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Beast of the Month - January 2004
The Hummer, Gigantic Gas-Guzzling SUV
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
For 55 years, Motor Trend magazine has picked its annual Car of the Year award, a title that is the most coveted and recognized award in the automotive industry. So for 2004, when it named the Toyota Prius as its winner, it was a stunning moment in the history of automobiles. To add to the coronation, Popular Science handed its highly prestigious Best of What's New Cars prize to the 2004 Prius as well.
What made the selection of the Prius such a big deal was that it is was the first time an auto using hybrid technology had won the prize. For those uninformed, "hybrid" means the usage of both gas fuel and electricity to efficiently increase the miles per gallon a car gets. In the case of the Prius, hybrid synergy has led to a car that gets up to an incredible 60 MPG.
A midsize sedan with futuristic bodywork, the Prius is as easy on eyes as it is on the pump. No less than Harrison Ford, Mr. Indiana Jones-Han Solo-Jack Ryan-etc., rode in one to the 2003 Oscars with his babe Calista Flockart. Needless to say, any set of wheels good enough for the ultimate American action hero has status value, all at the price of $20 grand. (Joining Harrison on the Prius brigade: Cameron Diaz, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, Leonardo DiCaprio, Larry David, Meryl Streep, David Duchovny, Ted Danson, David Hyde Pierce, Jackson Browne, Jeff Goldblum, Don Cheadle and Rob Reiner, among others. Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart to Ford's Gary Cooper, drives the electric Toyota RAV-4 instead.)
As Kevin Smith, Motor Trend editor-in-chief, put it, "We realize the selection of a hybrid vehicle is going to stir controversy, but we believe the performance, engineering advancements, and overall significance of the Toyota Prius merits the distinction of MOTOR TREND's Car of the Year. The Prius is a capable, comfortable, fun-to-drive car that just happens to get spectacular fuel economy. It also provides a promising look at a future where extreme fuel-efficiency, ultra-low emissions, and exceptional performance will happily coexist."
Honda joins Toyota in the hybrid sweepstakes, their two-seater Insight an impressive and fuel-efficient car (up to an astounding 80 MPG) in its own right, coming in also at $20K. (For the fad-conscious, Insight drivers include Richard Dreyfuss, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Konformist kontributing editor Greg Bishop, who can confirm it's a babe magnet.) What unites these two companies, besides making cars with excellent MPG at great prices, is that both are Japanese auto firms.
What have American car companies done in the meantime? Not much, besides waste a lot of money, make a bunch of broken promises and whine about how hybrid technology just isn't up to snuff.
We're not talking chump change here: in 1993, the Clinton Administration founded a $1.5 billion program funded by taxpayers funneled money to American auto corporations on the promise of a 80 MPG supercar on the road by 2004. Now it is 2004, and the only supercars out there are made in Japan.
To be fair to Clinton, Congress later undermined the plan. Though it would be easy to blame it on the "Gingrich Revolution", it was in fact a bipartisan coalition working at the behest of American auto executives. When Shrub and co. stole the White House, the plan was given its burial with the Donkey Dick Cheney "Energy Task Force." (Not to leave enough alone, Smirkboy has since mockingly offered his own "FreedomCAR" partnership with Detroit that barely pretends to deliver what was first promised eleven years ago.)
American auto executives bellyached that the technology was too expensive. As late as April 2002, GM CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. moaned to Business Week, "How will the economics of hybrids ever match that of the internal combustion engine? We can't afford to subsidize them." Honda and Toyota decided they couldn't afford not to. Without a government trough, Honda lost $6,500 per car sold when the Insight was first introduced, and Toyota $16K on the Prius. To explain the present-tense losing strategy, one Honda executive explained, "We are investing in the future." The investment is paying off: in late 2003, Toyota announced it was indeed making a profit on the Prius. As George Allen would put it, the future is now.
Considering how oil dollars to the Middle East fund the terrorism of Osama and his ilk, this is no small issue. As Prius-driver Arianna Huffington stated in an Alternet.org article, "How ironic that if American car buyers want to do something truly patriotic, they have to buy Japanese to do it." When American icons like Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks are turning Japanese as well, that is an indictment of the entire American auto industry.
Then again, perhaps indicting the entire American auto industry is too broad. David Morris, also in Alternet.org, put it best: "I'm convinced that American engineers are the equals of their Japanese counterparts. It is American CEOs who are not the equal of their Japanese equivalents."
What have American CEOs been up rather than planning for the future? Besides laying off American workers and giving themselves outrageous bonuses, they have pushed to deliver what is the solitary recent success of the USA auto business: the SUV, or sports utility vehicle.
The auto of choice for detested yuppies and "soccer moms" everywhere, the SUV got its major cultural push thanks to the Ford Explorer, first introduced in 1990. The Explorer has fallen on tough marketing times of late (after the 2000 tire-blowout fiasco, incompetently handled by CEO Jacques Nasser) but the SUV market hasn't soured along with it. Picking up the slack has been General Motors, which first shattered the million mark in SUV sales in 2001. Leading the GM SUV brigade has been the Hummer, The Konformist Beast of the Month.
