During his career as a TV football analyst, John Madden would often display his considerable affection for those "big old linemen."

For Madden, a big old lineman himself, these guys were what football was all about: mountainous males hunkered down in muddy trenches, blood oozing from brush-burned elbows, using those tree-trunk thigh muscles to drive back other 320-pound men.

The Chevy Tahoe is really an automotive answer to Madden's big old linemen. It isn't some jacked-up station wagon calling itself a crossover SUV. It is an honest-to-goodness, truck-based sport-utility vehicle that weighs three tons and powers through deep mud in four-wheel-drive low range.

And like most big old linemen, it has an appetite. Although EPA mileage ratings of 15 city and 21 aren't bad for a heavy, full-size SUV, they're not exactly in line for Sierra Club kudos.

There is, however, an alternative to that kind of ingestion. It's called the Tahoe Hybrid.

The 4WD Tahoe Hybrid has EPAs of 21 city and 22 highway on regular gas. That's not bad for a 6,000-pound vehicle that will tow as much as it weighs, seat eight, carry about 1,400 pounds of soccer players and folding chairs, and go where most crossovers can't.

But wait, it gets even more notable. This driver, who has never been accused of lightfootedness, got even better results than the EPA city estimate. By getting in touch with my gentler, feminine side, I was able to obtain 25.1 miles to a gallon in city driving. I've been in "economy" cars that didn't do that well.

I got to wondering how remarkable that feat was.

"You're not the first to do that," said Brian Goebel, a Chevy spokesman and resident killjoy.

The Tahoe Hybrid uses two battery-powered electric motors (located inside the automatic-transmission housing) to assist the vehicle's gas engine. That assistance saves gas, of course, but it's kind of strange to think of a six-liter, 332-horsepower V-8 being assisted.

A nice fringe benefit of that big V-8 is its decidedly non-hybrid-like performance. Even at three tons, the Tahoe Hybrid vaults out of the chute in a heck of a hurry. (Sometimes during the test driving, I'd get out of touch with my feminine side, or at least make it sit in the third row of seats.)

As it turns out, this mixture of fuel economy, power, and practicality doesn't come cheap. While a conventionally powered Tahoe starts in the high $30s, the hybrid version has a base price of $53,525.

That luxury price tag includes a ton of luxurious doodads. The standard gear ranges from a nifty navigation system to an even niftier Bose premium sound system.

Driving the Tahoe Hybrid proved a pleasant pastime. The engine proved as civil as it was powerful, and the hybrid component (which carries an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty) proved unobtrusive. I thought the tester handled well for a big, truck-based SUV. And its electric steering and big antilock disc brakes were certainly up to the job. From a driving standpoint, the Hybrid didn't feel as big as it was.

Inside the nicely appointed tester, I found a design straightforwardness that I liked. The controls and instruments were readily engaged, and visibility was excellent. The power leather driver's seat was comfortable and supportive, and since the tester was equipped with the Premium Smooth Ride Suspension, it rode, ah, smoothly.

The Tahoe Hybrid's cabin was as quiet as a bound and gagged fence post - and remarkably roomy. If you take out the two seats that make up the third row, and tumble the second row forward, you have a whopping 109 cubic feet of storage space. Even with the second row of seats in place, you still have more than 60 cubic feet. With all the seats in place, you're left with 17 cubic feet, which is family-car-trunk volume.

The Tahoe Hybrid has a full array of safety gear, ranging from front and side air bags to antilock brakes and stability control. The government's safety ratings give it the full five stars for side and frontal crashes, and three for rollover.

Excellent

Chevrolet Tahoe

4WD Hybrid

Base price: $53,525.

As tested: $56,810.

Standard equipment: All the usual luxury suspects, including leather, navigation system, Bose premium sound, 18-inch alloy wheels, ultrasonic parking assist, and rearview camera.

Options: Power sunroof, rear-seat entertainment system, and special paint.

Fuel economy: 21 m.p.g. city,

22 highway.

Handling: Adequate.

Engine performance: Exceptional.

Styling: Beefy boy next door.

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.

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Contact Al Haas

at Alhaasauto@aol.com.