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The view from on high

With a vehicle that climbs every mountain and fords every stream, proud owners don't dwell too much on gas mileage.

Published September 23, 2003

The national current events picture seems much less doom-and-gloomish when viewed from the elevated cockpit of a sunset orange Hummer.

"I just feel happy when I'm in here," said Barbara Zaccaria as she pulled gingerly into traffic recently, like an adult navigating a nursery of crawling babies.

Zaccaria has heard there are people in California setting fire to Hummers like hers, spray-painting them with terrible slogans like "Fat Lazy Americans" and "Polluter."

"Oh, I don't know that they (Hummers) are so bad for the environment," she says without a trace of defensiveness.

She has noticed, as well, the price of a gallon of gas has been climbing of late. But frankly, she has sold $25-million worth of real estate this year, so putting $30 or more of regular in her tank is a small price to pay.

"It's worth it for the convenience and safety," she said. "Look, you can make the mirrors on each side retract just by touching a button."

When someone mentions to her that a recent opinion poll showed that 60 percent of Americans find Hummers "unappealing," she responded that she has received nothing but compliments since she bought her Hummer in May.

"The people I deal with, they like this kind of high-end stuff," she says, adding that she just sold a $902,000 lot on Tierra Verde to a couple who have "his and hers" Hummers.

To the list of antagonistic forces in the world - men and women, Red Sox and Yankees, Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly - add those who Hum and those who Harumph.

Count Zaccaria squarely in the Hummer camp. As for those who would harumph about her choice in vehicles, well, let's just say it's hard to hear the complaining with the windows rolled up and Johnny Hartman belting out Easy Living on the CD player.

There was a time not that long ago when the only people driving Hummers were wearing chocolate chip desert camouflage and taking orders from a general named Schwarzkopf. Then an actor named Schwarzenegger with a blurry distinction between real life and action movies decided it would be cool if people could own their version of the Humvee. He prevailed upon AM General, the manufacturer of the Humvee, to crank out a commercial model.

In 1992, the H1 was born. Ahhnuld vuz so schmitten mit da powvah uv da Hummah dat he bought funf uv dem. Yes, five.

But for all its macho appeal, the original Hummer had, in the words of one reviewer, "the interior charm of a John Deere lawn tractor." If General Motors wanted to capture more of the seemingly limitless SUV market, it would need to trick out the ride a little.

The H2 debuted in July 2002, complete with leather interior, digital compass/thermometer in the rearview mirror and optional television screens built into the headrests.

"It has real wow appeal," says Scott Larguier, general manager of Dew Cadillac and Hummer in Pinellas Park.

Some might question the good taste of those willing to pay $50,000 to go shopping in a fancified facsimile of a vehicle that is currently a favorite target of Iraqi bombers.

But so far the carping of the anti-SUV lobby (remember the TV ads with SUV "owners" saying: "I helped hijack an airplane" and "I helped blow up a night club"?) has put nary a dent in sales.

General Motors expects to sell all 40,000 H2s it produces this year at its Indiana plant. Roughly figured, that's $20-billion in gross sales.

The H2 may not be the largest SUV - even with the imminent demise of Ford's Excursion, which was the uncontested behemoth of the industry - but the Hummer is certainly the most notorious. It has become something of a four-wheeled accessory to any story of poor judgment or questionable ethics.

It was a pewter-colored H2 that former high school basketball star LeBron James was given, which almost cost him his amateur status. Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman was driving an H2 when he allegedly rammed his wife and 2-year-old son in a Mercedes. And Schwarzenegger, who is running for California governor on a platform of fiscal conservatism, recently added an H2 to his armada of five H1s.

More than any other SUV, the H2 has become a symbol of our nation's deep conflict between its conscience and its profligacy, between our stubborn insistence that we can buy whatever we want and our disgust that we do.

There's a spiffy Hummer parked on the side of U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. It's metallic sage green and it has a sign in the window "8,000 miles, $51,700."

Margie Pierce is, for the time being at least, its owner. Someone called her at her hair salon the other day to ask her why she was selling it.

"The price of gas has nothing to do with it," she said. "I love it, but I also own a Lexus. I've got to get down to one vehicle. Just too much maintenance."

Did she ever feel self-conscious driving such a vehicle that seems to attract so much negative publicity?

"One time some guy in a BMW flipped me the finger," she said. "I hadn't cut him off or anything. I think it was because I was driving a Hummer. It took me aback."

But she concluded from this encounter only that he was a jerk.

"Everybody's idea of what is environmentally correct is different," she said. "It's a free country. You should be able to do what you want."

Don't we have an obligation to each other as fellow citizens? she was asked.

"I think of the good of society in my own way," Pierce, 42, said. "It just happens not to be how much gasoline I put into my vehicle. My thing is I do random acts of kindness. If I see somebody begging, I give him money. If I'm ahead of someone in the supermarket who has fewer items than I do, I let them go ahead. I treat others the way I would want to be treated."

