By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Reacting to growing consumer sentiment, General Motors chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. said yesterday that the world's biggest automaker will consider revamping or selling off some of the world's biggest passenger vehicles -- the Hummer line.
Is there any vehicle that so incites the ire, the anger, the reptile-brain rage of a group of people? Is there any other vehicle that has suffered as much defacement by eco-vandals?
Indeed, the Hummer has achieved greater success as a symbol, a cudgel and an in-your-face badge of defiance than as a statistically significant market. Hummers accounted for less than 1 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States last year.
Yesterday, Wagoner conceded what much of America has been thinking for some time: We want smaller vehicles. Gasoline at $4 per gallon (for now!) will do that to you.
Before GM's annual meeting yesterday in Wilmington, Del., Wagoner said the automaker is "undertaking a strategic review of the Hummer brand, to determine its fit with GM's evolving product portfolio."
High fuel costs are hurting sales of GM's high-profit trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Wagoner said yesterday that GM will close four production plants and start making more small vehicles, which the Hummer decidedly is not.
"At this point," Wagoner said, "we are considering all options for the Hummer brand . . . everything from a complete revamp of the product lineup to partial or complete sale of the brand."
Sell it? Like, to whom?
For sale: One vilified vehicle division. Makes four-ton SUVs that get 15 miles per gallon downhill with a tail wind. Comes with dental floss to pick Miatas out of grill.
Hummer hatred goes deep. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a product other than a handgun that so clearly splits the division between what some people perceive as a right and others perceive as social destruction.
And so the war has raged on, nearly since the Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) became a rock star of the first Persian Gulf War and was seen by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said: Must. Have. That. (He later tooled about in a specially built hydrogen-fueled Hummer, which just seems wrong on so many levels.)
AM General, a former AMC Jeep division, began manufacturing the first civilian Hummers in 1992. GM bought the line in 1999 and cranked out the H2 and H3 but stopped producing the H1 in 2006, as it had sold only 376 units the previous year.
We would be remiss if we did not mention the Hummer's role in disaster relief. A group called HOPE, Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies, used their vehicles for what they were intended -- extreme conditions -- by helping the Red Cross ferry medical supplies and other aid around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A Hummer can cross two feet of water which, you must admit, is pretty cool.
But few Hummers have been put to such tests. They're more likely to be sighted, spotless and bone-dry, rolling up to a red carpet in Hollywood, disgorging an underfed starlet or an alpha-dog executive.
The Hummer has won a place in the culture, appearing in "The Simpsons," "The X-Files" and "24." The Hummer 1 carbon-bootprinted its way through some "Jurassic Park" films, a poetically appropriate casting considering the 7,000-pound vehicle's engine was burning up what used to be dinosaurs.
North American sales of the Hummer family peaked at 75,939 vehicles in 2006, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank data. The drop since then has been precipitous, no doubt owing to high gas prices and social shaming. This year, only about 3,000 H2s have been sold. (At $4 per gallon, the $57,000 H2's tank costs $128 to fill.)
So, the Hummer may go the way of the brontosaurus and other lumbering herbivores, actual and metaphorical, all grazing peacefully in the growing shadow of the incoming meteor.
But if you think Detroit is in danger of "getting it," fear not: The coming months will bring us a brand new pony car war, straight from the ecologically sensitive days of 36-cent gas in 1970!
In something like a glorious death rattle, Chrysler's Dodge is releasing an updated version of its famed Challenger, the soul of which is a 425-horsepower V-8 engine that probably makes the hood torque when you gun the throttle in neutral. GM's Chevrolet is joining this Cold War face-off with some impressive throw-weight of its own, a pending re-do of the Camaro, with 400 horses underfoot. (Italian horn necklace: not included.)