Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Hummer H2 hits the road in America

AUTO INDUSTRY With mileage estimated at around 20kpg, Hummers are among the least fuel-efficient passenger vehicles in the US, so why are they now in vogue?

By James G. Cobb  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A Humvee with the US Army's 3rd Battalion, 69th Regiment Armor Task Force rolls down a runway with a palace in the background at Saddam International Airport near Bagdad in Iraq on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

Like an Art Deco skyscraper or a top 40 dance hit, a car is a time capsule for the age that produced it. Is there a better symbol of the naive optimism of the Eisenhower years than the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, its exuberant, erotic tailfins puncturing the homogenity of the 1950s, pointing toward a new era of space exploration, sexual liberation and technological revolution?

When future generations look back, they may well see the Hummer H2 as the four-wheel icon of our time. With troops at war and gasoline prices gyrating, with civilians stockpiling gas masks and duct tape to ward off unseen perils, with capitalists and environmentalists squaring off over the attractions and evils of SUVs, these hulking quasi-military utility vehicles are hardly irrelevant to the national discourse.

For a world full of danger, the H2 girds you in armor -- in appearance, if not in fact -- for highways where road rage may get you if terrorists do not, where the gridlock of aggressive utility vehicles make it every woman (or man) for herself (or himself). Driving a Hummer makes a unilateral personal statement in sync with a unilateral foreign policy.

"Drive defensively" signs in some states say, but Hummers are proactive and pre-emptive. The H2 reminds me of a Barron's cartoon I keep on my desk: A genteel couple are checking out a towering SUV in a showroom. "Drive this baby," the salesman assures them, "and most of the rules of the road won't apply to you."

Unrated

Certainly, some rules do not apply, like fuel economy regulations. The Chevrolet Tahoe, with which the H2 shares many parts, must display its mileage rating, but the Hummer goes unrated because its loaded weight exceeds the 3,855kg threshold.

Hummers are so mighty that they scare away the tax man! One New Jersey dealership has been heavily promoting a first-year tax deduction of US$36,524 that small-business owners may claim if they buy an H2 or another equally heavy SUV.

For General Motors, which bought the rights to Hummer in late 1999 (though American General builds the vehicles in Mishawaka, Indiana), the H2 is a bright spot in a dim market. Hummer dealers say the war in Iraq has increased showroom traffic, lifting sales of both trucks and trinkets. It is no coincidence that Hummers were the sole exclusions to the lavish buyer incentives GM announced last week, including five years of interest-free financing.

"Nothing screams `American' like driving a Hummer," Tom Bowlin, product manager of a dealership in Cerritos, California, told Automotive News. In the Persian Gulf, it is the H2's stepbrother, the military Humvee, that screams American, in a war that has, at the least, a tangential connection to world oil supplies and American gasoline prices.

With more Hummers on the road, ample supplies will be needed. With mileage estimated at up to 20kpg on average -- though I barely exceeded 18kpg while driving two H2s a total of 3,200km -- Hummers are among the least fuel-efficient passenger vehicles sold in the US.

No one buys a Hummer for its mileage, of course, and to many of the new customers the vehicle's considerable off-road capabilities are incidental, too. Often, the H2's mission is to attract attention, an assignment it handles with ease.

I first drove an H2 last summer, when they were quite rare, then used one to make a New York-Detroit round trip in January in near-blizzard conditions. They received all the attention they deserved, including shouts of "Yo, Schwarzenegger" as I rolled through Harlem. (An understandable case of mistaken identity.)

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