Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By Robert Farago

I find the average pickup truck's buckboard ride and apple cart handling a constant source of wonder. If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they put the lunar rover's suspension on a pickup truck? Yes, I know: if you want to carry heavy things, coil/leaf suspension is your only option. But why would anyone who doesn't schlep stuff for a living actually choose to drive a pickup?

Dunno. What I DO know is that rough-riding, foul-handling pickups are America's favorite form of personal transportation. And the US (or at least the US media) is hybrid crazy. So it was only a matter of time before Detroit answered its petro-political critics by building a hybrid pickup truck. First out of the blocks: the GMC Sierra Hybrid. The beauty of it– well, the beauty of the concept– is inescapable. Fit a gas-electric hybrid motor to a pickup, boost its gas mileage by a respectable margin, and voila! A politically incorrect gas-guzzler becomes a deeply desirable statement of environmental consciousness– with a healthy shot of blue collar chic at no extra charge. Yes, now even redneck America can have their cake and the Kyoto Agreement too!

OK, back to reality. First of all, the GMC Sierra Hybrid is not a real hybrid. Its Panasonic lead-acid batteries don't provide propulsion; the sub-system only powers the Sierra when it's stationary. In other words, when the pickup comes to a halt, so does its internal combustion engine. The batteries kick-in to power all the electrical goodies (AC, lights, radio, windows, etc.). Then, when you take your foot off the brakes, the V8 spools-up, and away you go.

C'mon, did you seriously expect a 42-volt battery to provide motive force for a 7000lbs. pickup truck with a 9200lbs. towing capacity? What we have here is no more or less than a standard GMC Sierra pickup truck with a battery-powered electronic stop - start system that recharges itself with energy generated by the brakes. A system that also shuts off fuel to the powerplant whilst coasting, and smoothes out the resulting engine vibrations. The technology is certainly impressive, but the driving experience is prosaic. Stomp on the quasi-hybrid's gas pedal and you get the same response as you would in a regular Sierra. Its 295hp Vortec 5300 propels the pickup to 60mph in under eight secs. Again, I'm no fan of the way this (or any) pickup truck handles bumps and bends, but there's no question that the General's demi-hybrid has enough grunt to leave a tree hugger's Toyota Prius for dead.

Things start to get hinky when you take your foot off the gas. There's a strange sensation of increased drag– something between engine braking and the feeling that you've run out of gas. The fact that the slowing effect is caused by the fuel-saving engine cut-off feature is morally comforting, but dynamically distracting. Braking feel, as the stoppers reclaim energy for the batteries, is similarly peculiar. Fortunately, braking performance isn't affected.

When you bring the Sierra to a full stop, the oil pressure indicator dies. It's the only visible sign that the Sierra's 5.3-liter V8 has gone into hibernation. Physically, there's a slight death rattle as the Vortec checks out. When you take your foot off the brake, another tiny shudder announces the return of normal service. The switch between life support and impulse power is quick, but it's no more seamless than a softball. If you're in a hurry, you could even call it annoying. Of course, eco-conscious consumers are happy to put up with a few "quirks" to earn their environmental brownie points. Which brings us straight to the heart of the matter: what's the mileage? General Motors claims that their Sierra Hybrid is 10 - 15% more fuel efficient than its traditionally-powered sibling. Impressed? Take a closer look…

First of all, despite all my best efforts at accelerative restraint, I achieved no more than a 10% improvement over a similarly equipped, "normal" Sierra. That's 16.5mpg vs. 15mpg– not exactly the kind of fuel economy that can change American foreign policy. Second, if saving the planet takes second place to protecting your financial resources, you'll need about eight years to recoup the cost of the hybrid system: $6900 with mandatory optional (?) equipment. And lastly, where the Hell are the hybrid decals?

The Sierra Hybrid should be plastered with HUGE graphics trumpeting its high-tech green credentials. The two small hybrid door badges don't cut it, not by a long chalk. Call me cynical, but what's the point of being socially responsible if society doesn't know about it? Anyway, did I mention that the Sierra Hybrid is an electric generator? Its AC sockets can provide power for up to 32 hours. Now THERE'S a good reason to buy one.


