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ENERGY-EFFICIENT V-6 POWERS NEW SUVS

Hulking gas guzzlers are passe. Gas-electric hybrid SUVs are the latest fashion.

Environmental sensibilities grow more anguished by the day, hence the mandate to be responsible. No wonder fire-breathing V-8s and drag-strip horsepower have become unhip.

I've been test driving a GMC Yukon sport-utility vehicle, powered by a 6.0-liter, V-8 connected to a 300-volt battery, with two electric motors that help drive the wheels. In city driving the Yukon gas-electric hybrid claims 21 miles per gallon, a 50 percent improvement over a Yukon powered by a V-8 only.

At highway speeds, the V-8 can run in energy-efficiency mode, with only half its cylinders firing. This Yukon is no science project; it can be boughtfor $51,000 at a GMC dealership.

General Motors Corp. has taken pains to plaster the front, back and sides of its new Yukon with comically large "Hybrid" decals and insignias, as if to tell other motorists: 'Hey, buddy, don't get the wrong idea about this 7,100-pound hog. I'm actually saving gasoline."

Every fashion inevitably fades. Likewise, the desire to be seen driving hulking vehicles like the Ford Expedition, Hummer H2, Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada and their ilk. Notwithstanding the Yukon's decals, I felt a bit like the last kid in class to hear that bell-bottom pants had been deemed hopelessly passe.

Not one to buck trends for long, GM has scrapped a $300-million program to build a newly designed V-8 engine at its factory in Tonawanda, N.Y. Ford Motor Co. is showing off a new, smaller Ford Explorer SUV, which for the first time won't be available in a V-8 version.

The new Explorer, based on a car chassis rather than a truck undercarriage, will be lighter than its predecessor and powered by what Ford is calling, lest anyone miss the point, its EcoBoost engine.

Ford's four-cylinder and six-cylinder EcoBoosts will feature turbocharging and direct injection of fuel into the cylinders, technologies that increase power and torque in smaller engines. Ford claims a 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency for the four-cylinder and 20 percent for the six- cylinder, compared with conventional engines.

"We're definitely turning a corner with engines," said Bill Visnic, a freelance automotive writer specializing in engines and transmissions. "GM is saying it can get V-8 performance from a V-6, which is certainly true with the 306-horsepower V-6 it offers in the Cadillac CTS."

Up next:TUNING OUT

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