Detroit’s Hottest Item Is Its Biggest Gas Guzzler Humvee

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DETROIT, Nov. 1— Detroit can’t seem to sell enough cars or trucks these days without piling on rebates and free financing. With one exception.

Three months into an experiment to bring a smaller and cheaper version of the militaristic Hummer vehicle to a broad audience, General Motors has struck a chord. Put aside the difficulty of selling a $50,000 sport utility vehicle in a bear market and stagnant economy, or of marketing an automobile that gets about 11 miles a gallon when there is renewed focus on oil consumption.

Dealers say they are selling as many of these vehicles as they can get. G.M.’s supply is only six days ahead of demand — automakers prefer 10 times that amount. And Hummer is the only Big Three brand selling largely without any national incentives.

Many buyers of this low-end Hummer, called the H2, sound like evangelists and speak of other modern sport utilities as the vehicle of soccer moms — tame family haulers little different from zoo-bound wildlife too long in captivity. To them, Hummer represents what Ford’s Bronco II or Jeep did before sport utilities overran the highways.

”You can’t believe the attention it gets,” said Robert Fishelson, 65, whose family runs a wholesale liquor company in Fond du Lac, Wis. Mr. Fishelson has outfitted his H2 with lights on top, a winch and his ham radio. ”It’s like I’m a movie star,” he added. ”I have young girls, teeny-boppers, yelling out their windows at me.”

Mr. Fishelson, who has owned 15 Corvettes at various points of his life, still says that the H2 is by far his most-noticed automobile.

Environmentalists are incensed that G.M. is building up a new brand that will probably be the industry’s most fuel-inefficient mass market vehicle line, producing higher emissions of smog-causing pollutants and greenhouse gases than do cars and many sport utility vehicles. Not to mention the annoyance to other drivers: the H2, at more than three tons, weighs a ton more than the Ford Explorer and twice what a Ford Taurus weighs and is one of the tallest and widest passenger vehicles on the road.

It is difficult to pinpoint the gas mileage of Hummers because both the original Hummer, a diesel, and the gasoline-fed H2 are so heavy that they do not fall under normal federal fuel economy regulations that govern cars, S.U.V.’s and most pickups. As a result, the Hummer’s fuel economy does not have to be reported to the government.

The Sierra Club is planning a campaign against the Hummer, along the lines of its effort against the huge Ford Excursion, which the environmental group dubbed the Valdez after the oil tanker that ran aground in Alaska. Ford recently discontinued the Excursion.

”We’re going to try to do to the Hummer what we did to the Valdez,” said Daniel Becker, the Sierra Club’s top energy expert. ”Kill it.”

But H2 buyers, asked whether gasoline consumption was any consideration, generally assume the question is whether they can afford to fill up the 32-gallon gas tank so often.

”If you can afford to buy an H2, if you get 10 miles to the gallon you’re not going to care,” said Bill Kramer, a 51-year-old computer programmer from Long Island whose H2 actually gets about 9 miles a gallon around town. ”If gas went up to $3 per gallon, then maybe.”

Mr. Kramer said his H2 ”looks like what an S.U.V. should be.”

”People who like to buy the Hummer like to stand out,” he added. ”I’ve had an Escalade, a Mercedes, a Jaguar. This Hummer H2 draws more looks and questions than any other vehicle I’ve owned.”

Trying to broaden the H2′s appeal, G.M. has begun customizing advertisements for different markets, seeking like-minded souls among readers of magazines from Road & Track to Vanity Fair. A recent pullout in The New Yorker included a cartoon depicting frightened cabbies shrinking from an H2 muscling its way down a Manhattan avenue.

H2 is often presented in G.M. ads as perfect for those who shop at Restoration Hardware but fancy themselves ”rugged individualists,” as the company’s executives put it.

Many ads suggest it as a fortress apart from the peopled world. In one TV spot, shot in Iceland and scored with trance-like techno music, a couple who seem to have stepped out of a Banana Republic catalog peacefully navigate hemorrhaging oceans, slate-colored terrain and khaki beaches. He wears a $4,000 watch; she gazes beatifically heavenward.

”Need,” the ad instructs, ”is a very subjective word.” Then the scene pulls back to depict a glistening blue planet.

The Hummer and the H2 are descended from the Humvee, the military transport used in the Persian Gulf war and still in use. G.M. has sold the Hummer for several years, at about $100,000. Through a national network of dealerships, G.M. plans to sell 100,000 Hummers within five years. In just three months 7,500 H2′s have been sold; among its biggest markets are Los Angeles, Miami and Texas. G.M. hopes to sell as many as 40,000 next year — nearly double the number of Porsches Americans bought last year.

Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, founder of the consulting firm Archetype Discoveries, on which the Big Three rely for information about their customers, said Hummer was an S.U.V. unfettered from the blandness that had overtaken the category. He interviewed potential buyers on behalf of G.M. and found a sentiment among buyers that ”the S.U.V. is the new minivan.”

With the Hummer, Dr. Rapaille said: ”People told me, ‘I can protect my family. If someone bumps into me, they’re dead.’ People love this feeling.” One female H2 buyer told him: ”I have three kids in the car with me and no one is going to look at me as a soccer mom.”

A male customer in the construction business said he needed the H2′s off-road capability for work, but Dr. Rapaille called that explanation an alibi.

”He could have had a Jeep or another S.U.V., but the reality is you want to show strength,” he said, adding that after the Sept. 11 attacks ”we feel we are at war and people feel the need to be protected.”

”It’s like putting on a Superman outfit,” said Rick Schmidt, founder of the Detroit-based I.H.O.G., the International Hummer Owners Group. Mr. Schmidt, 49, owns an original Hummer and is thinking about trading in his Jeep Grand Cherokee for an H2.

”You want something you know can respond to the way you feel when you want to get someplace, even if it’s up a mountainside,” he said. Mr. Schmidt has climbed Kilimanjaro.

For its part, G.M. is facing slim profits, stiff overseas competition and industry sales beginning to slump. The company says that it thinks that it may have the beginnings of a brand that people will buy on its own merits and plans to turn Hummer into a postmodern version of Jeep. A pickup H2 is scheduled for next year and a smaller, cheaper Hummer S.U.V. is being considered for 2005. Dealers will be required to build new showrooms that resemble military barracks with plenty of brushed steel and exposed bolts inside. A prototype in Milwaukee, Bergstrom Hummer, sports a 35-foot-high ”H” out front.

”The people that buy this product, they’re daring,” said Michael DiGiovanni, Hummer’s general manager, who divides customers into those who ”want to do off-roading in Moab and then do Italian for dinner” and those who are daring in more mundane ways but want a car to match their persona. John Bruno Jr., sales manager at Hummer of Manhattan, called it ”an expression of a personality.”

”There is no typical Hummer buyer,” he said. ”I am seeing a lot of the style leaders. It’s a sophisticated vehicle.”

Photo: Hummers and Cadillacs share space at a dealership in Great Neck, N.Y. Dealers are having trouble keeping the Hummers in stock. (Nancy Siesel/The New York Times)

May 3, 2014 · Posted in Uncategorized  


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