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Hummers roll with the cheers and jeers

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Up the winding gravel driveway, behind a white fence, next to skateboarding ramps and a stately white-column house in Marshall sit R.J. and Cindy Roach's two shiny Hummers.

R.J. and Cindy Roach of Marshall with their Hummers: his, the $112,000 green H1; hers, the $55,000 black H2. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

2003 Hummer H1

dot.gif Base Price: $113,824

dot.gif Engine: 195-hp turbo-diesel V8

dot.gif Weight: 7,154 lbs.

dot.gif Gas mileage: 13 city/17 highway*

dot.gif Fuel tanks: 25 gallons, 17 gallons

2003 Hummer H2

dot.gif Base Price: $48,800

dot.gif Engine: 316-hp Vortec V8

dot.gif Weight: 6,400 pounds

dot.gif Gas mileage: 11 city/13 highway*

dot.gif Fuel tank: 32 gallons

*Estimate, not tested by Environmental Protection Agency

Official Web Site

The two suburban tanks look battle-worthy, weighing a combined 13,214 pounds, or more than five Kia Rios. The two Hummers can tow 14,367 pounds together and take up almost 14 feet of garage width -- and that's not counting the retractable mirrors that stick out of one like elephant ears.

The pair of Hummers would break many a civilian budget. In October, the Roaches spent $55,000 for Cindy's black H2 Hummer, the newer model with heated seats and nine Bose speakers. They liked it so much that they went back to the dealership last month to buy R.J. a $112,000 green H1, the more authentic, macho, noisier version.

"It's a his and her Hummer," says R.J., a 39-year-old entrepreneur wearing jeans and a starched white shirt. "It's a double Hummer."

On the street and in dealerships, the war in Iraq has spiked interest in the Hummer, once an oddity but now the most popular large, luxury SUV.

Even though the Sierra Club is trying to stop the gas-gulping tank in its massive tracks, the Roaches only get rave reviews when they roll down the streets in their Hummers. People flash thumbs-up signs, wave and ask if they can climb inside the vehicles that are the civilian cousins of the Humvees they see on TV traversing the sand in Iraq.

One older veteran stopped R.J. in a parking lot. Staring longingly at the truck with a massive brushguard, bulging lights and military-style windshield wipers, he said, "These things are so pretty, it makes me want to re-enlist."

"It's a very patriotic vehicle," says Duane Guthrie, product manager at Wright Hummer in Wexford. "Some of my customers are talking about being patriotic."

"This vehicle doesn't have 0 percent financing or incentives, and I can't keep them in stock," says Guthrie, who estimates that only about 10 percent of Hummer customers use them for off-road use.

"It is like driving an American flag," says Rick Schmidt, coordinator of the International Hummer Owner Group in Michigan.

Patriotic? Hardly, says the Sierra Club, which is poised to go after the Hummer the way it satirized the Ford Excursion, "The Ford Valdez -- Have You Driven a Tanker Lately?"

"The Hummer may have a place on the battlefield," says Daniel Becker, director of Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "Why it has a place trying to park downtown is a mystery to me."

But isn't it your right to vroom around your neighborhood in as big a tank as you want, as H2 owner Joe Eori contends?

"This is America. Our boys are over there fighting for freedom and you should be able to get what you want," says Eori, who owns Angel's World of Cycles in Rostraver, which sells a lot of motorcycles that get more than 50 miles per gallon.

Becker counters: "People can drive whatever they want. But it is irresponsible for General Motors to flack and push Americans to buy an 11-mile-per-gallon gas guzzler at a time when our soldiers are fighting in a war that has something to do with oil."

Pete Ternes, director of communications for Hummer, said while sales of the vehicle are growing, it is still a minuscule part of the car market. GM, which negotiated the marketing rights to the Hummer name from AM General in Wisconsin, says only about 760 of the H1 Hummers were sold last year.

Sales of the less pricey H2 have held steady at about 3,000 a month since they were launched in July. The H2 has nudged up the sales of the H1 this year.

