A long-simmering dispute between the beefy sport utility brands Hummer and Jeep has heated up with one-upmanship claims and accusations of copied designs.
The mud-slinging between the off-road SUV brands began nearly three years ago when DaimlerChrysler AG’s Jeep claimed the about-to-be launched Hummer H2 from General Motors Corp. copied its grille.
That battle ended when a judge allowed the H2 to go into production, but now the war has moved from the courtroom to television commercials, the printed page and the auto show floor.
At stake is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable segments of the market. With sales of the Hummer H2 far above forecasts since it was launched 19 months ago, and GM making plans to expand the brand, Hummer is making a serious run at Jeep’s claim to be the premier American off-road SUV.
The latest spat began when Jeep took a shot at Hummer with a recent TV ad that claims Jeeps are better in the mud.
The commercial shows several kids in Jeep pedal cars slogging through an obstacle course, while a yellow Hummer-like SUV, labeled “Imitator,” gets stuck in the muck. A boy in the Hummer look-a-like can only shake his head when a girl says; “If it’s not Trail-Rated, it’s not a Jeep 4x4.”
The ad recalls a Hummer spot, set to the song “Happy Jack” by rock group The Who, in which a boy wins a soapbox derby with a Hummer-like car by outsmarting his opponents and driving off-road.
Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines said the Jeep ad is “good-natured fun,” and it’s common for competitors to knock other products in commercials.
He was more irritated with suggestions that Jeep has copied Hummer.
Earlier this month, Jeep took the wraps off a concept SUV, the large and boxy Jeep Rescue, that bears a strong resemblance to the Hummer H2. Like the H2, the Rescue has round headlights, a slotted grille and exposed hinges around its four doors. Both vehicles also sit high for easy ground clearance in rocky terrain.
“You know how this business is, you show something and it’s copied,” Hummer General Manager Mike DiGiovanni, standing amid the Hummer exhibit at the Detroit auto show, told Reuters. “My reference point is this auto show with all the, as the media calls it, the Hummer wannabes.”
“Who’s zooming who here? Who’s copying who?,” Chrysler’s Vines said, noting that Jeep has been around for 60 years. “I personally don’t think it’s a copy.”
Indeed, the Rescue also shares similarities with its smaller cousin, the Jeep Wrangler. Both the Jeep and the Hummer trace their roots to military vehicles, where function dictates form, and to the same company. Jeep’s former owner American Motors created AM General in 1971 to build military vehicles, and eventually the Humvee truck.
Looks aside, Chrysler group marketing chief Joe Eberhardt questioned the ruggedness of the Hummer H2 in January when he said in an interview with Automotive News that the SUV wouldn’t be able to negotiate the Rubicon Trail, an off-road route in California that is the traditional test of every Jeep.
Hummer’s DiGiovanni said he would send a letter and documentation to Automotive News challenging Eberhardt’s assertion.
This is quite a bit of bluster for two brands that don’t directly compete against each other yet. Prices for the Hummer H2 start at about $50,000, far above any Jeep.
But that will change next year when Hummer launches the smaller H3, which will be priced starting in the $30,000 range, competing directly with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which will debut at the New York Auto Show in April. Longer-term, Hummer officials are talking about adding an even smaller, less expensive model, while the Rescue hints at a larger, H2-size model in Jeep’s future.
“Hummer is the relatively new kid on the block, making waves. The head-to-head competition is going to get extremely severe in the next couple of years,” said Dennis Virag, president of The Automotive Consulting Group, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”