America's love of SUVs leads to gargantuan limos that seat 20

Sunday, June 19, 2005

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine -- In a society where bigger is better, the latest limousine is in a category all its own. The gargantuan Hummer H2 is more than 30 feet long and can seat about 20 people, dwarfing classic limo models.

The massive machines are all the rage, from the Viper Room nightclub in Los Angeles to the Salt Water Grille in South Portland.

"They are the 'it' vehicle for the younger crowds," said Sara McLean, publisher of Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation magazine. "We like to refer to the 'under 30s' because that group responds best to trendy, high profile and pomp."

The move toward stretch SUV limos began about six years ago with Ford Excursions, Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators. The Hummer H2 raised the bar for bling when it rolled onto showroom floors a couple of years ago.

Sales peaked last year and SUV limos remain as popular as ever, McLean said.

In Maine, Lilley's Limousine was first to buy one of the Hummers, which cost $115,000 -- nearly twice the cost of a sedan-based limo.

Lilley's Hummer is 32 feet long -- double a regular Hummer's length -- and it's wide enough to have a center aisle with seating on either side. The result: It can seat up to 20 people. Other versions can seat even more.

"It's a beast. It's definitely a beast," said Dan DeCosta, one of the Lilley's owners. Gas mileage also is beastly: eight miles per gallon.

On a recent night, chauffeur Glenn Davis stood next to the limo while waiting for a prom group to finish dinner at the waterfront Salt Water Grille. The Hummer limo was longer than many of the pleasure boats in Portland Harbor.

Davis admits that getting behind the wheel of this Hummer is special.

"I'm No. 1," said Davis. "I get the looks as if to say, 'What is this bad boy doing on the road?"'

Soon enough, the group from Portland's Waynflete School emerged from the restaurant and pulled out digital cameras to get pictures of themselves next to the Hummer. Inside, it became a private rolling disco with strobe lights and flat-screen televisions.

Once the doors closed, the leather-surrounded luxury was hidden to outsiders by tinted windows. The music bumped to the beat of Stevie Wonder.

"It's unique," said Leah Thompson of Freeport, who lobbied 17 friends to split the cost -- more than $1,000. "There's something special about it being so big. I love it."

In West Palm Beach, Fla., Eric Salat said the demand for his seven Hummer limos seems insatiable. Limo companies say they get requests not just for weddings and proms, but also for nights on the town and even kindergarten graduations. A Hummer H2 operated by Michael's Limousine in Maine was requested for a funeral.

More than a dozen coach builders across the country produce the SUV- and sedan-based limos. They buy production-line models like the Hummer or Excursion from General Motors or Ford and then stretch them into behemoths.

While they're costly to buy, SUV limos pay dividends to their operators. The average hourly rate for a stretch SUV is $138.86, according to Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation, based in Torrance, Calif. That's more than for the largest sedan-based limos or even motor coaches, according to the magazine's surveys.

Stretch SUVs accounted for 9 percent of new limo purchases last year and now make up 3 percent of the 127,000 limos nationwide, McLean said.

The growth potential is limited, though. Corporate business travelers, who rent most limos, prefer classic models, McLean said.

"It's the group that shows up to the Viper Room with the intent to make a big show and turn heads that likes these more ostentatious limos," she said.

On the Net:

Lilley's Limo

Michael's Limousine

Limousine and Chauffeured Transportation

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