Hummer: a Road Hog That Handles Nicely

Vehicle offers a few features military Humvee lacks

Sylvester Stallone drives one. So do fellow actor James Earl Jones, talk-show host Montel Williams, and sports stars Mo Vaughn, Andre Agassi and Al Unser (Jr. and Sr.).

A sleek Porsche, perhaps? Try the boxy, oversized Hummer, the civilian version of the US military's Humvee. The sand-colored, go-anywhere vehicles were the darlings of American TV during the Gulf war, and shortly thereafter the vehicles' maker, AM General, of South Bend, Ind., decided to market the truck commercially. Now they've become hot status symbols among the Hollywood elite and others who can afford the $65,000 price tag.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has five. His wife, Maria Shriver, reportedly does the grocery shopping and drops the kids off at school in one.

In many families, "he wants the vehicle, but she ends up driving it, because the kids want to be seen being dropped off at school in it," says Silvia Hare of Huntington Beach (Calif.) Jeep Eagle Hummer.

But at 6-1/2 feet tall and 8 feet wide, the Hummer is clearly not for everybody. Driving down a city street is an exercise in caution, as you try to make forward progress without mowing down bicyclists or squashing Hondas.

And the Hummer is Spartan by car standards, hard plastic dashboard chock full of gauges. It does offer two cup holders, four padded and nicely upholstered seats, three-point (shoulder strap) seatbelts, an air conditioner and heater, cruise control, intermittent windshield wipers, power windows and locks, and in a choice of nine glossy colors. By comparison, the military's High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle - the M998 Humvee - comes with a heater and a choice of flat Army-Green Camouflage or Desert Sand.

But sales of the civilian Hummer are making things better for the GIs who drive them. Military ones now regularly have at least a padded driver's seat, three-point seat belts in front, radial tires, turn signals that automatically shut off after a turn, and a few even have air conditioning.

In many cases, explains AM General spokesman Craig MacNabb, "the military would like to have some feature, but it doesn't want to pay for development."

A few of the commercial model's most sophisticated options, however, the military has taken no part of. The $2,700 tire-inflation system, for instance allows the driver to let air out of the front or rear tires, or all four - and then reinflate them - without so much as slowing down. This is useful for off-roading, as softening the tires improves traction and comfort.

Most of the more than 20 foreign countries that buy Hummers for their militaries order the central tire-inflation system, and most civilian models are sold with it.

Likewise, the Army never would have accepted radial tires on its Hummers if new "run-flat" technology had not required them, Mr. MacNabb says. (Properly equipped Hummers can drive up to 30 miles at 30 miles per hour on flat tires).

For 1996, AM General has added a turbo-diesel engine to the Hummer lineup. The 6.5 liter turbo-diesel puts out 190 horsepower. Its 385 pound-feet of torque is about 95 more than the standard diesel engine and 85 more than the civilian gasoline power plant. Customers had complained the other engines were sluggish.

The turbo-diesel easily keeps up with traffic, but the trade-off is noise. Hard acceleration brought on not only the usual diesel-truck clatter, but the scream of the turbocharger from inside the center console. Still, the turbo-diesel returned about 16 miles per gallon, not bad for a 10,000-pound truck. (AM General says the normal diesel gets 13 to 15 m.p.g. and the gasoline version 11 to 14.)

While the turbo-diesel solves the Hummer's performance shortfall, a test drive in a gasoline-powered version proved much quieter and more relaxed. Gasoline Hummers were developed as a more civilized alternative for consumers than the original diesel, which the military specified because its fuel is safer on the battlefield. (While gasoline explodes on ignition, diesel fuel only lights and burns slowly.)

Humvees cost taxpayers about $50,000 each, and the civilian models average $65,000 to $70,000. Most showroom buyers opt for the four-door, hardtop, and station-wagon models, which cost more than the standard two-door pickups or convertibles the defense department relies on.

Further advances being developed for the civilian Hummer include antilock brakes. If antilock brakes sound like performance-car technology, Ms. Hare says many Hummer buyers consider the vehicle an alternative to a sports car. And while the Hummer is no sports car, it does handle more like a family sedan than an average Class 3 truck. Though unwieldy in traffic, the Hummer is comfortable - as long as occupants don't mind being stared at.

But for most buyers, the Hummer is a third or fourth car so if they want privacy they can always drive something else. Many also opt for privacy glass and sometimes even armor coating on the Hummer.

"These are people who want the vehicle because it's really special," MacNabb says. "It's the best thing on the face of the earth at what it does, rather than just being as good as it has to be. There are not too many things in this world built the best they can be."

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