SQUAT, powerful Hummer vehicles had a considerable advantage over other autos that were crawling and skidding on America's icy roads last week. The all-terrain military vehicles that made their debut in the Gulf war have now arrived on the civilian market.
After 85,000 vehicles were sold to the United States Army, and 15,000 to 30 other armies around the world, the AM General Corporation in Indianapolis decided to offer them to the public - minus the missile launchers and machine guns.
But the military version needed more than just disarming before it was allowed on the US open roads. Emissions controls, such as catalytic converters, were unnecessary for military use but are required for civilian use. And safety features, such as solid doors, had to be added. Even so, the early civilian models were still pretty loud and uncomfortable.
This month the 1994 model was introduced with more comfort and a quieter ride. It has better heat and air conditioning, a glove box, arm rests, power steering, power windows, reclining seats, and other accouterments of suburban vehicles. But it still offers state-of-the-art four-wheel drive.
So far, about 1,000 civilian Hummers have been sold, mostly to professionals, entertainers, and others able to plunk down the $40,000 to $55,000 price.
With a series of ads this month on CNN and other stations, that number is bound to climb. Unlike products that were developed after marketing surveys, demand for this product came first, says Jeff Wright, senior vice president for worldwide marketing at AM General.
The demand grew from Desert Storm, which was ``a 24-hour commercial for Hummer,'' he says. The US deployed 24,000 of the vehicles in the Gulf war, many of them fitted with antitank missiles and machine guns.
Hummer was created when the Army, in the early to mid-1970s asked manufacturers to come up with a High Mobility Multi Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) as a replacement for the trusty but unstable jeep. By 1983 a contract was given to AM General to manufacture the Hummer.
Some of the same workers who toiled over World War II vintage jeeps in Toledo, Ohio, are now working on Hummers at the AM General plant in Mishawaka, Ind., Mr. Wright says. The jeep plants in Toledo, once owned by Willys, Kaiser, Studebaker, and American Motors, were bought out by Chrysler, which now produces Wranglers and Cherokees.
Although the military jeep has transformed itself into a more civilianized version, AM General says it is willing to produce a more refined Hummer but will not lower its rugged profile.
With a two-ton carrying capacity, 16-inch ground clearance, and a gearing system designed to resist wheel spin by transferring torque to the wheels that have traction, the vehicles are uniquely positioned to serve special markets: logging, mining, oil exploration, utilities, fire fighting, power-line maintenance, and rescue operations.
``We don't think it's wise to downgrade the product to lower its cost - it's a niche product, a specialty vehicle where the cost is important, but reliability and off-road mobility are more important,'' Wright says.
Hummers are being sold around the US at showrooms with a variety of other vehicles such as Jeep, Lexis, Mercedes, and Caterpillar. Models include a two-door pickup, four-door soft top, four-door hard top, and four-door wagons. All the '94 models have four-speed automatic transmission and 170 horsepower, 6.5 liter V-8 diesel engines that give fuel efficiency rates of 15 miles a gallon.
Despite the appearance of a wide stance, Hummers are only eight inches wider than a Chevy Caprice and a bit shorter.
Two Hummers, entered for the first time in the full-stock class competition at the Baja 1000 off-road race last year, won first and second place, beating out Jeep Cherokees, Land Rovers, and Range Rovers.
With thousands of suburban families driving four-wheel drive sport vehicles these days, AM General may find quite a number of customers willing to invest in its image. And if it adapts well to off-road rescue and utility use, it could find enough customers to replace military contracts that are likely to dwindle.