A six thousand pound monolith, Hummer is to SUVs what Titanic was to big budget blockbusters: it is the end result of all the elements of the genre taken to its most ludicrous proportions. Or, as James Cameron would say when receiving one of Titanic's eleven Oscars, "Size does matter."
Inspired by the military vehicle Humvee (short for High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle), the Hummer was first brought to the market at the request of then pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, who digged the US Army's set of wheels. It's rather fitting that Arnie inspired it, as the Hummer is a Jeep on steroids. The H1 costs over $100K, while it's latest model, the H2, comes in around $50K. Both get less than 10 MPG, one sixth of the Prius. (For this reason, the Hummer has been a popular target among guerrilla environmental activists, who have been known to smash lots filled with Hummers in protest of what they represent.)
Despite (or because of) its politically incorrect gas-guzzling style, it's got Bling Bling value among the hip-hop set. Conan the Barbarian and studio gangstas aside, the Hummer seems to capture the most repulsive of drivers on the roads. Little surprise there: according to High and Mighty, a book about the SUV phenomenon by New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher, the auto industry's own market research concludes that SUV drivers tend to be self-centered and self-absorbed people, insecure and vain, with little interest in their neighbors and communities. (Considering these traits, it's no wonder the SUV first became a hit among the Baby Boomers.) Curiously, the larger the SUV, the more of a jerk its driver is likely to be. In the Hummer, the trend has reached its zenith.
Okay, we admit it: the Hummer does look kind of cool. And no doubt when the next version of Grand Theft Auto comes out on the Playstation, The Konformist staff will spend endless hours driving a Hummer-like replica through the streets, smashing into cops cars as the radio blares, much like we have with digital versions of Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
But fun and games aside, there comes a point when one has to look at reality and understand the fundamental beliefs behind it are ludicrous. Los Angeles freeways are not Baghdad: does anyone living in America really need a three-ton military vehicle to get around? And let's be honest what the appeal of the Hummer (like the Vette and Porshche before it) is really about. That being the case, wouldn't an penile implant be a lot more cost effective? (Memo to Arnold fans: steroid abuse has been known to shrink the size of testicles.)
Unsurprisingly, the Bush Team and their fellow GOP kreeps have been big pushers of the Hummer compensation. As noted by writer-radio personality Jim Hightower, in their latest round of tax cuts to the rich, they included a "Hummer deduction" which allowed a tax break of up to $100,000 to business owners who buy a vehicle weighing at least 6,000 pounds, i.e. a Hummer. In the same bill, they denied a $400 tax credit to the families of 12 million children in low-income homes. When asked about the denial of tax credit to the working poor, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay repulsively replied, "There are a lot of things more important than that."
Feeling a sense of manhood when not prancing around in a well-padded Top Gun uniform aside, the Hummer deduction is a perfect example of what is bad policy: thanks to the tax favor, the tax reduction for business in buying a Hummer is $34,000, while that for a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight is a mere $4,000.
This is no accident. American auto CEOs have long been resistant against attempts to promote any sense of sound energy policy via the cars we drive. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to notice the influence of the oil industry on the business establishment and suspect a nefarious connection here. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, he promised to raise fuel efficiency standards to 45 MPG: the proposal was shredded by the oil-auto industry, and standards were never raised during his eight years. (Again, the Bush Team in contrast has mockingly promised to raise the standard by a wimpy 1.5 MPG.)
Meanwhile, back in Japan (which has no gigantic oil lobby in its own country), Toyota is introducing yet another hybrid vehicle in fall, this one an SUV. It is expected to get 40 MPG, twice what a comparably sized SUV would get. US companies are predictably way behind in their own development.
It's quite a shame, really. After years of cluelessness under CEOs like Roger Smith and Lee Iaccoca, US automakers seemed to finally wake up in the nineties. Besides the SUV phenomenon, there were other noted winners, like the Ford Taurus and the entire GM Saturn line. But now, the US auto industry seems to be falling back in a lazy, self-satisfied pattern. By hiding behind the short-term lack in economy of scales in hybrid technology to justify the non-creation of economy of scales, the Big Three may have made one of the worst decisions in business history. Meantime, GM keeps pumping out those Hummers, which in the short term is indeed profitable. But somehow we suspect that the Hummer will soon resemble another Titanic, as a symbol of the great economic disaster that may soon fall the entire American auto industry if they don't rise to the challenge of the Prius and Insight.
In any case, we salute The Hummer (and all those behind it) as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, dudes!!!
Motor Trend 2004 Car of the Year
Popular Science 2003 Best of What's New Cars: Toyota Prius
Leave No Hummer Owner Behind
June 23, 2003
How Corporate Greed And Political Corruption Paved The Way For The SUV Explosion
January 8, 2003
A Tale of Two Countries
December 8, 2003
'Hybrid' cars were Oscars' politically correct ride
Kelly Carter, USA TODAY
March 30, 2003
Stephanie Mencimer, Washington Monthly
December 20, 2002
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