By Robert Farago

Enzo Ferrari used to sell his customers an engine and throw in the car for free. While Ferrari still reserves the right to sell whatever it wants to whomever it wants without worrying about what anyone else may want, Maranello's mad machines are now at least as dynamically cohesive and ergonomically sound as your average John Deere lawn mower (if infinitely less practical). In fact, the Italian automaker has passed the mantle of "engine first engineering" to GMC. More specifically, to the Sierra 1500HD pickup truck.

Our test Sierra was powered by GM's sublime Vortec 6000. Granted, new millennia power freaks will not find the 6.0-liter engine's 300hp output overly impressive– especially when the horses in question are harnessed to a vehicle weighing 4800 lbs. And yes, GMC slots some bigger, badder units into the Sierra; including a 6.6-liter DURAMAX turbo-diesel with enough torque to pull the Queen Mary into dry dock (640ft.-lbs.). But the Vortec 6000 is a flawless and loveable lump, a V8 from The Old School.

Crank it up, and the Vortec's burble makes today's muscle cars seem like castrati. Hit the open road, and the powerplant cruises the Sierra at extra-legal speeds with just a few lazy rpm. Put pedal to metal and the engine bellow-blasts the truck towards the horizon with all the manic fury of a drag strip refugee. Aside from wallet-draining mileage– 11mpg in town and 16(ish) in "when's the next exit?" mode– the Vortec is everything you could want from a big block V8: smooth, powerful, punchy and charismatic.

As for the rest of the truck– its design, ride, handling, brakes and comfort– the predominant theme is "great, for a pickup truck". Or, if you prefer, "crap". Now, before I ignite a flame mail firestorm from the flatbed fraternity, a quick note to The American Pickup Truck Anti-Defamation League…

I understand the appeal of a vehicle that can schlep or tow big, heavy, dirty things; that's rugged enough to take any kind of extended [cab] abuse; that's cheap enough to accommodate a working man's wallet. But let's face it: we've moved on from the "pickup as automotive work boot" mindset. The test Sierra 1500 is a $39k, four-door, five-seat vehicle driven by as many suburbanites as blue collar workers. As far as I'm concerned, as far as the vast majority of buyers are concerned, it's a car with a large, open, versatile luggage compartment.

The Ford F150 gets it. The GMC Sierra does not. For example: the Sierra's suspension is so primitive that its reaction to surface imperfections is positively nostalgic. I'd forgotten what it's like to drive a vehicle with truly independent suspension– in the sense that all four wheels do different things at different times. Driving over a bump in a Sierra isn't so much an event as a series of events. How and when you experience the resulting shudders and body flex depends very much upon where you're sitting.

If you're sitting in the driver's seat and press the brake pedal, the Sierra will slow down, but it'll feel like you're inflating a pool toy. The steering, though admirable in its desire to add some heft to the proceedings, is about as accurate as The Weekly World News. Unless you're towing something heavy, the four-speed gearbox is easily outwitted. Go for the aforementioned full-bore sprint and there's more fumbling about than a teenage boy trying to unhook his first bra.

The Sierra's interior is also a lot less than accomplished. In fact, it has the nastiest dashboard since all the other nasty dashboards in all the other nastily dashboarded GM products. The General has been talking about replacing their interior farragoes for years, yet the Sierra clearly doesn't know disco is dead. It's a riot of cheap plastic and ugly, sharp-edged switchgear. I haven't seen a dot matrix display with so few pixels since my first digital watch.

Again, I'm happy to admit that the Sierra represents a huge improvement from pickups of yore (except for the buckboard ride). Twenty years ago, who'd a thunk a standard-issue pickup truck would boast 300 horses, dual-zone climate control, satellite radio, cruise control, ABS brakes, airbags and suicide doors? Who'd a thunk it would cost 40 large? That said, with GM's fire-sale discounts and finance, you can probably own a Sierra 1500 for a couple hundred bucks a month. So it's still something of a working class hero.

Be that as it may, there's no getting around the fact that the GMC Sierra is a long way behind its competition in terms of refinement and ergonomics. Once upon a time, that didn't matter. Now, engine nirvana or not, it does.


By Samir Syed

You gotta love a truck division started by a guy named Max Grabowski. Hi! I'm Max Grabowski. I make trucks. What could be more American than that? Fast forward one hundred and six years and I’m face-to-face to face with a GMC SUV named after a diplomat with dubious powers. Go figure. And riddle me this Batman: why in the name of modern science is this four-wheeled Neanderthal still for sale at the tail end of the double-o's?

