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Love, at $120 a tank

The Baltimore Sun

John Ayodele of Nigeria recently became the proud owner of a used Hummer. He went through his daughter, a grad student living in Maryland, to buy it from a Perry Hall plumber for $24,500.

Ayodele, an engineering executive, has practical reasons for buying and shipping across the Atlantic a vehicle seen by many as an eco-villain. Nigeria's potholes are like lunar craters. And the truck could almost certainly plow through most log roadblocks laid out by highway bandits.

Too bad for Hummer there aren't more highwaymen out there. The once-fashionable General Motors brand is hurting big-time. New figures compiled by Autodata show it is the worst-selling automotive brand in America, with sales down 40 percent through June.

Hummers have long been the favorite whipping boy of environmentalists. Now with gas prices in the stratosphere, buyers are steering clear.

Yet Hummer still manages to retain its hard-core loyalists. They endure, or try to ignore, $120 gas station resupplies. They put up with occasional sneers from other drivers, whose resentment is now spiced with a devilish pleasure over what $4-a-gallon gas is costing unrepentant Hummer owners.

Despite it all, they'll love their Hummers come hell or higher fuel prices.

"People just understand the DNA ... its ruggedness, its ability to go almost anywhere," said Glen Peck, an avowed enthusiast with not one, but two, parked in his Annapolis driveway: a maroon H2 and its (somewhat) smaller sibling, the H3.

A director of the national Hummer Club, Peck just returned from a weekend off-roading in Pennsylvania. These events also bring out the H1s - the original Hummer, born in the 1990s and modeled after the military Humvees still on the job in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Humvee is the nickname given to the vehicle's tongue-twisting acronym HMMWV, which stands for High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.)

For much of the decade, Hummers carried the kind of cachet that made celebrities and athletes eager to climb inside (for one does not merely get into a Hummer). Sales jumped to around 20,000 in 2002 with the release of the H2 and then to over 50,000 in 2005 when the H3 rolled into showrooms.

But the backlash, always present, has risen amid skyrocketing gas prices and growing concern about global warming. To many, SUVs are oafishly absurd, and even in a parking lot jammed with Escalades and Expeditions, a Hummer stands out with its big, boxy profile. An unpopular war didn't exactly raise the Hummer's likability, given its military roots and bellicose bearing.

"People like to stomp all over them for some strange reason," said Jim Gilpatrick, a salesman at Anderson Hummer in Cockeysville. While sales are down (he won't say by how much) and GM may shop the brand, people do, believe it or not, continue to buy Hummers. He said he has recently made sales to professionals and tradesmen such as home remodelers.

Gilpatrick said one repeat customer just traded in his old H2 with 219,000 miles and drove out in a new H2. Mileage mattered less to that customer than other features. "I think it's a reasonable alternative to people who are looking for comfort and safety," the salesman said.

Peck contends that the Hummer is misunderstood and much maligned. He says the H3, which starts around $32,000, gets 17 miles per gallon in the city, 20 on the highway. The federal government is less generous - it says 14/18 mpg - but Peck's point still holds: The H3 is more fuel-efficient, or at least less fuel-inefficient, than other models in its gargantuan class.

"How many people know that?" he said. "Nobody. Or very few."

Still, that's not saying much. And the H2, which lists for more than $60,000 fully loaded and has a Chevy Suburban's modified chassis and suspension, is far thirstier. The government does not list its fuel efficiency because its huge weight - 6,400 pounds - exempts it from fuel economy regulations. Estimates put its mileage somewhere around 10 to 12 mpg, meaning that at $4 a gallon driving one costs 33 to 40 cents a mile for fuel alone.

Not that Peck worries about the price at the pump. "I honestly don't pay attention to it," he said.

Nor, he insists, do people at his office rib him for his Hummer-driving ways. Proving again that stereotypes are just that, he is a part-owner of a clean energy firm that owns hydro power stations and is developing wind farms. (The majority owner drives a Toyota Prius.)

Even among owners who are looking to sell, gas prices are not always a factor. Susan Boone wants to get rid of her "tricked out" black H3 because her kids are going to college and she no longer needs it. If gas prices were a motivation, odds are she would not have gotten herself a Maserati with worse mileage.

But for Ron Miles, the high price of gas was indeed a factor when he decided to sell his pewter 2005 H2, which he bought for $49,500 after a Rockville dealer desperate for a sale knocked 20 percent off the $62,000 list price.

"I wish I wasn't getting rid of it," he said, "but at $4 a gallon ..."

While he sometimes drives it to his Reisterstown office, where he is a now-struggling mortgage broker, usually it sits in the garage of his Westminster home. "It's fun to drive; the kids love it. But at 11 miles to a gallon, who the hell wants to drive that thing around?"

A minute later he finally found the words he was looking for: "It's an expensive hog."

But one thing he does not fret over is the environmental impact. He says he's conservation-minded but is "no tree hugger." So when people give him and his Hummer dirty looks, "I give them the finger. I don't really worry about it. It ain't no different than a dump truck, work truck or anything else."

In Perry Hall, Paul Jett was reluctant to part with his Nigeria-bound H2, which he bought used in 2005 for $40,000. A luxury edition, it has "leather, power everything" and DVD player/TV sets in the headrests. A year ago he spent $5,000 on black rims to match the truck's exterior. It's got chrome door handles, front brush guard and side mirrors.

Jett bought the H2 because of its muscle, plain and simple. "It's a typical male-dominant vehicle. I liked how big they were. I liked the style of them." He also liked people's reactions. Instead of sneers, he got what he took to be admiring stares, perhaps even a smidgen of envy.

Since he normally drives his plumbing van during the day, the rising gas prices did not especially bother him. (He averaged a mere 8 mpg.) And the pollution it generated? "It never even crossed my mind, the environmental side of it. I'm the kind of guy who likes my nice stuff."

As a replacement, Jett considered buying a hybrid version of another gargantuan SUV, GMC's Yukon. But it would have cost thousands more than the $56,000 regular model, so he went with that instead.

And, hey, he says, at 13 mpg it's at least greener than his old Hummer.

Jett's experience makes Eric Schiff envious. The Internet sales manager at Majestic Motor Cars in Glen Burnie has been trying to unload two Hummers for weeks. The only recent nibble has been from a man in France, not a country normally associated with sun-blotting SUVs.

Schiff says he has lowered the price as far as he can without taking a bath. Seriously. But he isn't optimistic about finding any takers. "No normal person," he said, "is going to want to buy a Hummer now in Baltimore, Maryland."

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