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Thursday, June 18, 2009 03:07 pm

Have you driven a Han lately?

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If you want to be seen as a flag-flying, macho American, you’ve got to have the right ride — and nothing says swaggering hedonism and outta-my-way arrogance quite like a Hummer.

Yes, it’s a high-dollar, gas-guzzling symbol of excess, but hey, that’s the point! As the founder of a Hummer support group once snarled, “Those who deface a Hummer in words or deed deface the American flag and what it stands for.”

Actually, I thought the flag stood for liberty and justice for all, but that’s now just a quibble, because Hummer no longer flies the red, white and blue. It’s turned commie! General Motors has quietly sold its Hummer division to the Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co., a construction and equipment conglomerate in the bicycle-pedaling People’s Republic of China.

The land of Mao, who vehemently denounced the material and moral decadence of the West, now owns one of the West’s most decadent consumer products. Though the Hummer’s Chinese name is “Han Ma,” the marketing concept for this humongous armored chunk of testosterone remains the same. Han Ma means “fierce horse.”

It’s a brave new car world we now live in. GM, a remnant of its former self, is essentially owned by the U.S. government, Chrysler is coming under Italian control, and both Jaguar and Land Rover are in the hands of India’s Tata Motors.

So, who’s going to be King of the Highway in the good ol’ USA? Maybe Geely. Gee-who? Geely Automobile, one of China’s largest auto manufacturers. Along with such other Chinese giants as BYD and Chery Automobile, Geely has big designs on the American market. Never heard of them? Well, get ready to greet the ascendant star in the vehicular universe: China.

Here’s a surprising fact to ponder: This year, it’s projected that China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest automobile producer. It already tops U.S. carmakers in sales.

As the chairman of Daimler, Germany’s top auto company, bluntly acknowledged in January, “The center of gravity is moving eastward.” Well, the East is also moving westward, as some of China’s largest companies expect to start putting their cars into the U.S. market as early as a year from now. Also, as the Hummer purchase shows, Chinese executives have been kicking the tires of Detroit’s ailing companies, shopping for bargains.

China’s sudden surge to the top is no accident. While American auto honchos and economic policymakers stayed mired for years in the old business model of ever-bigger, expensive, fuel-gulping, unreliable vehicles, China’s industrial and political leaders have been planning for and investing in smaller, well-built, fuel-sipping cars.

Part of its plan was to lure such foreign makers as GM into joint ventures. The foreigners, seeking the short-term gain of China’s cheap labor, willingly delivered their technology and managerial know-how to the Chinese, who used both to modernize their own industry and leapfrog into mass production for both domestic and export markets. Indeed, with the Hummer purchase, China gets all the technology, a Western dealership network and a developed brand.

Meanwhile, China’s real push is into cleaner-energy vehicles. While Barack Obama made a big show in May of announcing that U.S. car companies will be required to make vehicles that average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, the average vehicle in China already surpasses that. And, to up the ante, only one week after the president’s big announcement, China said that its vehicles will average 42 miles per gallon by 2015.

In addition, China has gotten the jump on reaching the next level of fuel economy. Its BYD company (which includes American finance guru Warren Buffet as an investor) is now producing a mass-market plug-in electric car — an advance that is well ahead of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in that GM hopes to bring to market late next year.

Assuming, of course, that China does not buy Chevrolet before then.

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