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Escalade leads charge of big-engine hybrids

In the race to get greener, automakers want to leave no vehicle behind. Some of the largest pickups and sport utility vehicles will soon come in hybrid versions, as automakers bet that consumers want to save fuel without compromising capability.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the race to get greener, automakers want to leave no vehicle behind.

Some of the largest pickups and sport utility vehicles will soon come in hybrid versions, as automakers bet that consumers want to save fuel without compromising capability. Chrysler LLC will show its first two hybrids — both SUVs — at this week's Los Angeles Auto Show, while General Motors Corp. will unveil its hybrid Chevrolet Silverado pickup. Even the mammoth Cadillac Escalade is getting a hybrid option.

But industry analysts are wondering just how much demand there will be for the new power systems.

"Americans shouldn't have to choose tiny little vehicles to get fuel efficiency. We ought to be able to offer a range of choice while still being sensitive to environmental impact," Mark LaNeve, General Motors Corp.'s vice president of North America sales, service and marketing, said during a media preview last week in Detroit.

The Los Angeles show opens to the public Friday after two days of media previews.

The big hybrids will be one story at the show, which is often a showcase for automakers' greenest ideas. Honda Motor Co. will introduce a hydrogen fuel-cell car that will be offered to a few consumers next year, while GM is announcing plans to provide 10 fuel-cell vehicles to ferry customers around at Disneyland. Hyundai Motor Co. will show the QarmaQ concept car, which is made from recycled plastic bottles.

It's unclear how much demand there is for full-size hybrids, said Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates. Omotoso predicts about 10 percent of customers buying large SUVs would choose the hybrid option. Overall, hybrid sales are expected to reach 300,000 this year, or about 2 percent of all U.S. sales, according to R.L. Polk and Co., an auto information and marketing company.

"This is really new territory," Omotoso said. "It will help manufacturers counter the image of gas-guzzling SUVs. Consumers can have their cake and eat it too."

25 percent mileage boost
A hybrid system developed by GM, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and BMW will debut on 2009 models of the Chrysler Aspen, Dodge Durango, the Silverado and the Escalade. The automakers say the hybrid system — called a two-mode hybrid — improves overall fuel economy by 25 percent, or between 40 percent and 50 percent in city driving. For the Silverado, which now gets 15 miles per gallon in the city, that could mean an improvement to 21 miles per gallon, similar to the Toyota Camry in city driving.

The system can operate in electric-only mode at low speeds or with a combination of the gas engine and electric assistance at higher speeds. Like single-mode hybrid systems now used by Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co. and others, the two-mode runs without the gas engine at low speeds, but at higher speeds the electric motor contributes more power. Single-mode systems also have heavier motors, making them less ideal for towing.

Hybrid versions of the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs are scheduled to arrive in showrooms in the middle of 2008, Chrysler said. The SUVs can use an engine-only mode when conditions demand the full power of the 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine, such as climbing a steep hill or pulling a trailer. The Aspen and Durango are capable of towing 6,000 pounds.

Chrysler wouldn't say how much the hybrid Aspen and Durango will sell for, but there will be a premium.

GM already has introduced the two-mode hybrid system in its Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs, which will be available in early 2008, and it had a less efficient hybrid system on earlier versions of the Silverado. But the 2009 Silverado will be the first full-size, full hybrid pickup on the market when it goes on sale at the end of 2008.

GM said the hybrid Silverado can drive up to 30 miles per hour on electricity alone and, with the electric assist, allows the 6-liter, V-8 engine to operate in its more economical V-4 mode. It can tow up to 6,100 pounds.

Diesels compete
Omotoso predicts there will be less demand for hybrid pickups because many heavy-duty pickup drivers already save on fuel with diesels. But he said pickup drivers generally drive long distances, so they would be able to recoup the premium more quickly, and many small businesses might want to take advantage of federal tax breaks for hybrids. Omotoso predicted between 5 percent and 6 percent of pickup drivers will opt for the hybrid.

LaNeve said that's similar to GM's own forecasts, but the company will be able to ramp up production if there's more demand.

LaNeve wouldn't say how much more the hybrid Silverado will cost, but he did say the company doesn't expect to recoup the full cost of the hybrid system's development in its first year on the market. Omotoso said automakers will be lucky to break even on the hybrids initially, since the cost of the system will cut into the profits they usually enjoy on big vehicles. The cost has been estimated at around $10,000.

The Escalade hybrid, which was introduced last week at the Miami Auto Show and will also be in Los Angeles, could get attention from wealthy buyers who aren't concerned about the price of gasoline but consider the vehicle a status symbol. The system improves the Escalade's fuel economy rating from 12 miles per gallon to 18 miles per gallon in city driving.

Automakers are also eager to show they're looking beyond hybrids to even cleaner technology. GM plans to give 100 fuel cell Equinox crossover vehicles to drivers in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. for test programs starting in 2008.

"We get it. We don't think high fuel prices and environmental concerns are a fad," LaNeve said.