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Can Hummer survive as GM ponders its fate?

The Hummer, like no other, provokes boiling indignation from environmentalists and those who seek more gracious sharing of American roadways.

The Hummer, like no other, provokes boiling indignation from environmentalists and those who seek more gracious sharing of American roadways.

It is the behemoth that blows past ordinary cars on snow-covered roads and hangs over edges of parking spaces in crowded lots.

So there was glee in some quarters when news spread today that General Motors Corp. was pondering whether to rework its military-inspired, go-anywhere monsters or sell the brand.

"This is the last act in the drama of the failure of the GM business model," declared Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club. "When others were providing the fuel-efficient cars that people wanted, GM continued to place bets on gas-guzzlers. Now, unfortunately, a bunch of GM workers are going to pay the price."

Groups like Dorner's have made the Hummer an icon of environmental recklessness and of American automakers' blind inattention to changing geopolitics. This, they say, has left the nation dependent on nations hostile to our well-being.

Still, the Hummer holds on to a band of loyal "enthusiasts," as one dealer calls them. This includes adventuresome men and women who feel more powerful and secure behind the wheel of the big machine.

In 2006, when the smaller Hummer H3 was introduced, there were waiting lists to get one. Now, sales are dinged by skyrocketing gasoline prices.

But dealers and industry analysts were quick to predict that the Hummer would survive. If GM doesn't want it, they say, someone else will.

"For people who like it, it is a perfect brand. I believe it will survive. It is perfect for the people they cater to - it delivers emotionally and serves their needs," said Alexander H. Edwards, president of the automotive research division of Strategic Vision Inc., of San Diego, whose clients have included GM.

Brad Rice, general sales manager at the Armen Cadillac and Hummer dealership in Plymouth Meeting, said the big Hummer had gotten a bum rap from environmentalists. "It's a shame that there's not more positive advertising to showcase the true Hummer enthusiasts," he said.

About half his Hummer buyers are women. "They feel more powerful, safer, less-vulnerable in a Hummer. It is great in snow, great anywhere. It will go through 22 inches of water. . . . The children in the carpool go for it, too," Rice said. "Maybe it reminds them of the video games they play."

Mike Ferullo, general sales manager of the Hummer dealer in the Turnersville Auto Mall, agrees: "It's the style they like, and a status symbol up there with Cadillac, Mercedes and BMW."

David Portalatin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group Inc., a market-research firm based in Houston, took a less-partisan stance: "I can't speak to the psychology of what made those vehicles appealing, but there are clear signs that fewer and fewer people will be able to afford to drive them."

In 2007, Portalatin said, motorists in the United States spent $38 billion more to fuel their vehicles than in 2006. In the first four months of this year, the cost of vehicle fuel soared $32 billion over the same period last year.

"That's a staggering sum of money we're vaporizing out the tailpipe," he said.

For the first time in 30 years, gasoline prices have remained high long enough to provoke significant lifestyle changes. In nationwide surveys, a significant number of people report buying a fuel-efficient car or moving closer to where they work.

To some, the Hummer story is an important national history lesson. John Hanger, chief executive officer of Penn Future, a statewide public-interest organization, said the Hummer offered sad insight into what had gone on in the nation's boardrooms, populated by isolated people "who eat with the same people all the time, golf with the same people, and loath people like environmentalists who disagree."

This led to the Hummer, Hanger said, "a hippo of a car that was doomed" by the world's rising energy prices. Meanwhile, he added, "Toyota looked at the same world and realized there are a lot of people out there who are concerned about the environment . . . that they might be willing to pay a premium, and said let's treat them with respect. They saw enormous changes in Asia that would lead to economic boom and escalate demand for oil. They understood geopolitical risks of oil. They moved forward with something that was revolutionary. Now it is one of the top 10 selling cars in U.S."

In contrast, Hummer sales are declining. Chief executive Rick Wagoner told shareholders yesterday that GM "is considering all options for the Hummer . . . everything from a complete revamp of the product lineup to partial or complete sale of the brand."