GM and DCX Set to Sell Hybrid SUV's: Big Woop

Megan Benoit
by Megan Benoit

The hybrid hype has finally reached Detroit. This fall, the gi-normous GMT900-based GMC Yukon (a.k.a. the Chevrolet Tahoe) will offer optional dual-mode hybrid engine technology. Next year, Chrysler will follow suit with a hybrid Durango/Aspen. Both automakers promise 25 percent better mileage on the highway. Chrysler is claiming a 40 percent increase in the city. GM promises a 25 percent urban gain. Happy days are here again! You’ll soon be able to have your SUV and afford to drive it too! And cool the planet! Or, you know, not.

While the idea of a full-size hybrid SUV may send California’s Governator into a muscle flexing frenzy, one doesn’t have to read too carefully between the lines to see the abject futility of this venture. Let’s crunch a few numbers.

According to our friends over at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Yukon/Tahoe twins burn gas at the non-PC pace of one gallon every 16 miles in town, and once every 21 miles on the open road. Chrysler’s most efficient V8 uses gas at a buttock-clenching 14/19 mpg.

To fix this sales sucking situation, GMC and Chrysler have equipped their big rigs with Prius-like (though proprietary) dual-mode hybrid technology. At low speeds and light loads, the hi-tech SUV’s can move forwards (or backwards) via electric power, internal combstion or some combination thereof. At high speeds or heavy loads (i.e. drag racing with a bass boat behind), the hybrid's batteries assist the engine. Add regenerative brakes and displacement-on-demand cylinder deactivation and away you go.

Surely all this ground-breaking technology will provide significant efficiency improvements and fuel cost savings. I don’t know about you but I’m thinking, what, mid to high 20’s? That kind of improvement might even give the SUV genre a new lease (five year loan?) on life. No sir.

For those of you who haven't done the math yet, the hybridified GM and DCX SUV’s are set to eke out a paltry 19-20mpg. And that’s city driving, where hybrids typically shine.

The enemy, of course, is weight. Just as you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you can’t turn a gas hog into silk pajamas (or something like that). Although GM is retrofitting the hybrid Yukahoe with aluminum components to compensate for 300 lbs. of batteries, it’s more or less a wash. The SUV’s will still weigh in at nearasdammit 5000 lbs. (or more depending on drivetrain).

Bottom line: a 25 percent improvement on not much ain’t a whole lot. But it is something, right?

“We have to think hard about the consumer who buys vehicles like the Dodge Durango and the Chrysler Aspen,” prevaricates Mark Chernoby, who’s just one letter away from having the world’s worst name for a VP of Advanced Vehicle Engineering. “These are people who want to have hauling capability.”

OK, but how many people who really need 8900 lbs. of towing capacity are gonna fork out a bunch more money for a vehicle offering few more mpg’s– especially when there's a lot full of heavily discounted non-hybrids lazing around?

Yes, here we go again: the “hybrid premium.” Forking out a couple of thousand bucks extra for hybrid tech has got to be pretty low on your average SUV buyer’s “to do” list. Buyers who previously owned full-sized SUV’s as status symbols (and got religion down at their local pump ‘n pay) have either left the genre already or can’t wait to do so. And any Chevy, GMC, Dodge or Chrysler dealer who thinks he’s going to see Prius drivers wheeling into his lot to trade-up to a hybrid SUV is plumb crazy.

It’s no surprise that the domestic automaker’s first serious hybrid offerings have arrived in SUV form. SUV’s are cheap to build, the factories and suppliers are already in place and they’re the automakers’ highest profit product. Besides, genuine clean sheet designs are extremely expensive and risky propositions. Better to stick with what you know.

But American consumers will quickly see that boosting SUV gas mileage by 25 percent is nothing more than porcine lipstick application. If gas prices crest four bucks a gallon this summer, this insight will only require of femtosecond of consumer decision making. The odds that gas prices will trend downwards enough to lure large numbers of SUV buyers by the fall, when GMC unleashes their hybrids, are smaller than the Honda Fits, Nissan Versas, Toyota Yari and Chevrolet Aveos many of SUV refugees are now driving (no, really).

