GM Goes "Sport" With Minivans (12/5/2003)
But can it shake the "soccer-Mom" message?
The Hummer brand may be getting a bit nicer — at least that’s the message General Motors Corp., which owns the rights to develop and sell Hummer consumer vehicles, will be sending next month as it unveils its next Hummer concept, a small pickup dubbed H3T, at the 2004 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.
The show opens to media on January 2 in Los Angeles and General Motors will use the show to present its heftiest brand’s future direction, as seen through the lens of a scaled-down concept. Although just a concept, Ed Welburn, General Motors North American vice president of design, says the H3T represents a “youthful, smaller, more affordable” direction than today’s Hummer.
Clay Dean, design director for Hummer, describes the brand’s next step even more aggressively, saying the H3T is “a little more environmentally responsible” than what the brand is known for. Unlike Hummer’s current vehicle lineup, which includes the Hummer H1 originally built for the military, and its smaller counterpart H2, the H3T — unveiled to media Tuesday — is built on a compact pickup-truck frame, is drastically smaller, sports a turbocharged in-line five-cylinder engine with 350 hp and, as a result, could get upwards of 22 miles per gallon, according to General Motors officials.
A vehicle similar to the H3T, called simply H3, is expected to be available from General Motors in 2005 and, although Dean is unwilling to say whether it will be pickup or sport-utility-vehicle, it will be “obviously a Hummer in its appearance and capabilities.”
Analysts, however, aren’t so sure that GM will have a hit on its hands simply by slapping a Hummer nameplate on a vehicle’s grille. “It’s all about prestige,” says Marty Bernstein, a marketing consultant and principal of Marty Bernstein, Inc. in Troy, Mich. He says the key to Hummer’s recent success is the exclusivity that comes along with owning an expensive and oversized vehicle. “There comes a point when a vehicle is too affordable. Look at Mercedes-Benz after it started offering a car for under $30,000 in the U.S. market. It lost market share in the luxury sector in the end. It’s like Tiffany’s selling cubic zirconium. It just doesn’t work.”
Dean counters, saying that the H3T and the vehicle that will eventually spawn from the concept will continue to be top line in amenities and off-road functionality, even if it is smaller and more affordable. In addition to an exterior strikingly like the H2, Dean points to features like satin aluminum trimmed interior components, an inclinometer and altimeter embedded in the instrument panel, and a DVD camera placed in the hood to record driving experiences, saying such things will “telegraph a new philosophy of elegance that will becomes an icon.”
Another iconic trait of the Hummer brand in recent years has been the onslaught of environmental criticism that has followed its rise in the United States since the introduction of the H2 in 2001. Although the turbodiesel H1 can achieve a respectable 17 mpg on the highway, the H2 claims a top fuel number of 12 mpg and much lower numbers in everyday driving, and that has made that vehicle a prime target for SUV critics.
Brendan Bell, the global warming conservation assistant for the Sierra Club, a California-based environmental lobby, says that General Motors will have to do a lot more than simply saying the next Hummer will be “not as bad as the H1 or H2.”
“General Motors is traditionally behind,” he says, referring to making serious gains in fuel economy. “I don’t think Americans would believe that a Hummer is a more efficient vehicle,” regardless of the improvement. Bell says that Ford Motor Co. has proven it can get between 35 and 40 mpg out of conventional powertrain Ranger pickups and criticizes General Motors for not bringing similar technology to market in a concept it touts as more environmentally friendly. For now, he says, “GM suggesting that a Hummer is good for the environment is like suggesting milkshakes help people lose weight.”