Green technology is hotter than ever, and nowhere does that technology make more sense — and have a bigger impact — than beneath the hoods of sport-utilities and pickups. After all, Americans love spacious, versatile rides as well as fuel economy. Some of us even factor in environmental concern. And green technology delivers it all in a big way — literally.
Recent surveys by J.D. Power and Associates reveal that 69% of U.S. drivers concerned about the environment and fuel efficiency prefer larger hybrid vehicles and other alternative fuel options to subcompact gas-sippers, which only 18% saw as the best way to drive green.
This attitude is very American, said Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain forecasting and research for J.D. Power.
“Americans are clearly aware and concerned with environmental and gas-importing issues, but they don’t want to give up their three rows of seats, or versatility and cargo space,” Omotoso said.
An excellent case in point: The popular compact crossover Ford Escape Hybrid packs everything the regular Escape has to offer — intelligent four-wheel-drive and a high-tech Sync system that controls all sorts of functions with simple voice commands — but reaches 34 mpg in city driving and 31 on the highway.
The green sport-utility world is positively dominated by luxury. And we’re not just talking diminutive compacts but also gleaming full-size SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, a stunning hunk of luxury delivering fuel economy that’s 50% better than a regular Escalade — upward of 23 mpg with a 6-liter V-8, thanks to GM’s innovative hybrid system. It’s beautiful as well as strong: The Escalade Hybrid can lug up to 5,800 pounds.
Clean-diesel is the new kid on the eco-friendly block, and it has made solid inroads into the crossover market since its introduction in the U.S. around five years ago.
Mercedes-Benz, a leading proponent of diesel, offers a range of BlueTec sport-utility models, from the recently redesigned R350, a crossover that seats six or seven, to the larger seven-seat GL350. BMW has rolled out the X5 xDrive35d, a five-seat crossover with a turbo-diesel V-6 that churns out 265 horsepower and enjoys mileage that dominates the X5 line — 19 mpg in city and 26 highway. And it goes from zero to 60 in less than seven seconds.
Some manufacturers offer both hybrid and diesel sport utilities. Audi introduced a Q7 TDI, a full-size SUV that proves big can be beautiful — and green as the leaves. This luxury clean-diesel produces exceptionally low emissions along with more than 600 highway miles per tank through a 3-liter V-6 that gets up to 25 mpg.
And next year we’ll see the new Audi Q5 Hybrid, a compact crossover that’ll reach nearly 34 mpg through a 2-liter engine and electric motor that alone can power the Q5 up to 37 mph.
A hybrid version of Volkswagen’s luxury Touareg crossover is a stellar example of what green tech can achieve in this segment. The Touareg Hybrid gets 380 total horsepower through a supercharged 3-liter V-6 and electric motor, with a towing capacity of 7,700 pounds. And it runs in all-electric mode up to 31 mph.
The Touareg TDI clean-diesel — lighter yet larger, thanks to a 2011 redesign of the entire line — gets up to 28 mpg on the highway.
Hybrid technology has even freshened up the venerable pickup truck — further proof that green can be exceedingly muscular. The Chevy Silverado Hybrid and GMC Sierra Hybrid share a 6-liter 332-horsepower V-8 with Active Fuel Management — and they can drive up to 30 mph on electricity alone. Make it 20 mph with a 5,000-pound trailer in tow.
Both hybrids get up to 23 mpg. But these crew-cab beasts are bona fide heavy-duty pickups, towing up to 6,100 pounds. Even die-hard truckers would be hard-pressed to turn away from these eco-friendly workhorses.
Perhaps offering a glimpse of the green pickup future, a four-passenger GMC Denali XT Hybrid concept — a smaller, sportier take on the traditional pickup — turned heads and sparked buzz at the Chicago Auto Show a few years ago.
A modern, flashier version of the classic El Camino, the Denali XT Hybrid, dubbed a “sport-utility truck,” has GM’s 2-Mode hybrid system with a 4.9-liter E85-ethanol-compatible 326-horsepower V-8 engine with Active Fuel Management. The result is 50% better fuel economy than similar small pickups, GMC claims.
“It is a robust yet tailored design statement that is unlike anything else on the road,” said Ed Welburn, vice president of global design for GMC. “It has the youthful look of a custom automobile that incorporates the capability customers expect from a truck.”
—Bob Young, Custom Publishing Writer