Hummer A Luxury Status Symbol


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

WASHINGTON, Feb 12, 2003; Laura MacInnis wrting for Reuters reports that Americans seeking attention on the road, and in their suburban neighborhoods, are trading in their trucks and SUVs for a new, oversized status symbol -- an all-terrain army vehicle.

The Hummer H2, a cheaper and more refined version of GM's Hummer, based on the military Humvee used in the 1991 Gulf War, has dominated the top end of the U.S. auto market since its launch in July.

At $49,000 apiece, with luxury options like televisions, video games, DVD players and heated leather seats, dealers say the H2 appeals mainly to suburbanites with money, a hedonistic streak and a touch of ego.

"Most of the people who are buying the vehicle in this area are what we call successful achievers," said David Harris, sales manager at the Moore Hummer dealership, near Washington. "They are using (the H2) for pretty much every day use."

Hummer corporate spokeswoman Heather Hall said H2 drivers are mostly men, with an average age of 41 and a median income of more than $215,000.

"The folks who buy Hummer are confident, self-assured and entrepreneurial," she said. "They like the vehicle because they see in it what they see in themselves. This is a vehicle that makes no apologies."

ACTIVISTS FUMING

Though nicknamed "Baby Hummer" for its plush features, the Hummer H2 stands about 16 feet (five metres) long and 6-1/2 feet (two metres) high, dwarfing most sport utility vehicles.

Many Americans are fuming over the colossal vehicle, which weighs 6,400 pounds (2,900 kg) and burns about twice as much fuel as an average mid-size passenger car in city driving, according to some industry analyst estimates.

"There is a certain arrogance to think we have a right to drive whatever we want," said Daphne Wysham, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

Like many environmentalists and social activists, Wysham believes U.S. oil consumption is fueling climate change and spurring political instability through dependence on foreign crude producers, particularly in the Middle East.

"If people really understood what they were 'making no apologies' for, I think they would be ashamed," she said.

John Tagiuri of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has led a campaign against SUVs for nearly two years, encouraging volunteers to affix mock parking tickets to windshields.

"People need to realize that if they choose to buy an SUV, even if they need it for a safari, or if they own 17 pigs ... they have still chosen a vehicle that is emblematic of America's waste and lack of interest in the environment," he told Reuters in an interview.

"For me, the Hummer is the poster boy of the problems with SUVs in general."

MODEL IN DEMAND

Robust sales during Hummer H2's first six months on the North American market -- nearly 20,000 from July to December -- made it the top selling luxury vehicle in the United States, according to General Motors. There are now 153 Hummer dealerships across North America.

"The model is in demand," said Jeff Schuster, director of North America forecasting with J.D. Power and Associates. "They are having a difficult time meeting the level of orders that are in place now. That could cool off after a period of time."

In the showroom, dealers say interest remains strong.

"My phone rings every day with people saying, 'Glen, what have you got for me right now, today,'" said Glen Cardelino, sales manager at Washington's Capitol Hummer dealership.

Cardelino secured 80 advance deposits for the H2 before its launch last July, and Capitol Hummer has sold about 230 in the seven months since.

He said many Hummer drivers relished the attention the tank-like vehicle brought them, which he said eclipsed that afforded drivers of sports cars like Ferraris or Porches.

"Whenever I deliver the vehicles to my clients, I tell them: 'Get used to feeling like a rock star, because that's how it's going to be from now on,'" he said, smiling.

SAFETY PREMIUM?

Large SUVs like the Hummer H2 are exempt from U.S. federal fuel economy standards, and eligible for heavy tax deductions under the most recent White House economic stimulus proposal for small businesses.

Arianna Huffington, anti-SUV campaigner and author of "Pigs at the Trough," told Reuters the tax incentives had unduly inflated demand for fuel-inefficient vehicles.

Huffington's lobby group "The Detroit Project" has aired television advertisements linking driving SUVs to unwittingly supporting drug cartels, terrorism and conflict.

"We are not talking about demonizing Hummer owners," she said. "People will drive what they want to drive. The point is, a lot of people do not have all the information they need to see the impact of those decisions."

Many buyers also like the Hummer for safety reasons. Dealers say drivers feel safe in the H2 as the vehicle's height allows them to see over traffic and to avoid driver-level impact in collisions with smaller cars.

Harris, of Moore Hummer, said most H2 drivers believe added protection is worth the premium at the gas station.

"Can you put a price on safety? I don't know. You might sacrifice your fuel economy for the safety of the vehicle," Harris said.

Schuster added: "Knowing that the Hummer can pretty much roll over any other vehicle out there could be a compelling reason to buy one."

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