The Huge Hybrid: Few Takers for a New S.U.V. Twist
DETROIT — They’ve been criticized as gas hogs, dinosaurs and land yachts.
Now Detroit is hoping to cast its biggest sport utility vehicles in a
new light: green.
General Motors and Chrysler are betting that their 5,500-pound,
eight-seat S.U.V.’s — long the scourge of environmentalists — can be
reformed as hybrid models, albeit ones getting 20 miles to the gallon.
Consumers have been slow to embrace the first two models from G.M.,
which are relatively new to the market.
G.M. has sold about 1,100 of its Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon hybrids
since their introduction in January, according to company sales
briefings. That pace is well behind its goal of 12,000 sales a year, and
a fraction of the more than 100,000 hybrids sold so far in the United
States this year.
“To this point, the G.M. hybrids aren’t getting any traction at all,”
said Mike Omotoso, a senior manager with the research firm J. D. Power &
Giving a four-wheel drive Tahoe a gas-electric hybrid engine raises fuel
economy for city driving to 20 miles a gallon from 14.
But to get the better mileage, consumers pay a high price: $53,000, at
least $4,000 more than a conventional Tahoe.
Environmentalists see the jumbo hybrids as a small step forward in the
effort to reduce America’s fuel consumption.
“Is this a green vehicle? I think it could be a lot greener,” said David
Friedman, research director of the vehicles program for the Union of
Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group in Washington that focuses on
the environment. “The question is whether the improvement in fuel
economy is worth the cost.”
Hybrid or not, large S.U.V.’s are fading fast in a market that is
shifting quickly to smaller cars and crossovers, S.U.V.-like vehicles
built on a car chassis.
Last year, traditional, truck-based S.U.V.’s — once the king of
Detroit’s fleets and a huge source of profits — accounted for 8 percent
of the nation’s market. But recently sales have dropped to 4 percent,
according to the research firm R. L. Polk.
With gas prices surging to $4 a gallon, Americans are downsizing their
cars drastically. One in five vehicles sold now is a compact car, and
the move to smaller vehicles is accelerating.
G.M. plans to follow the Tahoe and Yukon with hybrid versions of the
Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Silverado pickup. Chrysler is planning
hybrids of its Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen sport utilities and the
Dodge Ram pickup.
But the behemoth hybrids seem out of step in a marketplace dominated by
smaller hybrid models that can get more than 40 miles to the gallon.
Toyota sold 64,000 Priuses through April, a 23 percent increase over
2007. It now ranks as the ninth-best-selling car in the United States.
And while G.M. and Chrysler are converting their biggest vehicles into
hybrids, other automakers are going in the other direction. Honda, for
example, recently said it would build a hybrid version of its Fit
Hybrid technology pairs an electric motor with a gas engine, allowing
the vehicle to run on electricity when idling and at slow speeds.
The benefits in fuel economy are significant, particularly in city
driving. The hybrid version of the Toyota Camry gets 33 miles a gallon
in city traffic, compared with 21 for a conventional Camry.
Despite the slow start for the Yukon and Tahoe hybrids, G.M. officials
said they are pleased with the initial market reaction.
At Chrysler, sales of big S.U.V.’s have plunged 22 percent this year.
But a spokesman for the automaker, Nick Cappa, said adding hybrids,
which will be available this fall, reflected the company’s commitment to
the full-size sport utility market.
“Why shouldn’t people with large S.U.V.’s, who need that kind of
utility, be able to get a hybrid?” said Mr. Cappa.
The third Detroit automaker, the Ford Motor Company, has no plans to
convert its full-size S.U.V.’s to hybrids.
A Ford spokesman, Jim Cain, said the company expected customers needing
a fuel-efficient, larger vehicle to choose the new Flex crossover, a
seven-passenger model with a V-6 engine that gets 24 miles to the gallon.
The advent of S.U.V.’s and pickup hybrids fills in two of the remaining
gaps in the spectrum of hybrid models.
With the exception of sports cars and minivans, hybrids are now
represented in most of the major automotive segments in the United
States. Toyota’s Lexus luxury division sells hybrids at the upper end of
the market with its LS 600h sedan and its RX 400h crossover, neither of
which has sold in big numbers.
G.M. is hedging its bet with the Tahoe and Yukon hybrids. Most of its
dealers do not even carry the vehicles in stock. Instead, they order
from a central pool.
“You have to wonder if G.M. is really committed to this, or just using
them for public relations purposes,” said Mr. Friedman of the Union of
The high cost of the hybrid S.U.V.’s could limit their sales more than
any other factor.
Glenn Galvan of Reno, Nev., was hoping to replace his Honda pickup with
one of the G.M. hybrids until he saw the prices. “I don’t mind paying
the extra cost for environmental reasons, but it doesn’t have near
enough fuel savings to justify it,” he said.
But a couple in Longview, Tex., Michael and Cindy Pittmon, have found
that their Yukon hybrid was worth the investment. “I’m getting 20.8
miles to the gallon compared to 13 on my old Yukon,” Mrs. Pittmon said.
“It costs $75 to fill it up, and that’s lasting me two weeks instead of
She said that the big hybrid generates quite a bit of attention at
stoplights and in shopping malls, particularly because of multiple
“hybrid” badges and decals that G.M. put on the exterior.
“People are always saying, oh, they didn’t realize that hybrids came
this big,” she said. “But I’m thinking about taking some of the badges
off so it doesn’t stand out as much.”