"It has no impact on fuel prices," Ternes says, noting that Hummers get between 11 and 13 miles per gallon. "It is like .2 percent of the vehicle market. GM has tons of other vehicles -- like the Buick Rendezvous -- which are fuel-efficient."

Ternes says Hummer owners often buy their trucks to explore the wilderness, much the way Sierra Club members do.

Some complain that the Hummers take up too much of the road and question whether they're tearing up the roads, too. But Ed Myslewicz, PennDOT spokesman, said, "Our roads are built to accommodate a fully loaded tractor trailer, 80,000 pounds. A fully loaded tractor trailer is about 12 Hummers."

City roads are also built to withstand the weight of all sorts of trucks, including Hummers.

"Our roads handle fully loaded delivery trucks, garbage trucks," said Sidney B. Kaikai, Pittsburgh's principal transportation planner. "The Hummer is not heavier than they are."

Since the war began in Iraq, Ternes said, more people are visiting the Hummer Web site, inquiring at dealerships and buying macho Hummer stuff -- including the $700 Hummer tactical mountain bike, a foldable bike used by paratroopers when they jump out of airplanes.

Whether wartime interest in Hummers translates into a sales growth remains to be seen. Most luxury SUVs are not impulse buys.

Then again, GM doesn't want everyone driving a Hummer. "Our goal is to keep it very attractive, and somewhat exclusive," Ternes said.

The median Hummer buyer is 41 years old, with a household income of $215,000. Seventy-five percent of them are white, 9 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are African American.

That exclusivity is exactly why the Roaches love their Hummers.

"There is nothing else on the road like it," says R.J., who runs a wood door manufacturing and sales business.

His H1, with its turbo diesel engine, is noisy, a macho, rumbling machine that none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger convinced the military and AM General to sell to civilians in the late 1980s.

R.J. opted for some extras, including chrome wheels, a rollback top and a powerful winch that can pull the truck out of the mud if it gets stuck.

The H1 also can climb a 22-inch vertical wall or step -- admittedly a little overkill to traverse a strip mall curb, but handy if he starts doing some off-road riding at a second house in the country.

"It is a workhorse for the military," he says of the vehicle that easily rolled up the steps of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. "It has to be a workhorse as a civilian vehicle as well."

Their 12-year-old son, Jake, is looking forward to being old enough to get behind the wheel of the H1. "It's big," he says.

Cindy's H2 has a much smoother ride, with the engine and chassis similar to those in a more traditional truck, but with heavy-duty steel and suspension that lets it traverse rocks. In fact, she is so high on Hummers the family hopes to also buy the smaller H3 when it comes out in 2005.

More women than projected are behind the wheel of a Hummer. About 27 percent of the buyers of this macho truck are female.

"Threaten men in a whole new way," is one of the advertising taglines of the Hummer.

Some men who drive a Hummer say it attracts women, too.

"It's definitely a babe magnet," Eric Holmes, a 32-year-old unmarried city employee from the West End, says of his black H2. Even though it takes two hours and a ladder to clean it, "It has every bell and whistle you can have in a car" -- including a DVD player, On-star satellite system and cable TV.

But some hard-core H1 owners think this luxury SUV isn't really a Hummer -- and are upset that GM is calling it such.

In fact, George Hubbard's black H1 is emblazoned with a bumper sticker proclaiming, "I don't care what General Motors says. There is still only one Hummer."

"I have the real Hummer," says Hubbard, the 38-year-old chief executive officer of Habsco, a New Kensington firm that provides engineering services and replacement components to the nuclear power industry.

Hubbard, who lives in Lower Burrell, is just back from a Hummer two-day national event in Hazleton, Luzerne County, where Hummer owners played in the woods. There was a beginning, an intermediate, and a "hardcore group" that included him.

"We aren't afraid to get it scratched, dented, rolled over -- that is what we are all about," he says.

"I know the H2 can't do things I can do," he says. "The bottom line is that the H1 is built like a tank."

Then Hubbard catches himself. "It is a tank."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

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