How to Compare Hybrid SUVs

by Robert Mullins

The first hybrid cars on the road were compacts like the Prius and Civic, which could boast extraordinary fuel economy. But to serve customers still in love with their SUVs yet concerned about high gas prices, some car makers offer SUV-style vehicles with a hybrid gasoline-electric engine to improve gas mileage. Once you narrow your choice, you'll need to visit the dealers to see how they drive and what kind of deal you can negotiate.

2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

Hybrid SUVs on sale in the United States come in three basic sizes: full-size, mid-size and compact, which is a good point of comparison. The compacts offer the best improvement in gas mileage over their nonhybrid counterparts, while the full-size models offer slightly better mileage than nonhybrids but still offer the size and towing capacity some SUV drivers still want. The mid-sized models offer some of the advantages of both the small and large SUVs.

2009 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid

Full-size hybrid SUVs offered by General Motors include the Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe. All run on GM's "two-mode hybrid" system, which was jointly developed by GM, BMW and the former DaimlerChrysler. In the first mode, the car runs on electricity only, gas only, or a combination of both, for city driving. The second mode is for highway driving, in which the 6.0-liter, 332-horspeower V-8 engine does most of the work with an assist from the electric motor. The GM system also features cylinder deactivation, in which half the cylinders can be shut down if not needed, such as in stop-and-go city driving. The GM hybrids also feature a 300-volt nickel metal hydrite battery. Mileage is in the low 20s, which is pretty meager overall but a 50 percent improvement over a nonhybrid model, according to Cars.com. The base price for a Tahoe Hybrid in 2009 is $41,660; for a Yukon, $50,920; and for an Escalade $73,135.

As a footnote, Chrysler LLC made a short-lived foray into the full-size hybrid SUV market with the introduction of the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango hybrids in mid-2008. But before the year was out, the beleaguered car company closed the Delaware plant where the cars were assembled, essentially killing the models after fewer than a thousand were built.

2010 Lexus RX450h

Toyota and and Lexus serve the mid-sized hybrid SUV market. The Toyota Highlander mates its electric motor to a 209-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine. Prices for a 2009 model start at $34,700. Gas mileage is listed at 27 in the city and 25 on the highway. Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, offers the RX450h as its mid-sized hybrid model. The Lexus couples a 3.5-liter V-6 engine with an electric motor that together deliver 295 horsepower and gas mileage of 30-32 m.p.g. in the city and 28 on the highway. The Lexus RX450h, available as a 2010 model, carries a base price of $41,660.

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid

The first hybrid SUV introduced in the U.S. was the compact Ford Escape Hybrid, which came out in 2004. Ford sold 890,000 Escapes between 2001, when the gas-only model was introduced, and 2009; about 100,000 of them are the hybrid version, said a Ford spokesman. Those figures also include sales of the Escape's corporate sibling, the Mercury Mariner, but not the Mazda Tribute, another version of the Escape. (Ford Motor Co. owns part of Mazda, and they use a common platform for making different Ford and Mazda models.) The Escape/Mariner/Tribute hybrids couple an electric motor and a 4-cylinder engine to deliver 29 to 34 m.p.g. in city driving and 27 to 31 m.p.g. on the highway. The Escape 2009 model's base price is $29,645; the Mariner's $30,090; and the Tribute's $29,175. GM also serves the compact market with the Saturn Vue Hybrid, which comes in two versions. The first is the same two-mode hybrid used on the full-size SUVs. The second is what Saturn calls a "mild hybrid," which couples a smaller electric motor/generator with a 2.4-liter engine that together delivers 172 horsepower. The mild hybrid opens up cargo space taken up by the battery pack in the two-mode hybrid. Gas mileage is roughly the same--25 m.p.g. city/32 highway--but performance is diminished compared to the two-mode. Saturn Vue Hybrid's base price is $28,160.

In sum, choosing the right hybrid SUV involves deciding how much SUV you want and how much you can afford to pay. Hybrids are more expensive than their non-gas counterparts, and you may not reap the savings in gasoline to offset the higher price for the vehicle. The higher gas prices rise, however, the better the economics of driving a hybrid. Regardless, a hybrid also produces less air pollution than a non-hybrid, so getting a hybrid will always be better for the environment, even if you don't feel it in your wallet.

Tip

  • check Hybrid SUVs are more expensive than their nonhybrid counterparts. The savings from increased gas mileage won't necessarily offset the higher price for the vehicle. The higher the price of gas, the better the economics of driving a hybrid. There are hybrid versions of both compact, mid-size and full-size SUVs.

About the Author

Robert Mullins has been a technology reporter in Silicon Valley for nine years. He wrote for the Milwaukee Business Journal in the 1990s before transferring to a San Jose sister paper. He began his career as a newscaster for NPR stations in Wisconsin. He lives in the San Francisco area.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera Toyota.com