Bah, Hummerbug

IT WAS always absurd for giant American flags to fly over our most visible wastelands, car dealerships strewn with gargantuan gas guzzlers. This phenomenon became even more strange when General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner recently announced 30,000 job cuts. This was part of GM's long slide into petrofication. In the 1960s, GM sold about half of the cars and trucks in the United States. Today it sells 26.6 percent and likely will lose its status as the world's largest automaker to Toyota in 2006 or 2007.

Amazingly, just a week after Wagoner's grim announcement, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature on GM's plans to expand its global market for Hummers!

Last year, GM sold 30,000 of the vehicles that symbolize America's blithe dismissal of global warming. The H2 Hummer was notorious for getting only 10 miles per gallon. The so-called more environmental-friendly H3 is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 16 miles per gallon of gasoline in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. Reviewers for The Los Angeles Times and The Florida Times Union respectively found it to average 12.5 mpg and 13 mpg. This is while Toyota pumps out Corollas, Camrys, and Avalons that get more than 30 mpg on the highway.

GM's plans to double its sales by inflicting the Hummer on places like Japan, which, according to Forbes magazine last month, has 10 times more people per square mile than the United States and 6 million more cars than parking spaces in urban landscapes ''where most roads are too narrow even to allow room for a sidewalk."

GM wants to build Hummers in South Africa. That is cruel excess in a nation where between one of 10 and one of eight people has the HIV virus for AIDS and only a fraction can get the drugs to fight the disease. GM wants to sell them in dense Europe. It is looking into pushing Hummers into China, which already has plenty of environmental worries without these mechanical monsters spewing more greenhouse gases into the air.

This Hummer is symbolic of a company and a Detroit that has no clue. Its lobbyists, long successful on Capitol Hill in blocking any serious improvements in federal fuel efficiency standards, are running all over the nation trying to block states from creating their own tougher standards. American automakers have claimed for years that fuel efficiency costs jobs. They keep begging for time to deliver SUVs that creep toward 20 miles per gallon.

With gasoline prices floating between $2 and $3 a gallon and jobs disappearing anyway, Detroit is in the breakdown lane. All one has to do is read the latest sales figures. Compared to last November, GM's overall sales were down 11 percent and its SUV and truck sales were down 16.7 percent. The Ford brand was down 14 percent with its Expedition and Explorer SUVs down by 43 percent and 52 percent, respectively. Chrysler was down 7 percent, with its SUVs and trucks down 11 percent.

Meanwhile, Toyota, while suffering drops in its SUV line, still gained 5.5 percent on the strength of its smaller cars. Hyundai was up 7.9 percent. For the first 11 months of this year, sales at Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda were up 11, 11, 8, and 6 percent respectively. The Ford brand was down 4.2 percent, and GM was down 3 percent. Only Chrysler was up for the last 11 months, by 6 percent.

With the United States once again refusing this week in Montreal to participate in the Kyoto climate change accords, it is time to question the meaning of those flags flying above America's testament to environmental destruction. In the 1970s and '80s, Detroit, instead of adjusting to gasoline shortages, wrapped itself in the flag for protectionism against Japanese small cars. The week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Detroit auto executives stood in front of a large American flag with White House officials to declare unity in keeping cars coming off the assembly line. GM followed up with its ''Keep America Rolling" campaign with no-interest loans.

None of that had anything to do with matching Japan's foresight and retooling America away from its outrageous consumption of the world's oil. Thirty thousand more job cuts later, we are paying for it. The flags flying above GM and Ford SUVs are becoming grave markers. The flags above Japanese car dealerships are a mockery of our own making. Defined by fuel efficiency, the true patriotic car is a Camry. The Hummers, on the other hand, are leading us on a fruitless Expedition.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is  

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