Hummers Hog Roads, Attention

Drake Gulla, 21-months, from Laguna Niguel, Calif., pushes the front tire of a Hummer H2 during the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.
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, gas 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.

"It's like being in a parade all the time," said John Zohn, a Hummer salesman in Pompano Beach, Fla. "Jalopy du jour. It's phenomenal. You pull up to a red light next to a Ferrari, people are more likely to look at the Hummer."

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."'

For William Glenn, 72, of Hendersonville, Tenn. — a self-described Cadillac "four-door sedan man" — seeing a Hummer reminds him of his days in the tank corps.

"It looks like a tank coming down the road," he said. "You'd have to take a semi and 18-wheeler to hurt them. I just want to stay the heck out of their way."

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. The military uses the Humvee to transport cargo, troops and weapons, and as ambulances.

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 over $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.

"People who buy the Hummer 2 do not take these vehicles off road," said Zohn, the Pompano salesman and owner of an eye-catching yellow one. "They think going to South Beach is going off road."

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."

The H2s debuted to waiting lists last summer and have become the top-selling, full-sized luxury SUV. 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. "A lot of plains out here in Kansas."

But he notes that H2s — high, boxy and a little more than 2 inches wider than the Tahoe Suburban — are not quite as huge as they look, and can do a snappy U-turn on a two-lane street.

Indeed, the H2 drives much like any luxury SUV, though with dismal fuel economy of about 12 miles per gallon. Several dealers said one third or more of buyers are women.

Hummers have been selling with few dealer incentives but the promise of a fat tax break for small businesses and professionals buying them.

Thanks to recent changes in tax law, people buying the largest SUVs — those weighing at least 6,000 pounds — may write off more than half the cost if they use the vehicle mostly for business and meet other conditions. The original tax incentive, from the 1980s, was meant to help farmers buy equipment.

With its standard eight-way power adjustable seats, nine-speaker music system and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, the H2 is a long way from the front lines and the farm.

"When it's someone with lots of money to blow and showing it off, that's what he's doing — showing it off," said Chris Fitch, 40, of Nicholasville, Ky., who drives a much smaller Montero SUV.

On the other hand, he said with admiration, "Unless you're an idiot, you can't get the thing stuck in snow or mud."