Go North — and take that big-ass SUV with you. That was the mandate from the wife, so that's what I did. Sure, it was partly to visit friends near Lewiston, four hours north of Detroit, but it was also partly to get the 2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid out of our driveway. Greenwashing badges be damned, it was a little embarrassing to have a brand-new full-size SUV in front of my modest home in Southeast Michigan; I know neighbors who have been laid off, and neighbors who have changed their driving habits to afford gas. Against that backdrop, the Tahoe felt ostentatious and a little improper, regardless of whether or not it was a fleet loaner.
So a friend and I left for that imaginary line cutting across the middle of the state that heads into the untamed wilderness known as "up north." The Tahoe Hybrid was ostensibly built to make such trips easier. Haul the family to the lake in comfort, all while getting 22 MPG. It made sense two years ago when the GMT900 hybrids were in the design phase, gas was $2.50 a gallon, and credit was cheap. But summer 2008 is shaping up to be one of cottage foreclosures and deferred vacations, a vastly different scenario into which these beasts have been thrust.
On the highway, the Tahoe's manners are impeccable, at least for a nearly three-ton vehicle. It's exactly what we've come to expect from a GMT900 truck: A massive, comfortable cruiser that loafs along at 1,800 RPM requiring only minimal input from the steering wheel and even less from one's brain. The highway manners of the nav system, on the other hand, were awful. The interface was a pain to use, options were difficult to find, and the system's idea of the "fastest" way to and from our destination was laughably wrong.
Encountering a few hundred of the lake faithful in a traffic jam near Saginaw, the hybrid's uniqueness began to show. Puttering bumper-to-bumper at about 20 MPH, the engine drops out with a slight shudder and the Tahoe hums along in pure electric mode, smoothly and silently. Until the brakes are applied, anyway: At that point, the regenerative braking leads to an unexpected off-throttle deceleration effect—kind of like engine braking in a manual transmission vehicle. It's not exactly refined, but one gets used to it and learns to anticipate the effect.
When traffic opens up again, a push on the throttle brings the 6-liter Vortec V8 back into action, with the transition between electric and gas marking itself with another slight shudder. A Prius owner might consider the whole thing obtrusive, but the driveline machinations are reasonably imperceptible. At least to the occupants of the Tahoe, that is — everyone else knows exactly what's going on thanks to no fewer than nine different hybrid badges, stickers, and emblems on our tester.
As we turned off the main highway onto the back roads near Mio, and then onto dirt tracks for the final 20 miles of our journey, the Tahoe continued to impress. The suspension soaked up rough terrain without complaint, the interior remained smooth and quiet, and when the going got slow, we slipped into golf-cart mode, gliding past startled deer while the onboard computer bragged about its nearly 22 MPG average.
Green credentials notwithstanding, the Tahoe Hybrid is truly a mammoth, a soon-to-be-extinct lumbering giant that looks at the same time contemporary and horribly passé. It has no place to go; the market window for a full-size SUV that gets 20 MPG closed somewhere around the $3.50-per-gallon point, leaving the Tahoe Hybrid and its GMC Yukon brother outdated before they ever hit the road.
"But it's a hybrid, so it must be environmentally sound, right?" No. A 50% improvement in mileage vs. the straight gasoline-powered Tahoe is a damn impressive feat, but 21 city/22 highway isn't good enough anymore. Conventional minivans do better than that (combined) and carry just as many people, yet even their sales are sinking because their size and mileage simply doesn't cut it these days.
The real nail in the coffin, though, is the $52,780 sticker price on the Tahoe Hybrid we tested. Yeah, it was outfitted with everything except 4WD, but that's the only way they come. "Base" price for a Tahoe Hybrid is still tickling $50,000. Why didn't Chevy offer a cloth-seat, no-nav basic Tahoe Hybrid for, say, $38k? They would have if volume sales were really what they were interested in.
But they weren't. The Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is a marketing gimmick, both for General Motors and the handful of McMansion dwellers who might actually take one home from a dealership. And, unfortunately for both of them, this particular electric car has already been killed by yet another ebb in the American tide of conspicuous consumption.
(All photos copyright Jalopnik/Andrew Stoy)
2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, Part Two