SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE — Move over Cadillac and Lincoln: There's a new limousine in town. In a society where bigger is better, the latest limousine is in a category all its own: the gargantuan Hummer H2. The vehicle ratchets up the head-turning quotient while providing seating for 20 or more people in some configurations.
The massive limousines — more than 30 feet long — are all the rage from the Viper Room in Los Angeles to the Saltwater Grille in South Portland.
"They are the 'it' vehicle for the younger crowd," said Sara Eastwood, publisher of LCT. "We like to refer to the `under 30s' because that group responds best to trendy, high profile, and pomp." The move toward stretch sport utility vehicle limos began about six years ago with Ford Excursions, Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators. The Hummer H2 raised the bar for bling bling when it rolled onto showroom floors a couple of years ago.
Sales peaked last year and SUV limos remain as popular as ever, Eastwood 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 Hummer limo versions operated elsewhere 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: 8 miles per gallon.
Last weekend, chauffeur Glenn Davis stood next to the limousine while waiting for a prom group to finish dinner inside the waterfront Saltwater Grille. A regular Hummer H2 that rolled by looked like a dinghy next to an ocean liner. Indeed, the Hummer limousine was longer than many of the pleasure boats in Portland Harbor. Davis, who patiently answers questions from gawkers, admits that getting behind the wheel of this Hummer is special.
"I'm Number One," he said. "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 high 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, lasers, neon 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 for the night — to make their prom something to remember. "There's something special about it being so big. I love it."
In West Palm Beach, Fla., Eric Salat said the demand for limousines — and his seven Hummer H2 limos in particular — seems to be insatiable.
People are so accustomed to seeing limousines on "American Idol," "The Bachelor" and other TV shows that regular folks are now renting them all the time, for a night on the town, for weddings, for proms, for bachelor parties — even kindergarten graduations.
"Every time you see `American Idol,' they're driving around in a limousine," said Salat, president of A1 Luxury Limousines. "It's limos, limos, limos."
More than a dozen coach-builders across the country produce the SUV- and sedan-based limousines. 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 limousines pay dividends for their operators. The average hourly rate for a stretch SUV is $138.86, according to LCT. That's more than for the largest sedan-based limousines or even motor coaches, according to the magazine's surveys.
Their numbers are small but growing. Stretch SUVs accounted for 9% of new limousine purchases last year, and now make up 3% of the 127,000 limousines nationwide, Eastwood said.
The growth potential is limited, though. Corporate business travelers, who rent most limousines, prefer classic models, Eastwood 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.