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In a bid to wrest the environmental advantage from rival Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Corp. is preparing to offer a gasoline-electric hybrid engine in its full-size Chevy Tahoes and GMC Yukons beginning in the 2007 model year.

The move, expected to be announced as early as Thursday, represents a shift of the No. 1 automaker’s alternative-vehicle strategy from smaller cars and SUVs to what GM’s group vice president for global powertrain, Tom Stephens, calls “the highest (fuel) consuming vehicles, such as buses, full-size pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.”

GM’s big trucks and SUVs are frequent targets for environmentalists, regulators and some politicians. The decision to focus GM’s hybrid powertrain program on its lucrative truck lineup aims to reverse GM’s image as a technology laggard, according to several GM executives familiar with the program.

Instead, GM appears determined to showcase its engineering prowess, make a political statement that could resonate among Washington policy-makers and demonstrate social responsibility by launching hybrids into a segment criticized for vehicles that consume too much fuel.

“From what I understand about this new commitment, it is seismic in that a reluctant automaker is stepping into a full hybrid,” said Kevin Knobloch, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It sounds like a very important development and one we must celebrate.”

Full-size SUVs — not compact cars — can deliver profits of as much as $15,000 per vehicle, which explains why the automaker is planning to delay the 2005 introduction of a hybrid Saturn Vue SUV so it can offer full-size SUV hybrids in the 2007 model year. The delay in the Vue hybrid is likely to disappoint the Union of Concerned Scientists and other environmental groups.

Still, preliminary GM studies estimate that the full-size hybrid SUVs under development could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 35 percent compared to traditional V-8s, far more than the fuel saved in a Saturn Vue hybrid.

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