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$350 a Day, 30 Cents a Mile
But if you rent a Hummer on your next vacation, at least you don't have to worry about signing the collision damage waiver.

By Tom McNichol
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 3, 1997; Page E01
   


Most times, choosing a rental car is like shopping for paper towels. Since they're all pretty much the same, you may as well look for a good price.

But every once in a while, it's liberating to throw caution -- not to mention common sense -- out the driver's-side window and into the weeds by the side of the road. Sure, you can spend your next trip wheezing around in a sea-foam-green Geo Prizm, inhaling the exhaust fumes of a world that's passing you by. Or you can make a bold automotive statement by renting a vehicle so audacious, so outlandishly inappropriate, that merely changing lanes on the freeway becomes an exotic Arabian adventure.

You can rent a Hummer.

At least that's what I did on a recent trip to Los Angeles. The Hummer, as nearly everyone I came across already seemed to know, is the civilian version of the military's famed HMMWV (pronounced hum-vee), the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle that kicked Iraqi butt during Operation Desert Storm. The Hummer lacks several of the features that make the military HMMWV so formidable in combat, including a bullet-resistant windshield, extensive armor plating and a rotating roof hatch for launching wire guided missiles. Which is too bad -- some of those options would have come in handy on the freeways of L.A.

You can't just saunter into any car rental firm and ask them to upgrade you to a Hummer. Hummers are available only from a couple of specialty rental outlets and devil-may-care Hummer dealers (see box) in California. Don't waste your time shopping for a good price. Do what the Pentagon did to get the HMMWV in the first place -- fork over the cash to a single-source supplier and hope everything works. At about $350 a day and 30 cents a mile, and 12 to 15 miles to the gallon, you're paying way too much for a vehicle that's way too big. If your boss or spouse starts asking questions, for God's sake, lie -- there's really no defense. Think of the money as dues to an exclusive country club of fewer than 8,000 Hummer owners nationwide, for whom money is an inconsequential speed bump on the road to adventure.

From the outside, the Hummer looks like a Jeep on steroids. Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the first people to buy a Hummer when they debuted in 1992, and it's hard to imagine a more perfect match of man and machine. The model I rented -- a 1997 four-passenger turbo diesel -- came in a brilliant shade of metallic yellow that made the whole thing look like a gigantic Tonka truck. This may explain why the sight of a Hummer seems to turn grown men into 8-year-old boys.

As you boost yourself up into the driver's seat and slide behind the wheel, the first thing you notice is the Hummer's colossal width. Counting the twin side mirrors, which jut out like Prince Charles's ears, the Hummer clocks in at nearly eight feet wide. From the driver's seat, the passenger-side door looks impossibly far away, as though you're peering through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

The Hummer doesn't feel like a car, and officially, it's not -- the Department of Transportation classifies it as a Class 3 truck. As such, the Hummer is exempt from certain nettlesome automobile safety regulations such as third brake lights and passive restraints. But hurling down the highway inside more than 3 1/2 tons of steel, you have few worries about your own safety -- it's the poor buggers around you who seem to be in mortal danger.

Merging onto an L.A. freeway in a Hummer is surprisingly easy. In fact, I can't remember the last time so many drivers seemed to go out of their way to make sure I successfully completed a high-speed merge. The Hummer seems to create a roving bubble of defensive driving wherever it goes, making it one of the safest vehicles on the road. As long as you're inside it.

The Hummer's elevated cab offers an excellent "command view" of the freeway, high enough to peer inside an open sun roof and see the balding pate of a harried studio exec, but not so distant that you can't enjoy the thunderstruck look of the person you're tailing. Incredibly, the Hummer I rented featured cruise control, making it possible to endanger the lives of everyone around me without even having my foot on the gas. Hasta la vista, baby.

When you're behind the wheel of a fantasy car, where better to take it but Disneyland?

Rumbling down the Riverside Freeway, I came upon a sign reading "Anaheim: Next 13 exits," a beacon somehow simultaneously reassuring and horrifying. Splitting the difference, I turned off at the seventh exit and soon found myself at Disneyland's main gate.

I lumbered into Disney's Pentagon-size parking lot, where the Hummer seemed right at home. The Happiest Place on Earth has to handle hundreds of monster tour buses every day, so it has no problem accommodating the Widest Car on the Road.

Nomadic herds of parents and kids wandered through the parking lot, waiting for Dad to pick out the family Aerostar from all the other minivans in the lot. But when they caught sight of a Hummer rolling toward them, their troubles seemed to melt away like the ice cream dripping down the kids' arms. Some stopped in their tracks to take a closer look, eyes wide with childlike wonder. And those were just the dads -- the kids seemed pretty excited, too. More than a few families waved delightedly at the Hummer as it passed, with some dads bending down to whisper some spurious technical information into Junior's ear. I felt like the guy driving the float at a Fourth of July parade.