Someone points out that the people who torched the Hummers in California would probably say she's mistreating them by polluting the environment.

"I'm not accepting the way that they think," she said flatly.

Besides, Pierce is still angry about the time the environmental terrorists burned down the mountaintop restaurant at Vail.

"That's one of my favorite ski resorts," she said.

Scott Larguier, the general manager of Dew Cadillac and Hummer, doesn't need to do a lot of hard selling to move as many 35 Hummers off his lot each month.

"It's not like selling a Ford Taurus," he said. "Most of (my customers) can afford to buy anything they wish."

What they're looking for is something that "fits their lifestyle," he said. "You can have three to four kids, a TV in back and still have room for a dog and lots of luggage."

If the customers aren't familiar with the television ad campaign, in which seven of the nine different spots show the H2 climbing mountains, crossing snowy expanses and crashing through surf, the salespeople at Dew will point out the H2's impressive off-road capabilities. It can ford water 20 inches deep. It can climb over a 16-inch wall.

"Granted, 95 percent of these people will never take them off-road," Larguier said.

But, as Barbara Zaccaria said, "It's nice to know it's there if you need it."

People tend not to ask about gas mileage, Larguier said. This is convenient because the vehicle is so large that it is exempt from reporting its fuel economy. The Web site will tell you there's a 32-gallon tank, but not how often you'll need to fill it.

"The big misconception is that it is so much worse than anything out there," said Scott Larguier. "The truth is that it's within a mile or two (per gallon) of any SUV out there."

This is one of those statements whose truth is still kind of embarrassing.

The H2 gets between 11 and 14 miles per gallon, most people agree. The Lincoln Navigator, with which the H2 competes for market share, gets between 12 and 17.

"It's not rocket science," Larguier said. "The larger the vehicle the more fuel it's going to consume."

Any money spent at the pump will more than be made up by what Larguier calls a "tremendous tax loophole."

Because it weighs more than 6,000 pounds, the H2 qualifies its owners to deduct up to $100,000 of the purchase price if the vehicle is used for business. The deduction was originally created in the 1980s to help farmers purchase new equipment.

Rick Rasmussen is that rarity among Hummer owners. He gets his dirty.

In 1998, he won an off-road competition in the Ocala National Forest. He had to drive day and night through sand pits, mudholes and water so deep it was coming through the window.

"That's no problem," he said. "You just open the drain plugs in the floorboards."

Rasmussen, a dentist in Tampa, bought his first Hummer, an H1, in 1995. He is such a fan of the vehicle's capabilities that he bought two more H1s for his 18-year-old twin sons. With a base sticker price of $106,000, that's well over $300,000 worth of steel and rubber in the driveway.

"It's comforting to know they're safe," he said. "When I saw that, the $100,000 became very insignificant."

He isn't afraid that his sons might do reckless things, thinking they're indestructible.

"They're very defensive drivers," he said. "A lot of people think Hummer owners are arrogant. They're really not. They'll do anything for you."

Rasmussen would be a good example.

He's saved people's lives in his Hummer. Twice.

The first time was in 1998. He was in the Ocala National Forest when he came upon some emergency vehicles. They were trying to make their way to three divers who had trekked into the woods to explore a spring. The divers were dehydrated, suffering heatstroke and couldn't make it out. But the emergency vehicles couldn't make it in.

"Hop in," Rasmussen said to the paramedics, before plowing into the dense vegetation.

"The divers would have died, no question," he said.

Another time, Rasmussen was in Zephyrhills when he saw two skydivers get blown off course by an afternoon storm. They landed deep in the Green Swamp, one of them stranded 40 feet up in a tree and the other on the ground with a broken leg.

"The swamp was totally impassable. You couldn't get a normal vehicle through," he said. "We got to them just before dark."

Rasmussen's youngest child is 14. He plans to buy her a Hummer when she starts driving.

"In a heartbeat."

In the days after the Earth Liberation Front attacked three SUV dealerships in Los Angeles, the debate was fierce and partisan.

Opponents pointed out that the SUVs aren't as impregnably safe as their owners insist, that they roll over more easily and that the death rate of SUV drivers is 8 percent higher than for drivers in full-size cars and minivans. Thanks to lower emissions standards, they pump out five and a half times the pollution of regular-sized vehicles, say critics.

Supporters were quick to respond that the pollution caused by the fires at the dealerships was worse than the pollution coming from the Hummers' tailpipes.

Not all of the debate was so civil. Take this exchange between Fox News' Sean Hannity and his guest on Aug. 27, Bron Taylor, a University of Florida professor of religion who has studied radical environmentalists:

Taylor: "Even when we disapprove of the tactics they they employ, they sometimes have important ethical insights that the mass society should consider. That was certainly the case in the civil rights era."

Hannity: "There's no important ethical insight from these moron terrorists. None. We can't learn anything from morons like this."

The only clear winners are the Hummer salespeople.

Within hours of the flames being extinguished, before the insurance adjuster had even settled with the Los Angeles Hummer dealership, customers had bought two new H2s.

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