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GM’s electric Hummer will be a hit

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Americans still love hulking SUVs, even as they realize these gas guzzlers contribute to global warming. What to do?

Revive the Hummer, duh. And replace the old 10-mile-per gallon diesel engine with an electric powertrain fueled off the grid.

General Motors (GM) will bring back its Hummer name starting in 2022, according to news reports, adding the monster truck to its GMC lineup. There will be no gas- or diesel-powered version this time, just an electric. GM will supposedly run a Super Bowl ad with NBA wizard LeBron James on Feb. 3 to announce the reincarnation.

Smart move. The Hummer gained fame as a jeep on steroids during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and its manufacturer, AM General, began selling civilian versions in 1992. Arnold Schwarzenegger bought one as his personal vehicle. As SUVs began hogging the roads in the 1990s, GM licensed the name and began selling the gargantuan beast as the Hummer H1 in 1999. Slightly smaller H2 and H3 models came a few years later.

Off-roaders loved the Hummer. Environmentalists despised it. As gas prices crept toward $4 per gallon in 2008, Hummer hit the skids. Then the twin housing and financial crashes relegated the Hummer to icon of excess. GM killed the lineup shortly before declaring bankruptcy in 2009. All told, GM sold more than 300,000 Hummers from 2000 onward, with peak sales in 2006.

A Hummer H1 at an Illinois dealership in 2006. Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Yet everybody interested in cars knows what a Hummer is, and the vehicles’ haters may actually boost the loyalty of its fans. And now, replacing needless carbon emissions makes the truck less hateable. That would leave GM with one of the most notable vehicles of the last 30 years and no trail of pollution to rile up the opposition.

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GM needs this vehicle for a couple of reasons. First, GM has been aggressively developing electric vehicle technology since it drew up plans for the Chevrolet Volt in 2006. It now has a full electric, the Chevy Bolt, that’s proficient but bland. It looks like a regular hatchback and drives smoothly, but there’s none of the excitement Tesla (TSLA) has generated with just about every model in its lineup. GM would probably say it cares more about profitability than excitement, but GM execs also know excitement sells cars and builds brand loyalty. Proof: the Corvette.

A radical battery-powered truck will demonstrate GM has something to show for its EV investments—something critics and buyers can get fired up about. A zero-emission Hummer will also solve a problem for potential buyers who love the muscle but don’t want to be ostracized for belching pollution. An electric Hummer might even be more virtuous than a gas-powered subcompact. What the heck, throw the Corolla in the back.

GM also needs some new armature for the war that’s underway over the future of the pickup. Tesla promises an electric “cybertruck” in a few years. A startup called Rivian, backed by Amazon and Ford, is developing electric truck technology that could be on the market by late this year or early next. Pickups turn out to be great EV platforms, because there’s ample space for battery storage, and the powerful torque electric motors can generate is fitting for much of the work pickups often do. Whoever masters the electric pickup will corner the monster profits pickups deliver.

GM will supposedly optimize the new Hummer for off-road use and sell it in small volumes. We’ll see. GM probably anticipates some backlash to the truck’s massive girth, a legitimate ding on the old Hummer by right-sized motorists unnerved at the Hummer’s militaristic bearing. Large vehicles do threaten smaller ones with inordinate damage in the event of a collision.

But if the new Hummer succeeds, it seems certain GM will expand the lineup or export the electric technology to other truck and SUV models. Americans like vehicles that emit a rugged vibe, and they want automakers to make those vehicles socially acceptable. In its second life, the Hummer might finally be arriving at the right time.