There is so much to dislike about the base Envoy that I wish to state for the record that it is by no means the worst vehicle ever sold by GM. (Rest easy TWAT fans; the Uplanderelay’s crown of thorns is safe.) Of course, that’s a bit like saying “Sure, Michael Vick was involved with dog fighting. At least he doesn’t support vivisection.”

OK, looks. The Envoy isn’t meant to be a pretty truck. And by God, it isn’t. It's not that's it's ugly. It's just that it's dull. So dull it's almost an archetype. SUV. Big, boxy and vaguely macho. Done.

That said, the Envoy’s panel gaps my only "real" complaint; they're large enough to accommodate an illegal immigrant. While some might appreciate GMC's sheetmetal homaqe to the Land Rover Defender, you've got to wonder how the company dared offer such blunderbuss construction in this age of robots and millimeter-perfect panel fitment.

Inside, it’s back to the future– I mean the past. Unlike Doc Brown’s DeLorean, the Envoy’s excursion to a simpler time begins well before the SUV reaches 88 mph. As soon as you sit down, you’re faced with a series of ugly knobs, ticky-tacky plastics and seriously kitsch faux wood trim. As Scarlet O'Hara might have said, why it's so horrendous it's quaint!

Everywhere the discerning eye looks, it lands upon a thoroughly retro lack of effort. The Envoy’s radio’s head unit comes straight from a ‘60’s sci-fi flick. The SUV’s gear lever restricts access to the HVAC controls. The center armrest is made of concrete. The glove box is useless. And the two center vents look like puppy dog eyes, imploring you to put them out of their misery.

The Envoy SLE’s seats offer up the type of thinly-padded insult only a Ford Ranger owner could love. OK, endure. My gluteus was maximized after just 90 minutes of highway driving.

Thankfully, the Envoy spares its driver said torture by reaching its destination briskly. Ye Olde 4.2-liter inline six still knows how to twist (277 ft.-lbs) and shout (291hp). Even better, the engine delivers its power smoothly right across the rev range, helping the 4967lbs. leviathan scoot from zero to 60mph in under nine seconds.

Going up hill with the [optional] 4WD system engaged, the Envoy begins to breathe hard– but in no way runs out of breath. No question: the GMC SUV is a capable “trailblazer.” Provided those trails don’t require more than eight to nine inches of ground clearance, you’re OK using all-season tires in the outback and you don’t mind carrying a few large cans of highly explosive liquid in the back (14/20 mpg), the wilderness awaits.

As far as on-road handling is concerned, remember that the Envoy is a once-upon-a-time body-on-frame design. It’s terrific for towing (6300lbs.) and lousy for anything else. Obviously, no one in their right mind would expect the Envoy to offer the car-like capabilities of a Rav4 or a CR-V, and the Envoy's ride quality is certainly up-to-snuff. But to fully grasp the full awfulness of the Envoy’s handling dynamics, we must leave the automotive universe.

At highway cruising speeds, the Envoy feels like a diesel locomotive riding on rusted rails. Turn the wheel and… nothing. The Envoy simply plunges forward (technical term: understeer). Like a train, it's best to apply a great deal of brake force (i.e. as much as you can) before reaching an obstacle– a term which the Envoy expands to include turns.

If and when the Envoy finally enters a corner, it leans in an entirely unsettling fashion (both physically and emotionally). Suffice it to say (by now), the Envoy’s handling is so atrocious that you have to wonder if its creation predates GM’s legal department.

After sampling the Envoy SLE, I tried to think of one reason why the GMC Envoy shouldn’t immediately receive the same doctoring that shuffled Old Yeller off this mortal coil. Let’s see… The Envoy’s got a rough-and-tumble frame and optional 4WD system and not enough clearance to use it. It’s ugly, thirsty, cramped and nasty. At $27k, it’s expensive for what it is (isn’t?).

Nope. Can’t do it. I’m with Forbes magazine. It advises readers seeking something sportier, more stylish, reliable or economical to keep looking. Hey, who wouldn’t?


