GM Presents Humbler Hummer

DETROIT -- The Hummer is rumbling down-market.

On Wednesday, General Motors was set to unveil a new Hummer that will be smaller, cheaper and less gasoline-hungry than its predecessors.

The new junior member of the Hummer family, to be called H3, is seen as critical to the survival of a brand that has been treading water this year, as the novelty of the two-year-old Hummer H2 has faded. The H3 is to hit showrooms next spring, a date that could not come soon enough for GM's 167 Hummer dealers, who are facing a sales slump at the same time they are spending millions of dollars to fulfill GM's requirement that Hummers be sold in huge glass and steel Quonset huts.

"The H3 makes that viable," said Jim Lynch, a Hummer dealer in the St. Louis area who is in the middle of building one of the new showrooms. He called the H3 an "extremely important" vehicle that gave Hummer dealers "the volume to really be a stand-alone franchise."

At a glance, H3 looks a lot like the Hummer H2, which has become an avatar of American swagger or sinfulness, depending upon whom you ask. But there are significant differences. The H3 is about 43 centimeters shorter than the H2 bumper to bumper, and about 15 centimeters less wide and tall. The H3 is expected to approach 8.5 kilometers per liter in highway driving and get about 6.8 kilometers per liter in the city, a GM official said. That is better than the roughly 5 kilometers per liter that the H2 gets. But it is below the 9.4 kilometers per liter on the highway and the 8.1 kilometers per liter in the city for the average midsize sport utility vehicle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Not that Hummer is going after the eco-conscious.

"I don't want you to get the idea we're releasing the H3 to get to those people who think the H2 is not fuel efficient," said Susan Docherty, Hummer's new general manager. Rather, H3's lower price will bring the vehicle to a vastly larger market. The sport utility vehicle is expected to start from $30,000 to $40,000, compared with the H2, which starts at just under $50,000, and the H1, which starts around $100,000. GM envisions selling more H3 SUV's than the combined volume of both of its predecessors and hopes for sales of more than 40,000 Hummers next year, up from about 20,000 this year.

Hummer sales are down 20 percent this year through September, and the recent introduction of a pickup truck version of the H2, the Hummer H2 SUT, has not done much to help sales. G.M. makes Hummer as a joint venture with AM General, a privately held company that also manufactures the military Humvee. GM recently cut one of the two production shifts at AM General's Hummer plant near South Bend, Indiana, scaling back production to about 30,000 Hummer H2s per year -- below the 40,000 vehicles the company had once envisioned.

Hummer has also become a symbol of America's love affair with large, gas-guzzling SUVs. The Sierra Club operates www.hummerdinger.com, which is among the web sites devoted to criticizing the brand, and another site, whose name cannot be printed here, has more than 1,000 pictures of people giving the Hummer H2 an obscene gesture.

"This brand, even from its inception, has been very polarizing," said Docherty, who took over as Hummer's manager in August after having led the marketing of the Cadillac Escalade SUV. "I don't think that's all bad. I know what the brand represents. My job is to make sure that we meet the needs of customers in the segments we go into."

Rising fuel prices have probably not helped the Hummer -- poor mileage has been one of the top complaints of Hummer drivers, according to J.D. Power & Associates. But most analysts say that Hummer's main problem is not gasoline prices but that its bold design made it a vehicle that had a hot debut only to cool off, a pattern seen before with other flashy designs like the PT Cruiser by DaimlerChrysler.