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Commentary | PATT MORRISON

It's Big, It's Thirsty, It's the Hummer -- an American Excess Story

August 18, 2004|PATT MORRISON

On the very day last week that the price of a barrel of crude oil was higher than it has ever been in the history of crude oil barrels, I was -- choose one:

(a) Bankrolling terrorism.

(b) Exercising my God-given American right to make free choices, even moronic ones.

(c) Raping the planet.

(d) Being a road hog.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is (e). I was driving an H2 -- junior heir of the original war-wagon Humvee. California, naturally, has more Hummers than any other state -- more than 3,000, and that was before Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hummer's designated driver, ran for governor and even more guys ran out to imitate him.

My rented H2 was a subtle gray, unobtrusive in the way that Orson Welles would be unobtrusive in a charcoal pinstriped suit.

It is one obnoxious hunk of steel, plastic and wishful thinking. It was so big that you could measure it in hands, like a horse. I sat up so high I was eye to eye with the driver of a cement-mixing truck. It was so tall that the antenna twanged like a guitar string against every beam in my underground garage. It had all the nimbleness of the Nimitz. It was so wide that I gave up trying to get a veggie burger at the Burger King drive-thru because I concluded "drive-thru" would mean "drive thru the back wall."

I know a woman whose Hyundai got crumpled like a Kleenex by a dad in a Hummer who didn't hear her horn, see her car or even feel the smash when he backed up without checking the specially installed rear-view cam that was supposed to guarantee things like that wouldn't happen.

I tried to entice Ed Begley Jr. to go for a spin with me. Nope, not a chance in Iraq. "I'm proud to say," he said, "I've never been in one." Driving his electrics and hybrids, as he has for 14 years, is "the most patriotic thing I can do." (Last year, the Detroit Project began airing sly TV ads, parodies of the White House's drugs-fund-terrorism proclamations, suggesting that driving an SUV was tantamount to funding terrorism.)

So, forced to go solo, I did my field research:

My neighbor Hap: "Nice little compact you got there."

My neighbor Kim: "That thing makes mine [an SUV] look like a VW, so shut up!"

Restaurant valet (risking his tip): "Here is your carrito [little car]."

Man trying to squeak past in green Volvo: I can't print it but it was the word Dick Cheney hurled at a U.S. senator.

Mostly, the sight of the H2 made male faces go slack-jawed. I felt like Angelyne in a tube top. Two boys in the back seat of a Toyota waved and thumbs-upped frantically. I've got to give it to GM: The H2 is adolescent road candy, a power fantasy brilliantly marketed, a four-wheeled pheromone.

But I'll let you in on this: My Hummer was a paper tiger. It accelerated like a wheelchair on an upslope. It was a Macy's Thanksgiving balloon, huge and unwieldy, with plastic bits where I expected sheet metal, and all the cushy conveniences of a high-end recliner. It was Mr. T on the outside, Mr. Rogers on the inside.

Why pick on a poor defenseless Hummer? Lots of cars get crummy mileage. Lots of cars are showy and preposterously impractical. The H2 has become the symbol of all that and worse. It is the secondhand smoke of vehicles and unwise at any speed.

The Hummer doesn't have to play by the other guys' rules because it's so heavy that it falls into a category meant for big equipment for farmers and such. A condo-dwelling salesman buying a 3-ton-plus Hummer for his job can get a tax credit up to $100,000. (A hybrid-car purchaser like me gets $1,500.) In the same incredible-hulk tax-credit category are those other well-known pieces of farm equipment, the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Suburban and Lincoln Navigator.

Any wheeled behemoth over 4.5 tons -- the "gross vehicle weight rating" of the H2 -- is exempt from pollution emissions, another perk meant for heavy machinery. Its very size lets it dodge the gas-guzzler tax on sedans half its size and twice its mpg.

And because it doesn't have to post its mpg numbers, you have to rent one to do the math. Mine got, at a stretch, maybe 10 miles per gallon on roads and freeways, without running the AC.

The Hummer reminds me of billionaire oilman Harold Simmons. During the drought of 15 years ago, when his Montecito neighbors patriotically let their lawns go brown, Simmons poured nearly 10 million gallons of water onto his gardens -- enough to keep a family of four in showers for 28 years. Why not? He could afford it. Maybe you can afford a Hummer.

The question is, can the rest of us?

*

Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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