By Frank Williams

SUVs are evil. Evil I tell you! They represent all that’s bad about America: greed, sloth, gluttony, selfishness, arrogance and environmental indifference. They gargle gas, warm the planet and knock poor little hybrids into next week. More importantly, SUVs cost a fortune to feed and depreciate like packet of condoms. So what’s an SUV-intensive manufacturer like GM to do? Why make an SUV that doesn’t do all that hard-core SUV stuff, spiffy-it-up a bit, and sell it to all the people who love SUVs but hate SUVs. Ladies and gentlemen, the GMC Acadia.

Semi-evil or not, the Acadia sure is a handsome beast. It hits the sweet spot between the overly swoopy Buick Enclave (one of its two ugly Lambda dancing half sisters) and the excessively angular Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. Though it's not obvious from photographs, the Acadia’s huge. It’s only a couple of inches shorter than its GMC sibling (and competitor), the once-mighty Yukon SUV. To add political correctness, GM removed eight inches of height, giving the Acadia a PC-pleasing passenger-car-like appearance.

Like all three-row CUV’s, the Acadia’s packaging is not without its problems. On the positive side, thanks to GM's "SmartSlide" system, passengers don't have to mountaineer over the second row to get into the wayback. But once ensconced, those poor unfortunate souls are relegated to a how-low-can-you-go seating position. They also face the daunting task of convincing second row passengers to scootch forward and sacrifice their legs legroom– so that the rearmost occupants don’t have to sit like cross-legged Yogi.

While the Acadia’s SmartSlide system offers kid-friendly clambering; the middle seats ride in huge tracks recessed into the floor. What’s the bet crayons, Lego and French fries clog the tracks– impeding the seat's movement and causing expensive damage to the mechanism– faster than you can say “No YOU get the vacuum cleaner.”

Extricating yourself from the rear also lacks fun. The Acadia’s interior designers forgot to include an assist handle for those of us who are too tall to just stand up and walk out.

Aesthetically, some genius in the design department decided that plastichrome trim would make the Acadia’s interior look more expensive. It doesn't. The trim around the center AC vents curves onto the top of the dash– right where it reflects the sun into the driver's eyes. The trim around the shifter looks like something from a Wal-Mart boom box. Props for eschewing wood grain or faux carbon fiber, but the overall ambiance doesn’t say $40k vehicle to me.

Questionable materials quality doesn't help the situation, and do much to make it worse. The leather on the test vehicle’s passenger seat was already cracked and showing its backing in one spot. The tambour door on the cubby in the console had all the substance of a sheet of typing paper. The volume control knob on the non-GPS-equipped radio felt like it was connected to nothing whatsoever.

When you turn the Acadia’s key, you hear… practically nothing; I had to look at the tach to see if it had started. Slide the six-speed automatic’s shifter into "D" (or "L" if you want to use the non-intuitive buttons on the side of the lever to swap cogs), and you're on your way. The transmission shifts smoothly on the way up. But when you floor it, the tranny jerks as the autobox drops a couple of gears to propel the 2.5-ton family hauler with some semblance of alacrity.

The Acadia’s not quick but neither does it block traffic; its 275hp 3.6-liter V6 ambles the big rig from rest to 60 miles per hour in just under eight seconds. Because of the CUV's smooth ride and abundant sound insulation, once sufficient speed is attained, it’s a pleasure to putter about town or cruise the interstate. While you’d no more hustle an Acadia than use a MX-5 to move house, the GMC always feels like you're driving something much smaller.

Any illusions in that department are shattered at the gas pump. The GMC Acadia is EPA rated at 16/24. While that’s an improvement on the Yukon/Tahoe’s abysmal 14/19, GMC's three-row machine is no fuel miser– especially when you compare it to Toyota’s RAV4 (21/27).

Question: do you REALLY need that third row? If you don’t, face facts: the GMC Acadia offers nothing more than faux rehab for SUV recidivists. (Suck it up and buy a nice $40k car, already.) If you need room for seven/eight, or don’t care a fig about mileage, well, there are still a lot of better choices in the $35k to $45k CUV price range; plenty of station-wagons-on-stilts that provide a similar driving experience without the Acadia's obvious cost-cutting.

Still, the Acadia is a good vehicle that does what its target market (mainly GM loyalists) expects it to do. It's too bad that it's appeal has been degraded by beancounters. If the devil is in the details, it must be Hell being an Acadia.