Many people, I'm convinced, thought the Hummer was some sort of wacky new People Mover the folks at Disney were testing out in the parking lot, something with a movie tie-in and a set of collectible figurines available at McDonald's. Hey, isn't that the big yellow truck Hercules drives in the movie? Naw, it's the Beast's car from "Beauty and the Beast." No wait, it's Mr. Toad's Wild Hummer!

I drove to the far end of the lot, smiling as I passed a row of "Compact Only" spaces, and parked by the tour buses. The Hummer comfortably took up two spaces, but I figured no one would mind. Even a gentle tap in the parking lot from a Hummer would leave most cars looking like the final scene of a driver's ed movie.

When I returned later, a small crowd of people had gathered around the Hummer. One guy was actually lying on the ground with his head under the vehicle, taking an up close and personal look at the Hummer's admittedly superior four-wheel fully independent suspension, heavy-duty springs and unmatched 16-inch ground clearance. There were a few cleared throats and a mumbled "Oh, sorry, man, I was just checking out your Hummer" from the guy underneath the car. I told them not to worry. I felt like an ambassador from the magical land of Hummer, and I didn't want to let my adopted country down. Besides, it's easy to be magnanimous in a rental car.

I couldn't blame anyone for being curious. It's hard to imagine a more conspicuous vehicle than a Hummer, except maybe the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. The Weinermobile probably gets better mileage, but not nearly as much respect. And Weiner drivers certainly aren't constantly asked the question that nearly everyone I met during my trip posed, the query the man who had crawled under the Hummer now dusted himself off and asked.

"So let me ask you," the man said, warming up to actually ask, "how much does something like this cost?"

Fortunately, that information had been included with my rental agreement, as a not-so-subtle reminder about the crushing liability I faced if I totaled the Hummer. With options, the Hummer I was driving cost exactly $77,715.

I thought the figure would elicit a groan from the crowd or a least a low whistle or two. Instead, the answer seemed to set off a lot of furious mental calculating. I mean, when you think about it, $77,715 is really only $350 a month, spread out over 18 1/2 years. The Hummer taps into the heart of the American Dream: Work hard, save your money and put a down payment on a car you still can't afford.

On the way out the parking lot, I clanked over a metal plate with one of those signs warning about severe tire damage if you tried to drive back into the lot. Here, I thought, was a chance to test the Hummer's legendary Runflat Tire System, which allows drivers to travel up to 30 miles at 20 mph on four flat tires. According to AM General, the South Bend, Ind.-based manufacturer of the Hummer, the Runflat system "eliminates the immediate need for a spare tire," which presumably is why they don't supply one -- that and wanting to avoid the absurd spectacle of someone by the side of the road trying to jack up a 3 1/2-ton truck. As much as I wanted to test the Runflat system, the horror of being limited to within 30 miles of Disneyland made me think twice. I left the parking lot without incident, but just knowing I could have sneaked back in made me feel good.

Finding a suitable hotel for your Hummer is more difficult than you might imagine. The Hummer needs plenty of room to maneuver, and once you leave Disneyland, it turns out to be a small world, after all. Many of the hotels near Disneyland are flimsy castle-themed affairs with names like Knight's Rest that have fragile gingerbread facades and narrow entrances. I was afraid the Hummer would accidentally bump into a faux flying buttress or ceremonial turret and bring an entire castle down in a dusty heap. Passing several of the more delicate-looking medieval lodges, I pulled into the Castle Inn and Suites, which featured a drawing of a knight slaying a fire-breathing dragon that appeared to have been copied out of a children's coloring book. More important, it also had a very wide entrance.

Once you find a hotel for your Hummer, there is one advantage to driving such a conspicuous vehicle. When you fill out the hotel registration card, you can skip that annoying part where they ask for the license number of your rental car. Simply writing "The Hummer" in the space seems to satisfy the clerk.

Driving a Hummer and never taking it off road is like renting a convertible and never popping the top. Unfortunately, Los Angeles is not one of your primo off-road locales. The only patches of Los Angeles that aren't currently smothered in concrete are the beaches, and they're working on that.

Determined to put the Hummer to the test, I drove to the Cleveland National Forest, a 567,000-acre wilderness preserve nestled in the rugged Santa Ana mountains, about 2 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles. Unlike its northern Ohio namesake, the Cleveland National Forest doesn't boast a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a new downtown ballpark or a river that once caught fire; it does, however, feature a 360-acre Off-Highway Vehicle Area that's a formidable challenge for any four-wheel drive roadster.

