GM Recharges Hummer

Arnold likes it. But will a new generation of buyers be drawn to Hummer showrooms by the upcoming H2?

The civilian version of the massive military Humvee, the original Hummer has never been a big seller, but it has more than made up for its low volume with a high-profile, almost cult-like following, which counts among its owners macho film star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now, General Motors is betting it can pack them in at the box office with a slightly smaller, more road-mannered — and more affordable — version due to market within the next two years.

A prototype, dubbed H2, was formally unveiled in Detroit during the North American International Auto Show, and according to GM President Ron Zarrella, it’s "a more civilized Hummer, but just as capable."

Last December, GM completed five months of negotiations with AM General, the company that developed the original military version, then brought the civilian Hummer to market. The two manufacturers have declined to put a price tag on the deal, but AM General will continue to produce the Humvee, the nickname for the HMMWV, or High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. GM will take over the civilian vehicle’s sales and distribution.

To provide room for growth, the Detroit automaker has dubbed the brand "Hummer," and has renamed the original vehicle the H1. During an auto show press preview, GM unveiled a new version, the so-called Slantback edition, with a hatchback-style rear end.

But everyone is betting on the H2 to kick-start Hummer sales. At a starting price of $68,000, and ranging up to $86,000, the original H1 is beyond the reach of all but the most affluent buyers. Though a price tag hasn’t been placed on the new H2, it’s likely to come in around $45,000 to $50,000.

GM thinks out loud

"This is the vision of where the second Hummer could go," said Clay Dean, the GM designer in charge of the H2 project. "It’s GM thinking out loud."

Dean took on a walking tour of the prototype, which, at 182 inches grille-to-rear bumper, and 81.6 inches door to door, is five inches narrower and six inches shorter than the original H1. It’s still an imposing beast, sitting 74.6 inches high, with 35-inch tall tires. (The original had 37-inch tires.)

If, as expected, GM sticks to the blueprint of the H2 prototype, the engine will be moved out of the center of the passenger compartment. That should make things quieter and smoother, a key complaint about the original. There’ll be significantly more interior space, and front seat passengers won’t be sitting so far apart that lovebirds can barely hold hands without climbing on top of the engine hump.

"It’s a little less intimidating," Dean said. "It’s a more contemporary, more modern, more functional version of a Hummer."

There’ll be some minor sacrifices in performance. The H2 probably won’t be able to ford quite as deep a river as the H1. But since it’s narrower, it should also be able to negotiate some of the backwoods trails that were off limits to the wide-bodied original.

Perhaps the most important point to note is GM’s efforts to maintain the basic silhouette and macho details of the original. These include the seven-slot, heavily chromed grille — now with an integral winch — the big hood louvers, and hood-mounted grips that would allow the H2 to be helicopter airlifted to some remote vacation retreat.

Inside, the H2 looks more like Air Force than Army, with oscilloscope-green instrumentation designed to resemble radar controls. To start the vehicle, a driver would "arm" a switch next to the steering wheel, then press a large "fire" button."

The H2 features high-tech, military-style hardware, such as a GPS navigation system, an altimeter and inclinometer, as well as a laptop computer docking station. A special interior lining is designed to be spray cleaned.

While action film star Schwarzenegger declined GM’s invitation to appear at the Detroit auto show, he was reportedly pleased with the prototype, which he got to view during a private "screening" late last year. The H2 concept vehicle was originally named "Project Maria," in honor of the actor’s wife.

Hummer goes for double

Even before the H2 makes it into the Hummer line-up, "We expect to double our annual volume of 1200" this year, noted Hummer President Jim Armour.

ford equator
Will Ford’s Equator challenge the H2 for off-road supremacy? Nasser and company aren’t saying.

Longer-term, GM has big plans for the division. It’s getting ready to add new dealers, and an all-new assembly plant in South Bend, Ind. Production is set to begin in late 2001. The factory will have the capacity to produce up to 40,000 civilian and military vehicles a year, noted Armour, though he stressed that does not mean Hummer sees hitting capacity any time soon.

General Motors isn’t the only manufacturer that sees a market for a military-style SUV. Ford Motor Co. rolled out its own interpretation during the NAIAS, in the form of the big Equator. In an unusual move, Ford decided to forego the traditional, splashy rollout. It simply lifted the covers on the Equator, then waited as journalists stumbled across the vehicle at the Ford stand.

Based on the same platform as Ford’s big F-350 Super Duty pickup, the Equator features Kevlar bumpers and body trim. The bulletproof material is used in military equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets.

Ford isn’t saying whether it will put Equator into production, but it used the Detroit auto show to add another new sport-ute, the Escape, to its light truck line-up. Ford now has the broadest range of SUVs in the industry, and based on continuing growth in the market, industry observers believe Ford is watching to see if Equator builds enough word of mouth without a big preview. If it does, they’re betting it also will join the company lineup.

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