By Mike Solowiow

Let's get something out of the way right now: the Yukon Hybrid is over-priced. Our tester stickered at $56k. At that price point, GM's gas - electric SUV competes against BMW's enlarged X5, Audi's Q7 carcoon and Lexus' golf club friendly RX 400h (to name a few). Hybrid or no, the GMC Yukon's not exactly what you'd call an upmarket machine. If The General had taken the hit and offered the Yukon Hybrid for the same price or less than its gasoline equivalent, it would be a far more compelling proposition. But they didn't. So let's press on.

Aesthetically, the Yukon Hybrid is about as bashful as a drunken sorority girl at Panama City Beach Spring Break. The big rig's plastered with no fewer than nine proclamations that it possess a gas-electric drivetrain, including three-foot-long "Hybrid" stickers along its mighty flanks. Custom side skirts, a rear spoiler and good-looking low-weight 18-inch wheels add more not-so-subtle style (and mpgs) to the equation.

Other than that, it's a Yukon: big, bland and boxy. OK, the SUV's creases were sharpened pre-Hurricane Katrina, but the Yukon's looks still aren't going to blow anyone away.

To drop the Yukon Hybrid's aerodynamic Cd from .39 to .34, GM re-softened those sharpened creases with a slightly reshaped hood and rear hatch, and lost the roof rack. Although the new hood and hatch are fashioned from aluminum, the Yukon Hybrid's batteries and electric motor make it heavier than the standard model. The Yukon Hybrid's heft rises from either 5270 to 5541 lbs., or from 5438 to 5617 lbs., depending on whether you believe GM PR or the GMC website.

GM's new truck interiors may be far better than anything they've ever offered, boasting attractive chrome accents and a real woven headliner. But at $51k (base), the Yukon Hybrid's interior feels cheaper than a Las Vegas motel on a Tuesday afternoon. Fake wood and aluminum abound. Vinyl that tries (and fails) to look like leather stretches across the ample dashboard. The seats are flat and unsupportive, and the optional third row seat is unusable for anyone but Hobbits.

The Hybrid comes amply-equipped with navigation, rear parking camera, auto climate control and power everything. In complete contrast to the exterior, only a small Hybrid logo, an "Eco" gauge and a Prius-like touch screen drivetrain display remind the driver that they're piloting the world's largest private passenger hybrid.

To maintain the Yukon's cavernous interior, the engineers utilized the undercarriage space for the NiMH batteries. Part of that space was realized (and the beast's weight gain minimized) by replacing the full-size spare tire with a can of sealant– not exactly what you'd expect in a 4×4. Not that you'd ever take those low-rolling-resistance donuts off-road. On the positive side, the Yukon Hybrid 4X4's towing capacity is a respectable 6000 lbs. (down from 8000 lbs.).

Which may account for GM's decision to equip the Yukon Hybrid with a 332hp, 6.0-liter Vortec engine. In any case, the monster motor becomes a hybrid with the addition of a 300V battery, two 60KW motors in the transmission and some creative software.

I've never driven a full hybrid this seamless in operation. You never notice when the drivetrain changes modes, from electric to gas and back. The electric boost comes on smoothly; the power delivery remains silken as the engine spools-up. When revved hard, the 6.0-liter offered a muted yet spine-tingling burble. Despite the weight, the excellent drivetrain pushes the Yukon from zero to sixty miles per hour in about eight seconds. The system manages a decent-for-such-a-behemoth 20mpg both in the city AND on the highway.

The Yukon Hybrid's suspension is as ridiculous as the drivetrain is sublime. The steering feels vague at low speeds and darty on the highway. Engaging four-wheel-drive mode makes the rig feel like a forklift, with all four wheels pushing in different directions. The Yukon skitters and wallows during cornering and shudders like a Sebring convertible over rough patches. The massive weight smooths out the ride to decent levels, but the European and Japanese competition put the Yukon to shame in comfort, control and cornering ability.

As for that highly-touted 25 percent fuel economy improvement, yes, I achieved the advertised mpg in mixed driving. But I wonder how much of that gain's down to the non-drivetrain mods. Equally perplexing: why hasn't GM incorporated them into normal Yukotahburbelades? Is the American automaker shortchanging their gas-powered SUVs to protect the hybrid versions' rep? Clearly, the Yukon Hybrid raises more questions than it answers. Meanwhile, one thing is for sure: at that price, in this market, the Yukon Hybrid will not be flying off the lots.