Why People Love to Hate the Hummer

Has the Hummer lost its street cred? To find out, NEWSWEEK tooled around the fashionable avenues of Los Angeles in one, just like the boys from Queens who drive a yellow H2 chick magnet in HBO's "Entourage." It wasn't pretty. We had a tough time finding a lot that rents Hummers anymore, and when we finally landed a big black H2, it already bore battle scars—long key marks scored along the side. After burning a gallon of gas every eight miles, our intrepid car reviewer Tara Weingarten and Business Editor David Jefferson stopped at an outdoor café in the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, just down the block from an auto shop that converts cars to run on vegetable oil (Lovecraft Biofuels said it couldn't help us with our Hummer). Parallel-parking the beast caused a commotion: David had to hop out to direct Tara, an expert driver who wound up cutting off a biker, blocking two lanes of traffic and rear-ending a bush before pulling into the space. The disgusted diners had had enough. Three flipped us off, and one even dropped trou and mooned our Hummer. (Article continued below...)

L.A. hipsters aren't the only ones turning tail on Hummer. As gas prices soared above $4 a gallon, Hummer sales fell 60 percent in May and 54 percent in June. But fuel costs are really only a flesh wound. The mortal injury comes from its image implosion. Those gun slits and that growling grille, which provided cartoony comfort post 9/11, now seem sadly out of step as our focus turns from Homeland Security to sustainability. To many, the Hummer now seems overbearing, overweight, militaristic, narcissistic. Cultural experts find it hard to recall a luxury good that has tarnished as quickly. "It began in a heroic mode," says Michael Marsden, a pop culture professor at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. "But then when 80 percent of the American public turns against the war, what do you have?"

Hummer was born in the early '90s, when AM General, the military contractor that made the Gulf War Humvee (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), created a street-legal version at the urging of Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has since tried to atone by converting his Hummers to hydrogen and biofuel). GM acquired Hummer in 1998 and in 2002 launched the slightly smaller H2. Gas was about $1.35 a gallon, and the car quickly became an embed on MTV's "Cribs" and "CSI: Miami."

Then came the war in Iraq, and buying a Hummer was tantamount to supporting the troops. "Those who deface a Hummer in words or deeds," an enthusiast told The New York Times shortly after the war broke out, "deface the American flag." GM planned for a Hummer surge, drawing up designs for a phalanx of Hummers and urging dealers to spend millions building showrooms that looked like Quonset huts. But the war went south, gas went north, and Hummer became roadkill.

We asked a Toyota of Santa Monica dealer to evaluate what a Hummer like ours would get in trade for a Prius. He said he would probably only make the deal if we paid him $25,000, which is, ahem, about the price of a Prius. These days, a three-year-old Hummer H2 fetches $20,925, just 36 percent of its original sticker price of $59,070, according to the Automotive Lease Guide (in 2006, three-year-old H2s were retaining 58 percent of their value). "I couldn't give the damn thing away," says Kentucky attorney Bob Sanders, who has grown weary of the grief he gets for his gas hog. "Any environmentalist is welcome to buy it from me for fair market value."

General Motors, Hummer's ailing parent, finally waved the white flag in June and hired Citibank to sell the brand. At a press conference Friday, CEO Rick Wagoner said, "We have some interested buyers." Since the old warhorse still has cachet overseas, analysts predict bidders will come from India, China or Russia (an ironic post-cold-war victory?). If there are no takers, GM says it will make Hummers smaller and easier on gas—that is, after it rolls out a Hummer pickup this fall that's even bigger and no more fuel-efficient.

Wyoming dealer Trace Swisher wonders what will become of his $1.5 million Quonset hut. "I guess it could always become a Starbucks," he says. If only Hummers ran on soy lattes.