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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June 2004, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Environment drives Hummer vs Hybrid row
By Maggie Shiels
In California

Men's fashion designer and manufacturer Craig Fruchter
"Black beauty": Craig Fruchter defends his Hummer sports vehicle

The Hummer is regarded as the Goliath of vehicles but the 8600 lb king of the road is the car everyone loves to hate.

And with petrol prices topping a record breaking $2.55 per gallon in California's environmentally conscious Bay Area, Hummer drivers are regarded as public enemy number one.

Men's fashion designer and manufacturer Craig Fruchter stumped up around $54,000 for his "big black beauty" in December of 2002. He admits his Hummer H2 is drawing more heat than usual as he clocks 11-13 miles per gallon on the freeways north of San Francisco.

"I have people flipping me off all the time but because I'm from New York, I get my ya-yas out that way and I get to flip 'em back."

Industry experts say a massive switch to smaller cars or Hybrids will only happen if petrol supply is disrupted or prices hit $5-a-gallon

Craig says while friends back east are "very chill" about his luxury Hummer - its design is based on the military Humvee workhorse - people in northern California aren't quite as tolerant.

"Everybody here claims to be more environmentally aware but really they're more hypocritical because the people that give me trouble about the Hummer are driving Range Rovers, Excursions and Suburbans, which drive 15-20 miles per gallon.

"People like to get behind symbols and it's scary that they get behind hating Hummers."

This symbol of road-hogging prowess, more than any other, certainly seems to bring out a visceral reaction.

Slogans sprayed

In one of the most extreme examples, a group called the Earth Liberation Front caused $1m worth of damage setting Hummers on fire at a California dealership late last year.

The group also claimed responsibility for spray painting slogans such as "Fat, Lazy Americans" on sports utility vehicles at other dealerships in the state.

Figures from trade magazine Automotive News seem to suggest soaring petrol prices could be affecting sales of these so-called gas-guzzlers.

Environmental director Russell Long paid nearly $20,000 for his Prius
Hybrid: Russell Long's car runs on electricity and petrol

While sports utility vehicles (SUVs) remain the nation's top selling car, sales are sluggish with a disappointing 4.1% increase for the year. Hummer sales also declined by 21%.

At the other end of the scale, the Hybrid is enjoying its moment in the sun. The profile of this dual petrol-electric powered car which boasts 40-60 miles per gallon has been boosted by celebrity owners including Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Leonardo Di Caprio and Cameron Diaz.

Driven by environmental concerns and the rise in the cost of petrol, American registrations for Hybrids rose over 25% to nearly 44,000 last year. California ranked number one with nearly 11,500 new hybrid drivers.

Among them is environmental director Russell Long who lives in San Francisco and paid nearly $20,000 for his Prius just three months ago.

"I bought the car because I get terrific fuel mileage and as an environmentalist, I want to do everything to break the nation's oil dependence," he told BBC News Online.

More expensive

While record petrol prices help fuel incentives to go Hybrid, the numbers don't add up.

The director of the University of California's Energy Institute, Professor Severin Borenstein claims: "It still costs two or three thousand dollars more to buy a Hybrid and if you do the calculations of how much you would save on gasoline over the life of a car it's unlikely you would ever actually cover your costs."

For Russell Long that's not the issue. "If petrol was 10 cents a gallon I would still buy a Hybrid. Guys who drive Hummers need to understand those vehicles are symbolic of what is wrong with this country."

Professor Severin Borenstein of the University of California's Energy Institute
Professor Borenstein: Petrol prices not an issue for Hummer owners

Professor Borenstein says for Hummer drivers, the cost of fuel at the pump is most likely not a big deal. "Someone who has spent $50,000 to buy a Hummer, and in some cases more than that, probably isn't that sensitive to spending another $500-$1,000 a year on gasoline.

"If they were, they probably wouldn't be buying the Hummer in the first place."

Craig Fruchter says what counts more is the government's tax credit of up to $100,000 for vehicles weighing over 6000 lbs.

"I looked at the vehicles at the time and there was about four or five that fit the bill. There was the Range Rover at $75,000 and the Mercedes at $75,000 and so at a base sticker of around $50,000 and being able to write it off mostly and use it for work I thought it (the Hummer) was a good deal."

Hybrid sports vehicle

The Hybrid tax credit isn't quite as lucrative, totaling $1,500 for this year and declining 25% a year until it's phased out.

At the moment three Hybrids dominate the marketplace but still account for less than 1% of nearly 17 million vehicles sold in the US.

Auto makers are planning to roll out more than a dozen Hybrids in the next year while the first Hybrid SUV, built by Ford, started a promotional tour through the country last week.

Meanwhile industry experts say a massive switch to smaller cars or Hybrids will only happen if petrol supply is disrupted or prices hit $5-a-gallon.


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