Sunday, August 10, 2003

Hummer invasion faced with shock, awe

By Calvin Woodward
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Seeing a Hummer come down the road sometimes stirs feelings much like watching soldiers roll into a foreign town. People either are very glad to see them or very much not.

Dave Breggin in Littleton, Colo., gets many hand gestures when he rolls by in his 1995 behemoth. He gets waves. Thumbs up. Or less friendly sign language. "Once in a while, someone doesn't like the concept," he said. "They express themselves a bit."

An SUV on growth hormones, Hummers suck up road space, tax breaks, gasoline and attention. Hot sellers, they are showing up everywhere - cruising the beach strip, roaring through the plains in Kansas, parking outside steakhouses in the nation's capital.

A splashy byproduct of the armed forces - inspired by and patterned after the military's workhorse Humvee - Hummers are so in-your-face other drivers feel driven to get out of the way.

"It's designed to run people off the road," complained van owner Verma Griffin, 40, of Denver. "Not one Hummer has ever let me in the lane I wanted to get in. They say, 'Hey, I'm king.' "

In a recent Associated Press poll, 60 percent of respondents said they find Hummers unappealing, 33 percent found them appealing and just 7 percent wouldn't hazard an opinion. Men were more inclined to like them than women - although a minority of both sexes did - and people in the 18-to-34 age group were evenly split on the question while older people were clearly thumbs down.

One striking feature of the poll, done by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa., is that so many people had an opinion. On other poll questions, about SUVs, safety and energy policy, they were more likely to equivocate.

Hummers are produced in partnership between General Motors and AM General, Indiana-based maker of the High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, that started it all.

For civilian fans, there are two kinds of Hummer. The H2, introduced last year, is an oversized luxury SUV engineered to go off-road. The H1, double the price at more than $100,000, is about half as comfortable, half as quick, twice as loud, and outfitted, it would seem, to traverse Mars.

It's the diesel-chugging H1 - with its coil springs, hardened aircraft aluminum body and dashboard like a plane's cockpit - that makes the driver feel: You're in the Army now.

Salesmen acknowledge both Hummer models are over-engineered for most owners. They are capable of going through water as deep as 20 inches (the H2) or 30 inches (the H1) but likely to be limited to street puddles. They can clamber over walls 16 or 20 inches high, but are more likely to negotiate speed bumps in a parking lot.

But those who put them through their paces swear by their abilities.

"If I own a vehicle like this, I have to have a purpose for it," said Breggin, who bought his for $69,000 in 1995 and leads outings by a dozen owners in the Colorado Hummer Club.

"The most fun thing I do with it is climb over rocks. I drive to spectacular views which would normally take me all day to hike to."

At Hummer of Kansas City, Mo., David Wells says he's selling about 18 H2s and one H1 a month.

Pity the Hummer parallel parker, at least in crowded places, Wells says. "New York would be tough," he allows.

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