuel prices will help offset the hybrid’s cost disadvantage. Yet buyers needing maximum capability from their light-duty pickups will still be left out in the cold. For drivers wanting the best of both worlds, a diesel-hybrid pickup may just do the trick.

Until such an option comes along, GM is developing a 4.5L Duramax V8 turbo-diesel tentatively scheduled to be sold alongside the Silverado Hybrid as early as 2010. This small-block diesel V8 is expected to deliver up to 70% better fuel economy than a gas engine, despite pushing about 310 horsepower and 520 lb-ft of torque. Now that’s something to look forward to.