- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Hummer, the ultimate symbol of extravagant consumption, might be headed off road for good - the latest victim of soaring gasoline prices.

General Motors Corp. said Tuesday that it is reviewing the jumbo sport-utility-vehicle brand to determine whether an overhaul or sale is needed to keep the motoring public happy and buying.

Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for Michigan automotive consulting firm AutoPacific, said buyers are beginning to lose interest in “large and thirsty SUVs and trucks” and looking at more fuel-efficient cars.

“It may be cool to drive a Hummer,” she said. “But at $5 a gallon, it may not look cool; it may just look wasteful. … In order for that brand to survive, it has to find a more fuel-efficient way to go.”

GM sees the writing on the wall. When GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr. announced a review of the Hummer on Tuesday, he also said GM will begin a massive shift away from truck production in favor of smaller cars.

Of the next 19 vehicles in the Detroit automaker’s pipeline, 18 will be cars or crossover vehicles, he said. GM also decided this week to fund the Chevy Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle that uses a small gasoline motor for recharging.

GM also announced Tuesday that it will close four truck- and SUV-assembly plants - in Oshawa, Canada; Moraine, Ohio; Janesville, Wis.; and Toluca, Mexico - by 2010. It also will add production shifts at plants in Orion, Mich., and Lordstown, Ohio, which make fuel-efficient best-sellers such as the Chevy Malibu and Pontiac G5.

But the Hummer’s future remains a question mark.

“We are undertaking a strategic review of the Hummer brand to determine its fit with GM’s evolving product portfolio,” Mr. Wagoner told shareholders gathered for the company’s annual meeting Tuesday.

“At this point, we are considering all options for the Hummer brand - everything from a complete revamp of the product lineup to a partial or complete sale of the brand,” he said.

GM’s focus on Hummers is a response to wrenching changes in the auto industry and the economy. Oil prices have doubled over the past year, sending gasoline prices soaring above $4 in many parts of the country.

Mr. Wagoner said GM thinks high energy prices are here to stay.

Even as gas prices continue to set records, many Hummer drivers remain loyal to the vehicle that they say satisfies their desire for both luxury and adventure.

Yiannis Tsirilakis, a Philadelphia resident and vice president of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the national Hummer X Club, makes his 60-mile round-trip commute to work each day in the H3 he bought in 2005. Although his Hummer gets only about 15 miles per gallon, he takes the vehicle off road several weekends a month to the New Jersey Pine Barrens or his “mecca for driving”: the 1,700 acres of trails at Rausch Creek Off Road Park in Schuylkill County, Pa.

His Boston terrier, named Hummer, rides happily in the back seat in a special harness for off-road excursions.

Mr. Tsirilakis said he loves the uniqueness of his vehicle - both in novelty (“Jeeps are too common”) and versatility (“Suburbans are too big to drive through the woods”).

“Being able to drive a vehicle where you can get to work and feel like you’re driving a Cadillac on the way to work, and where, on the weekends, you can drive over some rocks, I like that versatility,” he said. “We are a rare breed, as they say.”

Mr. Tsirilakis said he will keep driving his Hummer to work until gas prices get too steep.

“At that point, it may just become the weekend-warrior truck,” he said.

Ken Gander, a Bergenfield, N.J., resident who is president of the Hummer X club chapter, said part of his Hummer’s attractiveness is its “made in America” label.

“I buy the truck because it’s American,” he said. “If a foreign company made the truck, I don’t know if I would get one.”

In Yardley, Pa., Chris Fusco leases two 2007 H3s and said that although he would like to see a more fuel-efficient Hummer, he hopes GM keeps producing the vehicle.

“Just being a GM loyalist my entire life and being an avid fan of the vehicle itself, I would hate for them to give up something that I enjoy,” he said. “I know it’s not something that’s looked upon as being the eco-friendly vehicle, but there are a lot of worse things out there.”

Mrs. Brinley, the analyst at AutoPacific, said that as truck sales tank, GM must explore all options for Hummer’s future. In the meantime, she said, drivers will be weighing the comfort and “aspirational image” of driving a Hummer against the reality of high gas prices and the possibility that, in the future, driving an SUV that big will just appear wasteful.

“If you no longer look cool driving it, what’s the point?” she said. “There are more affordable and efficient ways to look cool.”

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