Passion runs afoul of political correctness. It pays little heed to appearance. It sells.

How else to explain what is happening at places such as the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, Pa.; the Equinox Resort & Spa in Manchester Village, Vt.; or the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.?

While some people are parking their sport-utility vehicles in surrender to rising gasoline prices, others are going to those luxurious inns to test their vehicles and their driving skills on elaborate off-road courses.

It may seem that those high-rollers are thumbing their noses at their poorer brethren, or that they are contemptuous of the environment. But the truth is they are addicted to the sport of driving off-road, say the inn and automotive retail executives who are benefiting from the trend.


"It's as much of a sport to them as golf, polo or skeet-shooting is to other people," said Jeff Doughty, sales manager of Moore Cadillac Co. and Moore Hummer Co. in Vienna.

Doughty said many of his SUV customers buy their big rigs, especially the more-macho-than-thou Hummers, primarily for recreational and off-road use.

"Most of them have two or three other cars at home," Doughty said. "They don't use their Hummers as daily drivers. They take them out only on the weekends," much in the manner of car enthusiasts who run the rat race during the week but race their high-performance sports cars on Saturdays and Sundays, Doughty said.

Gas prices topping $2 a gallon for regular unleaded at the moment seem to be having little effect on that mud-and-rock-crawling hobby, as evidenced by the growth of new off-road driving facilities such as Nemacolin. But the price hikes are changing the types of SUVs some customers are buying, Doughty said.

"We've noticed a drop in Hummer sales," mostly among people who, in the past, were buying the military-derived Hummer H1 and H2 models just for image, Doughty said. Instead of Hummers, those customers are buying the more friendly looking Cadillac Escalade SUVs, he said.

The irony is that the big Cadillac SUV shares the same platform with the Hummer H2 and the Chevrolet Suburban. But the people at Moore are smiling anyway. The dealership sold 40 Escalade SUVs in May, "and most of those went out the door fully loaded," often at transaction prices topping $50,000, Doughty said.

But he said the hard-core off-road clients -- those more interested in sport than looking sporty -- are still going for the Hummer.

Similar reports came from retailers of other high-end, off-road-engineered SUVs, such as the $70,000-plus Land Rover Range Rover and the equally expensive Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon.

SUVs taking the hit from high gasoline prices seem to be those bought by the middle class -- midline models such as the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer and Isuzu Ascender. Manufacturers are beginning to load on buyer incentives to fuel sales of those models.

The rich, it seems, are immune for the moment; and many of them are taking their big rides out to play at places such as the Nemacolin Resort, which currently specializes in training Hummer owners and lovers in how to drive Hummers in the rough.

Nemacolin's Off-Road Driving Academy charges $275 per vehicle, if guests are using one of the resort's Hummers, for a two-hour romp through a man-made course that features supremely rocky paths, steep inclines, angled descents and something called "The Crater," a seven-acre course encompassing fording ponds, hill climbs, twists and turns and lots of mud.

Nemacolin guests who are crazy or rich enough to subject their own Hummers to that torture -- we're talking vehicles costing $55,000 to $117,000 -- pay $125 for the two-hour course. A half-hour session for individuals who just want to go along for the ride is $25.

The Equinox Resort in Vermont and the Greenbrier in West Virginia specialize in Range Rover off-road driving. There also is a Land Rover Driving Academy at Land Rover North America headquarters in Lanham.

The King of Green

For those of you who are more inclined to buy green than you are to drive through it as fuel prices rise, I can recommend no better resource than "ACEEE's Green Book: The Environmental Guide to Cars & Trucks. Model Year 2004."

It is published by the District of Columbia-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit group dedicated to the research and development of fuel-efficient cars, trucks and other machines and appliances.

I like the Green Book's lack of arrogance, that holier-than-thou attitude adopted by so many politico-environmentalists who assume they are talking to the great unwashed. The Green Book instead offers solid, practical, well-researched, balanced advice. It lists the energy conservation and environmental benefits and shortcomings of almost every available vehicle sold in the United States, category by category.

The latest Green Book information also is available online at If you are in the market for a fuel-efficient car or truck, you should check it out.

A student takes a Hummer through an off-road course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, Pa. The fee is up to $275.