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A Smaller, Friendlier Hummer?


GM's macho tank, the Hummer, is evolving into a smaller, higher-mileage SUV even Moms can love

It's the size, of course. Ever since it stormed onto the U.S. market more than a decade ago, the Hummer has been the most extreme example of the American craze for extra-large SUVs. The massive, militaristic truck sparks either love or hate among consumers. What the Hummer's proponents champion as Manifest Destiny on four wheels stands to others as excess unchecked.

So it was quite a sight to see General Motors (GM) continue to pare down from the original when it unveiled the 2008 Hummer HX concept at January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Smaller and lighter, this would-be Hummer mini is practically green. The HX is nearly a foot and a half shorter and may be as much as 50% more fuel-efficient than the H3, the smallest Hummer. The concept car, which could roll out by 2010, has a 3.6-liter, direct-injection V6 engine that sips ethanol. An even more environmentally friendly diesel model and a gas-electric hybrid are under consideration.

But rather than an apostasy of the Hummer brand, the HX maintains the rugged Tonka truck appeal of its larger siblings. Removable panels over the wheels reveal a gnarl of springs and heavy-duty shocks tucked behind huge 35-inch tires. Lead designer David Rojas says the front "resembles an alligator's teeth rising out of shallow water."

Beneath its hulking exterior lies GM's strategy to transform the Hummer brand toward a more earth-friendly image that appeals to women as well as men. But steering Hummer into a future marked by growing environmental concerns is a risky maneuver. GM must change a product popular among a base of fanatical, middle-aged men just enough to woo younger buyers and women—without alienating the loyal core.

The challenge is to strike a delicate balance while remaining true to the Hummer brand. An expanding demographic base may demand better gas mileage, but Hummer buyers still want the powerful Humvee. "Hummer is likely to continue doing well for the same reason Carl's Jr. (CKR) and Smith & Wesson (SWHC) still do well," predicts Andrew Zolli, founder of innovation firm Z + Partners. "They understand they're selling a sense of self so well-articulated it can withstand any criticism."

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Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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