Urban Auto Smackdown

The Hummer H2 vs. The Sparrow.

It looks like an unfair contest by any measure. The Hummer H2 lumbers in at 6,400 pounds, is almost 16 feet long, and gets 10 miles per gallon in the city. The single-passenger Corbin Sparrow flutters down at 1,350 pounds, is 6 feet long, and gets 20-40 miles per electrical charge. But I was determined to pit the two vehicles against each otherone the SUV fetishist's irresponsible icon of patriotic virility, the other the green contingent's electric do-goodermobile. Forget about the ozone layer, drilling in ANWR, etc. Which is more fun to drive in the city?

I started with the H2 from GM, which is selling like hotcakes even without buyer incentives or zero-interest financing. (Base price: about $48,000.) My loaner rig came tricked out with safari lights, rhino guards, roof rack, and the like, which raises the tab to about $55,000. Its sage-green paint gave it a certain Baghdad-ready military look, but no .50-caliber machine gun is yet available as an add-on option.

Even parked at the curb, the H2 is an attention getter. Everyone in my office was clamoring to go along for a ride. It's got that slab-sided brutalist/functionalist aesthetic that is, ironically, reminiscent of the classic cheapo Citroź® "deux chevaux" model. It's planar, not rounded; linear, not feminine. It's like they spray on testosterone with the paint. Unlike its predecessor, the original milspec Hummer (which costs twice as much), the H2 isn't actually that largeabout comparable in size to a Chevy Tahoe or Lincoln Navigator. It's been downsized for the suburbs, so I was pleased to realize that'd I'd actually driven bigger vehiclesOK, moving vans and motor homesthough not through the streets of downtown Seattle.

Getting in is a challenge; you almost need a mini-tramp to reach the door jamb some 25 inches off the ground. Fortunately, there are lots of handles to help clamber inside. Once ensconced, the H2which appears so large from the outside turns out to be, well, cramped. I've driven Hondas with more interior space. The seating is scrunched upward to accommodate all that ground clearance and 4WD stuff. And the spare tire took up all the way-back area, meaning only five adults could sit semi-comfortably inside.

How does the H2 handle congested city streets, you ask? To my surprise, rather well. You've got to pay close attention to your lane and other vehiclesbut is that such a bad thing? With its wheels on the corners of the vehicle, plus power steering, the turning radius and handling are pretty good. And with the (very noisy) oversized tires and ground clearance, any obstacle you can't finesse can simply be run overcurbs, traffic islands, bicycle messengers, whatever. Visibility, as you'd expect from a vehicle 77 inches tall, is excellent. I got a little paranoid that the cookie-sheet-sized side mirrors would scrape against street signs (and cyclists), but at least they can be electronically retracted when parked (very cool). Parallel parking? I didn't even try. My preferred method was the half-on/half-off approach to the sidewalkwhich, again, worked better than expected.

SOLD IN KIRKLAND by SpitFire Motors (a franchisee of California-based Corbin Motors), the all-electric, zero-emission Sparrow is legally considered a motorcycle, though you don't need a motorcycle license to drive it. The Sparrow has three wheels, a roll cage, and no clutch. In fact, there's really no transmission at all in the thingjust 13 conventional auto batteries, a motor, and some simple but recognizable car-style controls. (Base price is $14,900; and, yes, cup holders are an option.) The single-seater looks like something out of The Jetsons, with styling equally indebted to the '60s Kustom Kar era and the inside of a lava lamp. It's got a trunk, big enough for a few bags of groceries, and that's also where you keep the extension cord that allows you to power up between trips. Most one-way commuters could manage with the Sparrow's 20- to 40-mile range per charge-up, which varies according to the load placed on the batteriesspeed, hills, etc.

Sounds great, particularly when laid out in the reassuring British accent of SpitFire's founder, Alaister Dodwell (a refugee from the high-tech sector). He reels off the Sparrow's specs (110 voltage, 25 horsepower, etc.) but concedes its visceral appeal lies in its holier-than-thou zero-emission status: "There's lot of feel-good feeling in it . . . a certain smugness."

Driving the Sparrow takes some getting used to, and I didn't drive it enough to get used to it (much less to feel smug). For starters, like any electric vehicle, it's eerily quiet. The controls are simple enough: a forward/backward switch on the dash; two pedals on the floorcomparable to a golf cart, which is exactly what the Sparrow drives like. You tentatively push down on the acceleration pedal waiting for something to happen . . . waiting for something to happen . . . until LURCH! something does happen. The throttle is essentially binary, but at least the brakes work, so I didn't run into anything.

But, despite the Sparrow's purported 70 mph ability, there was no way in hell I was going to take it on the freewayeven with the regulatory perk of being able to drive it in the HOV lane. I've ridden motorcycles that feel safer than the Sparrow, which rattles in its fiberglass shell like a plastic Easter egg. If I ran into a Sparrow on my bicycle, I'm confident I'd come out the victor in the exchange. Around town? Fine, but not 405 or 520where the Sparrow has been known to delay irate motorists. And do you really want to incur the wrath of a logging truck while in the Sparrow?

Regardless, SpitFire isn't accepting any new orders for the Sparrow at the moment, since Corbin just entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In the meantime, Dodwell is diversifying his dealership into different electric vehicles.

CONCLUSIONS? The Hummer and Sparrow are both cars for people who crave attention. They get you the same double-takes, stares, and wisecracks. ("Are you taking that thing home to Kent?" one guy sneered about the H2.) They're both extroverts, these vehiclesin-your-face in a way that's kind of refreshing in the bland Hondaland of the self-effacing Northwest. One screams, "politically correct," and the other puffs up like Tommy Franks (you could practically stick a cigar in its grille).

If you have money enough for gas and to park in surface lots (not parallel), the H2 gets my shamefaced endorsement for around-town driving. The Sparrow is a promising idea, but not one that I'd drive until it reached the size and solidity of, say, a Mini. Naturally, I'm opposed to the Hummer on environmental grounds, but here's my solution: Yank out the engine and the rear seats and fill the damn thing with batteries and an electric motor. You'd have the perfect Seattle Eco Vehicle (SEV): big, safe, and no fouling the air. I might even pitch GM on the ideaI can see the slogan now: "The all-new, zero-emission H3: Run over anythingcleanly."

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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