SUV backlash? Humvee Owners Just Humming Along

LOS ANGELES February 4, 2003; Paul Wilborn writing for the AP filed this report.-- Josefa Salinas said motoring through the urban wilderness of America's second-largest city requires more than your average sport-utility vehicle.

She encases herself inside a Hummer H2, a hulking but luxurious version of the military Humvee.

"I need a car that no matter what happens in this town -- earthquake, civil unrest, fire, flood -- I can get through it, under it or over it," said Salinas, an entertainment manager and radio host.

A mix of off-road muscle and candy-colored sizzle, the Hummer is America's new status ride, attracting celebrities such as actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and flamboyant former basketball star Dennis Rodman, as well as security-minded women such as Salinas who aren't bothered by gas mileage that barely rises above single digits.

"We've got the most popular new vehicle on the market in years," said Tom Bowlin, of Cerritos Hummer, a Southern California dealership.

Super-sized SUVs such as the Hummer also are a popular target for critics. Poor gas mileage has environmentalists upset. Some drivers also complain that the big vehicles block their view of the road and cram parking spaces, leaving little room for other cars.

"It's a safety issue. I can't see around them. I can't park next to them," said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a political consultant from Santa Monica. "My Acura Integra feels tiny next to all these oversized UPS-type trucks these people are driving."

Los Angeles actress Susan McNabb said she tries to avoid them on the highway.

"They tend to attract aggressive drivers," she said.

Both the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth are planning anti-Hummer campaigns based on the damage a hulking vehicle like the 6,400-pound Hummer can do to the environment when taken off road and its poor gas mileage.

Dealers say Hummers average 8-10 m.p.g., while General Motors Corp., which markets and distributes the latest version of the vehicle, the Hummer H2, puts the figure at 10-13 mpg. By comparison, the Ford Expedition gets 14-19 mpg, and the three-quarter ton Chevy Suburban gets 13-17 mpg.

"It's irresponsible to put a car like this on the road," said Gary Skulnik, of the Sierra Club.

Environmental activists around the country are planting fake tickets on SUV windshields, and a series of television ads this month have tried to link gas-guzzling SUVs with support of oil-producing countries in the Middle East that support terrorism.

The criticism seems to have little effect on the SUV juggernaut, especially top-of-the-line products such as the Hummer, which starts at $49,190 and nears six figures when all the custom features are added.

Americans continue to buy SUVs at record levels, with sales up almost 7 percent last year and up 42 percent over the past five years, according to industry figures.

GM, which bought the Hummer name from AM General in 1999, is marketing the vehicle as a "real" SUV that can carry heavy cargo, maneuver easily over rocks, plow through mud and navigate water 20 inches deep. With GM's marketing, appearances in music videos and a cachet with sports stars, musicians and off-road enthusiasts, H2 sales took off.

Hummer dealers are selling out their inventory with no discounts, rebates or special financing, auto industry trackers say.

The company sold 18,861 H2s in 2002, after launching the vehicle last summer. The Hummer factory in Indiana can make 40,000 vehicles a year, and GM expects to sell them all this year.

"It's been a wildly successful launch for us," GM spokesman Chris Preuss said.

Gas mileage figures are not posted on Hummer window stickers because the car weighs so much it is exempt from mileage-reporting requirements.

GM officials defended the Hummer's fuel efficiency. "Pound for pound and for what it delivers, the vehicle is actually fairly fuel efficient," Preuss said.

The Humvee, originally a military vehicle that saw action in the Gulf War, developed a cult following when Schwarzenegger convinced AM General to sell a consumer model, the Hummer, in 1992.

Schwarzenegger, who already owned five Hummers, got a new H2 model for his birthday last year.

He did not answer an e-mailed question regarding its fuel economy but responded with a statement calling the vehicle "an incredibly precise and forceful machine."

Poor gas mileage has rap star Coolio thinking about selling his diesel Hummer with dual gas tanks -- a 25-gallon main tank and a 17-gallon backup. His record company gave the vehicle to him in 1996.

"I've got two tanks, and it takes three to get to San Francisco. Over the years, that adds up," he said.

Coolio, known for the song "Gangsta's Paradise," said his Hummer has never been far from concrete and asphalt.

"We drive it when we want to 'floss' -- basically when we want to be seen -- pulling up at an awards show or something like that," Coolio said.

The Hummer's flash factor also can attract negative attention.

Ohio prep phenom LeBron James, regarded as the nation's top high school basketball player, found himself under investigation by state athletic officials this month for jeopardizing his amateur status after he began driving a new H2 equipped with three televisions.

He was cleared this week after his mother produced documents showing she bought the vehicle -- which has a base retail price of $50,000 -- for her son's 18th birthday.

For most Hummer drivers, the attention they receive is part of the reason they bought a car that can sell for as much as a condo.

"It boils down to fun," said Dave Breggin, of Littleton, Colo. "Drive a Hummer and people walk up and start talking to you about it. And for me that's fun."

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