The approach to the off-road area proved to be nearly as hazardous as the trails themselves. The main route slicing through the mountains, Highway 74, is a narrow, twisting road that would be fine if nothing bigger than a Honda Civic traveled on it. As it is, the road seems to be a magnet for the largest currently available RVs, trucks and minivans on the market.

In a Hummer, you quickly learn to laugh in the face of signs that read "Rough Road" or "Steel Plates Ahead" -- no mere bump in the highway is a match for a combat-tested vehicle. However, the sight of signs such as "Road Narrows" or "One Lane Bridge" quickly has you white-knuckling the steering wheel as you attempt to thread a nearly eight-foot-wide hunk of steel through a narrow canyon while a guy in an RV yakking on his cell phone hurls toward you. Now, that's adventure.

Arriving at the off-road area without incident -- at least none that I was aware of -- I rumbled the Hummer to the trailhead, the point where the rubber stops meeting the road and grabs dirt. Tom, the guy who handled my Hummer rental, had supplied me a videotape of off-road driving tips saying, "I strongly urge you to watch this," in a foreboding tone reminiscent of Dad handing over the keys for the first time. Unfortunately, the Hummer hadn't come equipped with a VCR, so the video was still lying on the back seat unopened. But an accompanying booklet did offer a few off-road pointers, which I now took to heart.

Before driving the Hummer onto dirt or sand, the manufacturer recommends that you reduce the air pressure of all four tires, which increases the vehicle's traction and tire "footprint." This is accomplished not by anything so crude as actually getting out of the vehicle and letting air out of the tires, but rather by activating the Hummer's ingenious Central Tire Inflation System from inside the cab. Simply by flicking a switch on the dashboard, the driver activates a compressor that increases or decreases tire pressure to any level desired. This was one of the features that made the HMMWV shine in the Gulf War -- U.S. forces skimmed over the desert sand on reduced tire pressure while the Iraqis were bent over by the side of the road still letting air out of their tires.

Properly deflated, I rolled the Hummer onto the dirt trail. Almost immediately, it was clear that the Hummer was born for off-road driving, scampering happily along the dirt trails like a puppy let loose at the beach. Rocks and potholes the size of small children were no match for the Hummer's monstrous Goodyear Wrangler tires, which gobbled everything in their path and spit it out. In the rear-view mirror, all I could see was a thick cloud of red dust that the Hummer was kicking up, seemingly creating its own weather system. For an all-too-brief moment, the Hummer cruised majestically along the dirt trail in super-slow-motion, chrome wheels gleaming in the late afternoon sun, while Bob Seger soulfully sang "Like a Rock."

There were several scary moments, though. Although most of the people tooling around the trails were clearly off-road pros, there were a few weekend warriors who thought that pushing the dorky little "four-wheel drive" button on the dashboard of their Suburban meant they had joined the big leagues. One of these amateurs came careening sideways down the trail, barely managing to avoid hitting me head-on. I wasn't worried about getting hurt -- I just wasn't looking forward to picking the guy's hairpiece out of the Hummer's front grille.

A little while later, the trail turned steep and rutty, which in theory is terrain made for the Hummer. AM General claims the Hummer can scale 18-inch vertical ledges, traverse 40 percent side-slopes and climb 60 percent grades. The company does not, however, guarantee that you won't break a major component in the process, leaving you stranded in the mountains while buzzards circle hungrily overhead. Even if I managed to flag someone down, the nearest authorized Hummer dealer was in Huntington Beach, nearly two hours away. At best, I might be able to stagger to a house that had a VCR and hope that the driving tips video also covered major mechanical failure.

These were some of the thoughts that flashed through my head as the Hummer lurched down the steep trail, the monster wheels perilously close to slipping into an ominous four-foot-deep gash running down the center of the trail. This, I knew, was combat -- my own personal Operation Desert Storm. I wasn't doing this just for me -- I was doing it for Billy and Davey and Johnny and all the other guys who stood by the side of the road as a Hummer drove by and wondered how much something like that costs.

Somehow, I managed to control both my wits and the vehicle. After about 10 minutes, the trail leveled off and became less laughably dangerous. The muscles in my neck, however, were as taut as bridge cables for the next several hours. I made my way to a nearby RV park for the night, where the Hummer was greeted like a conquering hero. I drove a woman named Marilyn, at her repeated insistence, over to the local store, where she showed off the Hummer to her friends. I even let Mike, the son of the RV park's manager, drive the Hummer around the parking lot, an experience he declared to be "the epitome of my life." Somehow, I knew exactly what he meant.

