The Chevy Silverado (and GMC Sierra) Hybrid was previously offered only for fleet buyers (mostly directed at the construction industry), but is now available to the public. To clarify, this hybrid does not offer significant electric power assist from a stop or at speed, a la Honda Accord Hybrid, Toyota Prius, or Ford Escape. This is a mild hybrid (with emphasis on the word mild) that uses a small amount of electric-motor assist while the vehicle is already moving (actually the motor engages to smooth earlier lockup of the torque converter), deriving most of its claimed 13-percent fuel savings from engine shutdown while the truck comes to a stop. Because the electric motor is used to bring the engine up to idling speed (triggered when the brake pedal is released), there's a noticeable shudder at startup that can become a disconcerting lurch when starting from a stop.

A standout feature of this setup is that the electric motor allows the Silverado Hybrid to be used as an independent V-8 gasoline generator, offering four 110-volt outlets for a multitude of uses. In the first week we had the truck, our photography and track-testing crews found at least a dozen ways to use the outlets (two mounted in the bed, two in the cab) with computers, battery chargers, and test equipment.

Our 4x4 half-ton model with automatic transmission started out at $31,045 with only one gasoline V-8 engine available. The electric-hybrid option costs $1500, but forces many other pricey options. Added weight requires the Light Duty Power package (a locking differential and HD trailering equipment for $1675), a $95 heavy-duty suspension, and aluminum wheels for $200. Physical packaging around the batteries and motor mandates the Autotrac 4x4 transfer case ($375) and $870 worth of reclining seats that came bundled in a $2485 Safe and Sound package--along with a $595 Bose CD/cassette deck that's hardened against the increased electromagnetic interference. Dual climate control also is mandatory ($195). Add it up, and the least-expensive 2004 Silverado Hybrid 4WD will cost $37,385 ($3340 less for two-wheel drive). Our tester also boasts upgraded leather seats ($800), heated, folding side mirrors ($215), redundant radio controls ($125), and fifth-wheel trailer wiring ($35). The grand total, including a $2000 package discount, came to $37,743. Will the fuel savings equal the hybrid's cost? Probably not for suburban commuters, because this system will offer the most benefit in short-trip, long-stoplight driving. However, when California had several blackouts, our self-contained power plant was in high demand. We suspect it'll be popular again in the summertime when some staffers will need high-powered light sources for their driveway project buildups.

But not everyone found the Silverado Hybrid a strong choice: "I don't see buyers being impressed with this fuel economy [we're averaging 14.7 mpg so far, hardly green territory] or the way it drives." We understand this is the first shot from GM and more sophisticated systems are in the pipeline, but it does have idiosyncrasies that leave the system feeling far from invisible. Case in point: On inclines, it rolls backward like a manual-transmission-equipped vehicle because of the start-up delay. We haven't bumped anyone behind us yet, but we're being very careful. So far, the computer-controlled service reminder hasn't indicated the need for service, but when it does, we'll have the dealer check an intermittent low-oil-pressure light.