The great SUV divide

Times Staff Writer

Dave Vowell, who thinks driving his forest green Hummer is a lot like going to heaven, simply dismisses the evangelical anti-SUV ad that asks, "What would Jesus drive?"

"My guess is a stretch limo," he said, deadpan, as he ran errands in his Woodland Hills neighborhood in the biggest, baddest SUV on the road today. "He'd need room for himself and the 12 apostles who were always with him."

And he has very little patience for syndicated newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington, who is leading an ad campaign that links buying SUVs -- especially Hummers -- with the implicit support of terrorism. The ad's tagline: "Oil money supports some terrible things. What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

Replied Vowell, a Boeing engineer, as he eased his Hummer onto Ventura Boulevard: "It's kind of moronic to state that oil supports terrorism. Most imported oil is used to produce electricity. I think it's more offensive than anything else."

Vowell's good-natured derision is shared by a number of people who own the most expensive SUV in the world, what the American military first dubbed its High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle or HMMWV, which later morphed into the Humvee or Hummer.

The Humvee got a lot of attention during the 1991 Gulf War, when its all-terrain abilities were spotlighted in the deserts of the Middle East. And with good reason. The Hummer could operate in impossible terrain, withstand helicopter drops and survive land mines. It was introduced to the civilian market by the AM General Corp. the following year and a new H1, as the original Hummer is called, sells in the neighborhood of $115,000.

It's been in all kinds of movies, ranging from "G.I. Jane" to "The Horse Whisperer." It's been in commercials and music videos and is owned by dozens of movie and athletic stars, almost all of them men. Boxer Mike Tyson owned four at last count. And the Hummer has been much more noticeable of late with the debut of a new model, the H2, which is built by General Motors and sells for roughly half the price of the H1.

As a result, the Hummer has become a poster child of sorts for the anti-SUV movement, which includes the radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front, which recently claimed to have destroyed or damaged a number of SUVs -- Lincolns, not Hummers -- this month at a Pennsylvania car dealership. All of this offends Frederick Chin of Malibu, the president of a national Hummer club made up mostly of off-road enthusiasts.

"You won't find a more American vehicle than a Hummer," he said. "To me it's a misguided effort."

Also peeved is Steve Reisman, a San Fernando Valley insulation contractor who is the proud owner of a new H2. He said his truck, a smaller version of the H1, is only an inch or two wider than the largest of the other SUVs and that there are at least half a dozen vehicles on the market that get worse mileage.

"It's an American icon," he said. "It gives the illusion of being an enormous monster, but it's not." Still, the illusion is there, and anti-SUV activists are using it as an example of what's wrong with American culture. And one thing they point to is that light trucks, which include pickups, minivans and SUVs, accounted for 52% of all auto sales last year.

In a recent column, Huffington took direct aim at the H2, which she described as a "barely domesticated spinoff of the Gulf War darling, which struggles to cover 10 miles for every gallon of gas it burns.... We go to war to protect our supply of cheap oil in vehicles that would be prohibitively expensive to operate without it."

Hold it, said Hummer owner Ray Reid, Huffington's "got her wires crossed a bit." Reid, the operations vice president for the high-tech Photon Systems in Covina, said that, in the first place, most Hummers run on diesel fuel and they get better mileage than a lot of the larger suburban vehicles.

"When the notion is that owning big SUVs supports terrorism, I just laugh about it," he said. "The U.S. is made up of very original people who like to do things on their own. But they're very patriotic. I'd turn my Hummer back in if they needed it for a war."

So what's the Hummer owner's self-image? Reid, for one, said they've got a lot of disposable income, especially those who own the H1. He's spent almost $35,000 on extended warranties alone since buying his H1 four years ago. And he said that, in general, Hummer owners are "rebellious, successful achievers."

Chin, the club president, described H1 owners as self-made and fairly affluent, people who, more often than not, like to camp, hunt and fish.

"You would never know it by looking at them how affluent they are," he said.

And H2 owners? Chin said it's a younger crowd and that many women are driving them. "It's very un-minivan and un-suburban," he said.

Reid, who drives his Hummer to work each day, said he can't recall a time when he encountered any hostility from other drivers while on the road.

"I would say that 95% of the people who pull up look at the truck, and the first thing out of their mouths is, 'How much did something like that cost?' " he said. "If I pulled up next to a Viper or a Lamborghini, I'd probably wonder the same thing. I've been driving it daily for four years, and all I ever get is thumbs up."

Meanwhile, Vowell was headed home with his 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, in the back seat. The extra-wide Hummer seemed to fill the traffic lane and the engine growled from beneath the hood.

Vowell explained the various radios and the Global Positioning System installed atop the dash of his 1995 Hummer, which he bought used for around $45,000. The huge wheels alone, he said, cost about $2,000. Even this civilized version of the military vehicle can be hoisted aloft by a helicopter, and a winch is tucked away above the front bumper.

As he drove, Vowell talked about how he instructs new Hummer owners in off-road driving because there's more to it than slipping the vehicle into four-wheel drive. Pulling into his driveway, Vowell described how the idea of owning a Hummer was planted at work, when fellow employees were musing about how they'd buy one if they ever won the lottery.

The conversation later came up with his wife, Claudia, an Army veteran who was stationed in Germany during the Gulf War. She said that if he wanted one so badly, he should buy it.

"I told her, 'That's why I love you.' "

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