First Drive Review: 2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Two-Mode Hybrid

First Drive Review: 2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Two-Mode Hybrid
Photos: Jim Fets

We’re just beginning to understand the implications of the new federal fuel economy and emissions standards, which are virtually certain to change the nature of half-ton pickups forever. Light trucks (pickups, vans, crossovers and SUVs) will have to average 30 mpg by 2016, up from 23.1 mpg today. That’s a 30 percent jump in efficiency. If we apply that figure just to pickups, a truck averaging 17 mpg today would have to average just over 22 mpg seven years from now. There’s only one full-size truck that already comes close to hitting that mark in combined city and highway driving: The GMC Sierra 1500 Hybrid, along with its twin, the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Hybrid.

In many ways, the Sierra Hybrid represents the best and worst of what’s likely to come for pickup truck buyers.

We drove the Sierra Hybrid around San Antonio to find out how fuel-thrifty it is in urban driving conditions. Cities are the ideal operating environment for hybrid vehicles because there they can operate on electric power only at low speeds, such as pulling away from stoplights or puttering around in rush-hour traffic, rather than burning gasoline. City driving is also where GM’s 6.0-liter V-8 hybrid powertrain originated, efficiently powering the wheels of big diesel-electric buses before the system was shrunk and repurposed for GM’s full-size trucks.

2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Two-Mode Hybrid

The Sierra Hybrid uses two 60kW (81 horsepower) electric motors that can power the truck on their own up to about 25 mph, depending on driving conditions. As the multi-displacement 6.0-liter pushrod V-8 gas engine kicks in, the electric motors seamlessly support it, individually or in tandem, at low and high speeds, helping the engine enter fuel-saving four-cylinder mode sooner and stay in it longer to achieve maximum miles per gallon. The Sierra's electrically variable transmission provides an almost infinite range of gears, but it also has four fixed gears, like a conventional automatic transmission, that can be manually selected with the column shifter.

Our Sierra test truck was a four-wheel-drive model, EPA rated at an impressive 20/20 mpg city/highway. The two-wheel-drive version rates even better, at 21/22 mpg city/highway.

We drove a 29-mile route that began in San Antonio’s outer suburbs and wound its way to the city’s center. Using only surface streets, we crossed neighborhoods, school zones, business parks and commerce zones in the 5,882-pound truck. During the outbound portion of our stop-and-go drive, which lasted just over an hour, we averaged 21 mpg. Reversing the route on our return, we averaged 19 mpg. That made for a 20 mpg average, matching the EPA’s rating.

2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Two-Mode Hybrid

Driving the conventionally powered 6.0-liter V-8 Sierra and Silverado, we’ve gotten mileage in the mid-13 mpg range in the city, so the Sierra Hybrid’s almost-50-percent better results are nothing short of astounding.

The truck drove nicely, too, especially considering the extra 300 pounds of electrical components and batteries, plus low-rolling-resistance Bridgestone P265/65R18 all-season tires that made for a slightly harsh ride.

When we paid careful attention while slowing down, we could feel the truck’s three-part brake system trade responsibilities between the electric motors in the transmission (that acts as an engine brake), the two-stage hydraulic regenerative brakes (that recharge the batteries), and the standard four-wheel disc brakes (that use only friction to scrub speed).

We were impressed with the truck’s quiet takeoffs and with how well GM’s engineers have balanced the blending and calibration of the hybrid’s gas and electric motors. With all the software needed to pull this system together, it’s nothing short of NASA-like in its complexity and as a pure feat of automotive engineering.

2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Two-Mode Hybrid

Advancements like this, however, don’t come for free, as we found out -- and as future buyers will, too.

Although we didn’t tow with the Sierra Hybrid, we’ve pulled more than 5,000 pounds of watercraft and around 3,000 pounds of Mazda Miata race car and gear with the Silverado Hybrid. Neither of those loads would be a challenge for today’s standard eight-cylinder half-ton pickups, but the heaviest of those loads used up most of the hybrid’s 6,100-pound towing capacity (it’s 5,900 pounds for four-wheel-drive models). GM’s 6.0-liter gas V-8 crew cab half-ton pickups are rated to tow up to 10,700 pounds with an optional enhanced trailering package.