The rest of my stay in L.A. was a blur of palm trees, iced mochas, and "This Lane Must Exit" signs. I noticed that the closer I drove to L.A.'s power centers, the more people pretended not to notice the Hummer. But like most things in L.A., it was all an act. More than once, I glanced over at some sharpie driving a Saab Turbo or Range Rover and could see the muscles in the driver's face visibly sag at the sight of the Hummer passing by. It was an experience worth the admittedly absurd price of admission.

AM General's contention that navigating bank drive-throughs and city parking garages "couldn't be easier" in a Hummer turns out to be -- well, "lie" is probably too strong a word. Let's just say an exaggeration, like the Hummer itself. One-way navigating could be easier if they lopped a few feet off the Hummer's stupendous width so it could actually fit in most bank drive-throughs and parking garages. The Hummer was about six inches too wide to fit in the underground garage at my hotel in Santa Monica, and despite the valet's excited entreaties to "Try it again, sir," I wound up parking on the street. Most drive-through ATMs were too narrow to attempt, and when I found one wide enough, I was too far above the machine to reach the buttons. Even Schatzi on Main, the trendy Santa Monica restaurant owned by Hummer owner Schwarzenegger, had an underground parking garage that was too small. I'll be back, Arnold, and next time I won't be so careful.

My Hummer epiphany came while driving down Santa Monica Boulevard on my way to the airport. I heard a honk beside me, and when I looked over, there was a guy in sunglasses and a ponytail driving . . . a Hummer. A four-door hardtop in silver metallic. The guy didn't smile or wave or give the "thumbs-up" sign that everyone who sees a Hummer seems obliged to give. He just nodded, ever so slightly. I gave a barely perceptible nod back. Nothing needed to be said. We were both members of that secret fraternity of adventure-seekers who know exactly how much something like that costs.

San Francisco author Tom McNichol usually prefers to walk.

Details : Hummers & Other Exotica

Want to rent a Hummer? Fat chance, at least in Washington. Neither AM General, the truck's manufacturer, nor Greenbelt's Capitol Hummer, the local dealership, knows of any firm in this area that will rent one of the big rigs. But if you're traveling to Southern California or a few other places, you, too, can spend way too much on a rental car that's way too wide. Be advised that in most cases the following locations do not offer insurance for your rental, so make sure you carry enough auto insurance to cover the nearly $80,000 needed to replace a fully equipped Hummer.

In addition to proof of insurance, most firms that rent specialty vehicles also require a refundable deposit in addition to the usual driver's license and major credit card. Some firms require you to buy insurance from them as a condition of the rental.

* Huntington Beach Hummer (16701 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, Calif., 1-800-934-8663) charges $350 a day, 30 cents a mile; a $1,000 refundable deposit is required.

* California Baja Rent a Car (9245 Jamacha Blvd., Spring Valley, Calif., 619-470-7368) rents Hummers in the San Diego area. It charges $249.97 a day in the United States, $349.97 a day if driving to Mexico, plus $40 a day Mexican insurance. The first 100 miles are free, then it's 40 cents a mile. There's a $2,000 refundable deposit.

* Exoticars Rentals (1490 NW Lejeune Rd., Miami, 1-888-541-1789) will rent a Hummer for $350 a day, 50 cents a mile. Deposit is $5,000. Also available are BMW 325i convertibles, Rolls-Royces and Harley-Davidsons.

* Exotic Car & Motorcycle Rentals (1820 Burrard St., Vancouver, B.C., 1-800-566-0343) rents Hummers starting at $217 a day, 55 cents a kilometer after the first 100. The deposit is $1,450. Mandatory insurance is $36 a day. The firm also offers a wide range of luxury cars, including Porsches, Jaguars and BMWs.

For general information about the Hummer and dealers nationwide, check out AM General's Web site at http://www.hummer.com.

OTHER EXOTICA: If you'd like to add some style, drama and expense to your vacation, but aren't quite ready to step up to a Hummer, you have other options.

Most major national car rental agencies have expanded their fleets to include four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles, minivans and some sports or luxury cars. Convertibles are commonplace, too, and not only in the expected top-down destinations of Florida, California and Hawaii. Car rental firms with decent geographic availability of specialty vehicles include Dollar (1-800-800-4000), Alamo (1-800-462-5266), National (1-800-328-4567), Thrifty (1-800-367-2277), Budget (currently featuring the Jaguar XJ6 Sedan and rolling out pickup trucks this month, 1-800-527-0700) and Hertz (Mustang convertibles and Lincoln Town Cars, 1-800-654-3131).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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