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NOT YOUR AVERAGE HYBRID

Some jobs still require the capacity of a full-size sport utility vehicle, like moving a big-screen TV and several large pieces of art from Iowa City, Iowa, to Austin, Texas, about 1,050 miles each direction. - An SUV is better than a pickup because it keeps out rain, debris and would-be thieves. - But gas must cost a fortune. Not really.

Not if you are driving the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which provides 50 percent better fuel economy than a regular version. In fact, the Tahoe Hybrid's fuel economy is comparable to that of a four-cylinder Toyota Camry. With a full tank covering a range of better than 500 miles, the round-trip cost of the Iowa to Texas trip comes in at roughly $350.

I wish I could say it cost even less, but as they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

There is much debate about GM's strategy of using hybrid technology to improve fuel efficiency on its largest vehicles instead of creating high-mileage small cars like the Toyota Prius. The logic of the Tahoe and GMC Yukon hybrids, as well as an upcoming Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, seems to be that people who depend on these vehicles will save gas and some of their self respect while GM protects its very vital SUV turf and improves its fleet fuel economy.

Heading west on Interstate 80 from Iowa City, holiday traffic was fairly heavy as we neared Des Moines and the junction of Interstate 35. When we stopped in Kansas City to refuel, the Tahoe still had half a tank of gas.

The Tahoe boosts mileage not just through the electric motors that supplement the gas engine but through Active Fuel Management that allows the 6-liter, 332-horsepower V-8 engine to operate on 4 cylinders at cruising speed. The shift between 4-cylinder and 8-cylinder mode is undetectable.

You can monitor your own fuel efficiency with a gauge to the left of the steering wheel. When the needle points straight up, you're getting maximum production from the fuel. When the gasoline engine is shut down, the tachometer needle points to the Auto Stop position. This can be a little unsettling because the engine is completely quiet, and you have to resist the urge to turn the ignition key again. Simply push the accelerator and the gas engine kicks back on.

Other than the "Hybrid" insignia emblazoned on the truck and the silence of the cams at full stop, there is really no noticeable difference between the Hybrid and the regular Tahoe. The electric batteries are concealed below the second-row seats, stealing no space from the passenger compartment.

Unlike common hybrid systems, the GM system occasionally shuts down the electric motors. This makes the GM system more efficient than Toyota's at highway speeds.

When you step on the brake pedal, the electric motors become generators that recharge the batteries. You feel a bit of a tremble from the brake pedal if you come to a long, slow stop. But once the pedal is pressed firmly, the gasoline engine shuts down completely and quietly.

Hybrid characteristics aside, the Tahoe makes a great road car. The seating for eight is easily converted to cargo space. The third-row seats fold up and can be removed like a set of suitcases. The middle-row folds and flips forward, creating a flat cargo bed in the back.

While the Tahoe Hybrid is pricey at $50,455 for the rear-drive version or $53,260 for 4-wheel-drive, it comes loaded with features such as heated leather seats, automatic climate control, rear-backup camera and OnStar Navigation system. When you're driving cross-country, XM Satellite Radio is a true blessing - not that colorful local radio preachers aren't, too. But sometimes, you want a little variety.

2009 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid

What's new: Second year of hybrid model; OnStar 8.0 with Stolen Vehicle Slow Down, Turn-by-Turn navigation and destination download; Bluetooth connectivity; XM Satellite Radio; adjustable power pedals.

Pluses: Combination of capacity and fuel efficiency; comfort; versatility; technology.

Minuses: Cost; maneuverability.

Bottom line: A bold new path for hybrid technology.

Price: $50,455 base.

Power: 6-liter, 332-horsepower, Vortec V-8 with late intake valve closing; Electrically Variable Transmission; Energy Storage System.

Fuel economy: 20 city, 21 highway mpg.

Towing: 6,200 pounds.

2009 CHEVROLET TAHOE HYBRID

WHAT'S NEW: Second year of hybrid model; OnStar 8.0 with Stolen Vehicle Slow Down, Turn-by-Turn navigation and destination download; Bluetooth connectivity; XM Satellite Radio; adjustable power pedals.

PLUSES: Combination of capacity and fuel efficiency; comfort; versatility; technology.

MINUSES: Cost; maneuverability.

BOTTOM LINE: A bold new path for hybrid technology.

TYPE: Rear-drive, four-door, full-size hybrid SUV.

PRICE: $50,455 base.

WHERE BUILT: Arlington, Texas.

KEY RIVALS: (non-hybrid) Ford Expedition; Nissan Armada; Toyota Land Cruiser.

POWER: 6-liter, 332-horsepower, Vortec V8 with late intake valve closing; Electrically Variable Transmission; Energy Storage System.

FUEL ECONOMY: 20 city, 21 highway mpg.

TOWING: 6,200 pounds.

CHASSIS: Body-on-frame; independent coil-spring front suspension; rear five-link suspension; all-speed traction control; power rack-and-pinion steering; power disc brakes; 18-inch aluminum wheels.

LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT: 202 x 79 x 76.9 inches.

WHEELBASE X TRACK: 116 x 68.2/67 inches.

CURB WEIGHT: 5,617 pounds.

GROUND CLEARANCE: 9 inches.

STANDARD: Bose Premium speaker system; navigational system with Hybrid powerflow diagram; rear backup camera with display in navigation screen; leather heated seats with six-way power adjusters; auto-dimming power-folding outside mirrors; auto-dimming inside mirror; 115 Volt/150 Watt inverter in rear cargo area; OnStar with Turn-by-Turn Navigation; assist steps; Bluetooth connectivity; XM Satellite Radio; adjustable power pedals; dual-zone automatic climate control; front-side air bags.

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