The hybrid can’t tow as much because, given its current cooling capacity, the extra weight would overheat the electronics of its electric drive system, GM says. Gary White, GM North America vice president and vehicle line executive for GM full-size trucks, said he thinks GM’s next-generation hybrid pickups will be able to tow up to 50 percent more than today’s trucks.

The Sierra Hybrid’s tradeoffs include more than just diminished tow ratings. It also hits the wallet with a sticker price that’s about $3,000-$4,000 higher than a similarly configured conventional pickup. For example, a modestly equipped GMC Sierra 1500 SLE crew cab two-wheel-drive short-box with a 6.0-liter V-8 and Max Trailering Package is $34,675. The GMC Sierra 1500 Hybrid crew cab two-wheel-drive short-box starts at $38,390. At least in the near-term, buyers qualify for a $2,200 federal tax credit when they buy a gas-electric Sierra or Silverado, but the rebate will be phased out after GM has sold more than 60,000 eligible trucks.

2009 GMC Sierra 1500 Two-Mode Hybrid

Still, when loaded within its limits, the hybrid pulls just like a diesel heavy-duty pickup. The two electric motors apply 100 percent of available torque from 0 mph and are powerful enough to get the truck moving up to almost 20 mph on electricity alone, saving fuel and providing an electric, turbo-like boost to the gas engine as needed when towing. The torque from the electric motors also helps compensate for the Sierra Hybrid’s stout -- but very efficient -- 3.08 rear axle. We think GM’s half-ton hybrids are the best light-side-of-light-duty towing rigs out there.

Another drawback for work-truck buyers looking for a fuel-efficient pickup, however, is that the Sierra Hybrid can only be configured as a crew cab with a 5.77-foot cargo box. A regular cab with an 8-foot bed isn’t available because the extra space under the second-row seats is needed to store the massive 300-volt battery packs.

GM's vehicle line director for full-size pickups, Mike Tulumello, said GM is well aware of the need to offer its two-mode hybrid propulsion system in additional configurations, and he promised that developing improved battery packaging that would allow them to do just that is one of their highest priorities.

After driving the Sierra and speaking extensively with its engineers, marketers and execs, the main thing that stuck with us is the fact that everyone is intensely proud of the technical achievement they’ve accomplished in the Two-Mode Hybrid System. However, nobody said they expected it to be a big sales success, because of its relatively high cost.

Is the world ready to embrace the Sierra Hybrid? Perhaps not today, at these prices, but in the next eight years, as we move to 2016, we’ll be astounded if GM can’t make progress shrinking the cost, size and complexity of its hybrid powertrain to make it much more versatile, powerful and acceptable to truck buyers.



It's good that you compared the hybrid to it's V8 equivalent.
If you compare the hybrid's 20 mpg versus the non-hybrid's 13 mpg at gas prices of $2.20 gallon you'd have to drive over 57,000 miles to get your $4,000 dollars back from the extra cost of the hybrid system. I'm not sure how the government tax incentive works and how much money it would actually put back in my pocket. My concern is what is the lifespan and replacement cost of the batteries, and what will it cost to repair any of the hybrid components. I think your best buy for now would be the GMC with a 5.3 L V8. It has the best fuel economy of any of GM/Chev's trucks.

why not make these trucks series hybrid for even better mpg
like these from rasertech:
140 mpg full size truck
100 mpg Hummer

I love my 1999 Silverado LS extended Cab short bed with the 5.3 L. and a 3.42 Gears and best of all NO v-4 mode!!! I get 17.7 in city and 22.5 on Hwy. I have a bed cover on it too. I drive with cruise between 62-65 and gets a good 22.5 MPG on HWY and thats empty weight. Also that a 4 speed Automatic.. I think if they would left it with just the 8 mode and put a 6 speed Auto.. it would been just fine. I.m not for the Hybrid.. That just me, we all have different opinion and that mine!!!God Bless and keep figure out new Ideas!!!

