What is the best eco-friendly vehicle choice for those of us who need a pickup or SUV?

What is the best eco-friendly vehicle choice for those of us who need a pickup or SUV? We are about to replace two older trucks with one that is more fuel-efficient.

—Barbara Roemer, via e-mail

Fuel efficiency has not typically been the calling card of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). Small hybrid gasoline-electrics are all the rage now among commuters looking to save money at the pump, but similar technology has been slower to gain traction in the “light truck” category. Carmakers have made strides in recent years, though, to meet growing demand for vehicles of all kinds that will sip and not gulp.

Currently, General Motors is the only carmaker offering hybrid pickups. Hybrid versions of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 4x4s have been available since 2005, and get about 18 miles per gallon (mpg)/city and 21/highway. The non-hybrid versions get 15/19 mpg, but cost $1,500 less. GM claims that those paying the hybrid premium will get back that extra investment in fuel savings over three to five years.

Toyota reportedly has plans for hybridizing its full-size pickup line, too. The company recently unveiled its FTX concept truck, a large 4×4 hybrid pickup, hinting that technology developed for the project will likely end up in its current full-size Tundra pickup. But no such models have hit showrooms yet, and Toyota remains mum about a release date. Meanwhile, industry analysts have been picking up chatter about a hybrid version of Honda’s popular Ridgeline pickup, but the company has yet to publicly announce plans.

Regarding fuel-efficient SUVs, consumers have a few more choices. Ford currently leads the charge with its Escape Hybrid model, a smaller SUV that gets 36/31 mpg. Ford makes similar SUV hybrids under its Mercury and Mazda brands. Meanwhile, Toyota’s mid-sized Highlander Hybrid SUV clocks in at 32/27 mpg, while the similar Lexus RX 400 Hybrid gets 33/28 mpg. All these vehicles post significantly better fuel efficiency ratings than their non-hybrid counterparts, but also cost more up front.

If you’re looking to purchase a new hybrid-electric car or truck in the U.S. before the end of 2007 you may qualify for a healthy tax credit, depending on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a 2007 4WD Chevrolet Silverado or GMC Sierra hybrid pickup would garner a tax credit worth $650 (2WD versions qualify for a $250 credit), and the new 2WD Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid each qualify for a whopping $2,600 credit. Buyers of the 2007 Lexus RX 400h can count on getting $2,200 back. The credits are limited to the first 60,000 sold, though, so if you’re looking to jump on the hybrid bandwagon you should run, not walk, to the nearest showroom.

Replacing an older truck with a newer model—especially a hybrid—will almost always guarantee better fuel economy, but it might not be the most environmentally sensitive way to go, all things considered. Some experts would argue for keeping the old truck, and fixing and tuning it up, thus preventing another new vehicle from hitting the roads while an old one clogs up the junkyard. Repairing an old vehicle is usually cheaper than buying a new one, though it is difficult to quantify the cost of ongoing maintenance hassles.

CONTACTS: IRS Hybrid Vehicle Tax Credits, www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=157632,00.html; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Fuel Economy Information, www.epa.gov/fueleconomy/.