GM tries again with big hybrid pickups

After two failed attempts, General Motors will try hybrid pickups again.

Later this year, GM will build 700 hybrid pickups — 500 Chevrolet Silverados and 200 GMC Sierras — and market test them in California. The trucks will be equipped with a new version of GM’s eAssist mild hybrid system, which turns the alternator into a motor that is used for a start-stop system and that helps the vehicle accelerate.

GM will charge $500 for the eAssist system, which will be offered only on the Chevrolet Silverado 1LT two-wheel-drive crew-cab model and the GMC Sierra Crew Cab two-wheel drive with SLT package.

Both of the trucks are equipped with GM’s 5.3-liter pushrod V-8 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. The eAssist system bumps fuel economy from 16 mpg city/22 highway, and 18 mpg combined, to 18 city/24 highway and 20 mpg combined.

That tops all full-size truck competitors with V-8 engines, including Nissan and Toyota, according to the EPA’s fueleconomy.gov.

The comparable Ford F-150, for example, with its 5.0-liter V-8, six-speed automatic and lightweight aluminum body carries an EPA rating of 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway.

The eAssist system uses a lithium ion battery pack with 24 cells under the console or front bench seat. It adds about 100 pounds to the trucks’ weight.

GM also made a few aerodynamic tweaks to help highway fuel economy. The trucks have active grille shutters in front of the radiator which open and close based on the vehicle’s speed and temperature, and a tonneau cover over the bed to reduce wind resistance at highway speeds.

GM offered a full hybrid powertrain on its large pickups from 2009 to 2013. The Two Mode system, which varied power to the wheels, delivered best-in-class V-8 fuel economy of 21 mpg city/ 22 highway and 22 mpg combined, but the trucks didn’t sell well, partially because of the high price. The least expensive 2012 Silverado Hybrid was $41,000 before destination and taxes, compared with just over $30,000 for the non-hybrid version.

Prior to the Two Mode trucks, GM offered a hybrid Silverado that also doubled as a mobile power-generating station. That truck was available from 2005 to 2007, but also did not sell well.

GMC spokeswoman Kelly Wysocki said GM will closely monitor sales of the hybrid trucks, which arrive at California dealers in May, and decide by the end of the year if the they will be launched nationally.

The eAssist system will be bundled with GM’s cylinder cutoff system, or active fuel management, that turns off four of the engine’s cylinders at highway cruising speeds.

GM has not yet announced final pricing on the hybrid trucks, but Wysocki said the GMC version will cost around $50,000.

In the battle over pickup fuel economy, nearly all automakers have made gains in recent years by going to smaller engines or by adding diesels, not by adding expensive hybrid components.

The full-size pickup fuel economy leader for 2016 is the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, which is EPA rated at 21 city/29 highway and 24 mpg combined. Ford’s most efficient pickup is rated at 19 city/26 highway and 22 combined, while GM’s top EPA rated Silverado and Sierra are rated at 18 mpg city/24 highway and 20 combined — same as the eAssist hybrid trucks.

GM has said it will be adding more diesel engines to its lineup, but has not committed to installing a diesel engine in its full-sized trucks. Ford is expected to add a small diesel to the F-150, possibly by late next year.

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