By the same token, Chrysler will enjoy the privilege of watching GMC fail to sell their hybrid Yukahoes before they open the gates on gas – electric Aspangos. Perhaps DCX (or whomever) will learn by example and not spend precious advertising and marketing resources on this ill-advised makeover. Maybe they’ll build a hybrid-powered 300C instead, to help revive that line’s flagging sales. Who knows? Maybe gas pigs can fly.

Megan Benoit
Megan Benoit

I'm a computer security geek raised in Nebraska and recently transplanted to Atlanta. I like me some cars, got into car geekery a few years ago and haven't looked back since. I also volunteer at a local ferret shelter and participate in various charity and fund-raising events related to that.

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  • Gfen Gfen on May 05, 2007

    I don't think this article is quite fair.. Its a step forward. I'm not defending trucks by any means (I think the vast majority of us would do just fine driving station wagons and minivans), but there's a certain segment of people who want these monsters... So, if a 25% gain from 16mpg to 20mpg is all it gets, at least its _something_. We're witnessing automakers in a transitional phase, as we try to get away from the traditional vehicles to something more efficent from diesel to HEV to PEV. Every little step counts for something.

  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Jun 20, 2007

    "Don’t forget that miles per gallon is an inverse unit so comparing changes at different levels can be misleading; the ’same’ change makes more difference at the low end. For a fixed amount of driving, going from 16mpg to 19mpg (19% improvement) saves more gas than going from 35mpg to 50mpg (43% improvement)." So for a given amount of driving, and a given number of vehicles, we'd see more improvement uping the mileage on big SUVs by a few MPGs than we would uping the mileage on little econo-boxes by 15. Of course, it would also help if all the people who drive large SUVs, but have no real need for a vehicle that size would get into something smaller and more efficient.

  • 1995 SC Modern 4 door sedans stink. The roofline on them is such that it wrecks both the back seat and trunk access in most models. Watch someone try to get their kid into a car seat in the back of a modern sedan. Then watch them try to get the stroller into the mail slot t of a trunk opening. I would happily trade the 2 MPG at highway speed that shape may be giving me for trunk and rear seat accessibility of the sedans before this stupidity took over. I ask you, back in the day when Sedans were king, would any of them with the compromises of modern sedans have sold well? So why do we expect them to sell today? Make them usable for the target audience again and just maybe people will buy them. Keep them just as they are and they'll keep buying crossovers which might be the point.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X As much problems as I had with my '96 Chevy Impala SS.....I would love to try one again. I've seen a Dark Cherry Metallic one today and it looked great.
  • Susan O’Neil There is a good reason to keep the Chevrolet Malibu and other 4 door family sedans! You can transport your parents and other somewhat handicapped people comfortably and safety! If someone can stand and pivot you can put them in your car. An armrest in the back seat is appreciated and a handle above the door! Oh…and leather seats so your passenger can slide across the seat! 😊Plus, you can place a full sized wheelchair or walker in the trunk! The car sits a little lower…so it’s doable! I currently have a Ford Fusion and we have a Honda Accord. Our previous cars were Mercury Sables-excellent for transporting handicapped people and equipment! As the population ages-sedans are a very practical choice! POV from a retired handicapped advocate and daughter! 😊
  • Freddie Remember those ads that say "Call your doctor if you still have...after four hours"?You don't need to call your doctor, just get behind the wheel of a CUV. In fact, just look at one.I'm a car guy with finite resources; I can't afford a practical car during the week plus a fun car on the weekend. My solution is my Honda Civic Si 4 door sedan. Maybe yours is a Dodge Charger (a lot of new Chargers are still on dealer lots).
  • Daniel J Interesting in that we have several weeks where the temperature stays below 45 but all weather tires can't be found in a shop anywhere. I guess all seasons are "good enough".