The numbers:

15000 miles / 20 mpg = 750 gallons
750 gallons x $2.20 = $1650 a year in fuel

13 mpg is only in the city. It will get better on the highway. Figure 15 mpg average.

15000 miles / 15 mpg = 1000 gallons
1000 gallons x $2.20 = $2200 a year in fuel

You save $550 a year.

$4000 hybri cost / $550 = 7.2 years before you broke even

If you were elible for a $2200 credit:
$1800 hybrid cost / $550 = 3.27 years before you broke even.

How does the decreased payload and tounge weight affect the max towing rating?

Also, the 5.7 short box makes this truck useless for me.

Get used to it boys. In order for trucks and SUV's to meet the new standards some type of hybrid system will need to be used since it does not appear clean diesel's will be introduced into the 1/2 ton or smaller lines.

I'm not to crazy about hybrids. I don't do a lot of city driving, so they really don't have a use for me. I love the new body style though.

I drive mostly highway miles and get 18 mpg. This hybrid gets 20 mpg on the highway. Driving 15k a year, it would take 21 years before you broke even. Where are the savings???

Thanks but no thanks.

Ross, I'll get used to whatever Ford is offering. The Ecoboost is supposed to get 23 mpg and doesn't hurt towing and payload like the GM Hybrid does.

Take a bigger picture approach to this folks. The hybrid system dramatically cuts down on vehicle emissions while still offering most of what a traditional powertrain offers. These first hybrids are aimed at the non-commercial use buyer. The commuter or family use drivers. They're going to drive a crewcab truck anyway, so this makes the vehicle much more palatable ecologically. I, for one, will soon be in the market to replace the old F150 I drive, and this truck would make it alot easier to sit in rush hour traffic without burning through 1/4 of a tank just idling along. Way to go GM. Keep up the good work.

20mpg is big news? The new Dodge Ram with a Hemi costs far less, has better towing/hauling ability, and gets the same gas mileage.

It's a gas-guzzling HEMI, not a 2-Mode Hybrid, my friend. Please read.

2009 Hemi Ram = 20mpg

2009 Sierra Hybrid = 20mpg

Explain to me why I should spend $15,000 more for a hybrid with less towing capabilty.

F-150 gets 21 mpg.

Yea, the Ford Gets 21MPG on the highway, but about 12-13 in town, the GMC gets 20 in town, thats where the differance is.

Chris, you forgetting the only way you can get 20 MPG in city is that it in the v-4 mode and keeping your heavy foot off the Pedal!!! LOL Now you tell me who is light Footed, No One... Same goes for the Dodge Ram...HA HA HA Mahindra Pickup beat GMC on MPG....

It's 15 city and 21 highway for the F-150. The Government Motors Hybrid is 20 city and 20 highway. The difference is not significant specially when most people drive highway miles.

Perhaps we are "being lead down the garden path" by Environmentalist/Green groups. There are other ways to reduce greenhouse gases that are more cost effective than $4,000 hybrid systems.

February 2009 Scientific American Magazine
According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), our diets and, specifically, the meat in them cause more greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and the like to spew into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry.
In 1999 Susan Subak, an ecological economist then at the University of East Anglia in England, found that, depending on the production method, cows emit between 2.5 and 4.7 ounces of methane for each pound of beef they produce. Because methane has roughly 23 times the global-warming potential of CO2, those emissions are the equivalent of releasing between 3.6 and 6.8 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere for each pound of beef produced.

A different article stated "Producing the annual beef diet of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles. "

What next.... $4,000 methane mufflers for cows???

Many new vehicles are close to being beyond the financial reach of many people. I personally can't afford a $ 4,000 dollar hybrid system. Many people will keep on driving their old vehicles until they have no choice but to buy a new one.

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