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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Me n my (toy) SUV: Jeep-Hummer battle starts with playground set

Jessica Gonzalez, 6, owner of an older model Barbie Jeep, is impressed by the  Jazzy Jeep Wrangler. Jessica Gonzalez, 6, owner of an older model Barbie Jeep, is impressed by the Jazzy Jeep Wrangler.

Samantha and Alexandria Wilson carefully considered an array of Hummer and Jeep sport-utility vehicles, checking the play of a steering wheel here, a CD player there, beefy tires here, and storage space there.

The Toledo sisters, who started cruising the cul-de-sac in their Barbie Beach Ranger Jeep 4X4 last summer, ended up preferring two very different rigs.

Five-year-old Alexandria stayed faithful to Barbie Beach Ranger Wrangler among the lineup of SUVs because the tires were purple, while Samantha was partial to the Adventure Series Hummer H2.

Samantha couldn t explain why she is, after all, only 3 and not used to expressing her views at impromptu auto shows in a Toys R Us store aisle but their mother wasn t surprised by the tomboy s choice.

Bryce Amstutz, 3 , gives his vote to the Fire Rescue Jeep, especially its water-cannon feature. Bryce Amstutz, 3 , gives his vote to the Fire Rescue Jeep, especially its water-cannon feature.

I d prefer the Hummer because it s big, bad, and cool, said Ford Expedition driver Liz Swantack, whose husband bought the Beach Ranger Jeep for their oldest girls.

This year, the competition between Hummers and Jeeps, auto brands that both trace their lineage to Toledo and the venerable World War II Willys Jeep, has moved from the highways and off-road trails to sidewalks and yards across America.

This battle, however, involves battery-operated toys that can often hold two, go 2.5 to 5 miles an hour, cost up to $300, and be wrapped for Christmas.

Although Fisher-Price s Power Wheels Jeep vehicles have been around for more than a decade, are sold by numerous retailers, and come in eight styles for the 2004 model year, Little Tikes Co. Hummers came out just this year and are offered for now only at Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, each of which has an exclusive style.

Mathias Jackson, almost 4, with his father, Michael Johnston, tried several vehicles before deciding he prefers the Hummer. Mathias Jackson, almost 4, with his father, Michael Johnston, tried several vehicles before deciding he prefers the Hummer.

The Jeep and Hummer brands owned and licensed to the toymakers by DaimlerChrysler AG and General Motors Corp., respectively, may not be names young children know or care much about. But childhood memories will help create good feelings for a brand later in life, helping foster loyalty at a young age, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America s Research Group, a retail consulting operation.

Anytime you can get someone of any age to buy a product, and, in this case, you have a parent buying it for the child, it keeps the brand in front of the family, Mr. Beemer said. Obviously, in marketing today, you ve got to cover every angle. Getting the name in front of the consumer any way you can is an important strategy.

Unlike automakers, neither Power Wheels, owned by Mattel Inc., nor Little Tikes, owned by Newell Rubbermaid Inc., would disclose sales numbers. Ditto for the only two dealers where both can be found this year.

The first battery-powered Hummers are joining millions of Jeeps roaming suburban sidewalks and other child-friendly routes.

Yet many children with their parents one recent day at Toys R Us in south Toledo were willing to share their reactions. Sometimes a little prompting was required as they examined, say, a pewter Adventure Series Hummer H2, with features like engine and horn sounds, and a red Fire Rescue Jeep Wrangler, with a light bar and other amen-ities.

I like the red one better, 3-year-old Rowan Kerr of Whitehouse said. This is neat. The other one doesn t have [rollbar and emergency] lights.

Still, some children weren t as decisive. Mathias Jackson, who will turn 4 just days after finding a yellow Hummer H2 under the Christmas tree this year, was drawn to the Hummer H2 at first, declared he wanted Santa to get him the Fire Rescue Jeep, then changed his mind again after settling into the Hummer H2.

I like this, said the Bowling Green boy while toying alternatively with the horn and the radio. I want this!

Despite the grins and giggles of prospective customers, some of whom even check under the hood, Little Tikes of Hudson, Ohio, readily acknowledges that the competition between kid-sized Hummers and Jeeps is brutal.

The company watched the market for ride-on toys for years and waited for the right time and vehicle to enter with both guns blazing and is pleased with the Hummer s reception, said Laurie Yingling, director of Little Tikes marketing communications.

We just felt like driving the Hummer vehicle, by its nature, is the baddest ride in town, she said. If anything was going to beat the Jeep, this was the one.

Jeeps are the perennial best sellers among the Power Wheels lineup, which produces enough battery-powered vehicles every year to put it in the league of the world s top five automakers based on numbers, said Laurie Oravec, Fisher-Price s director of public relations.

Hummer does offer competition, but it s too early to tell how much or whether the impact will last, Ms. Oravec said. Meanwhile, Power Wheels routinely updates models and features, she said.

Certainly competition is something that we notice, and we re without a doubt ready to protect our market share, she said.

Though Toys R Us Inc. wouldn t reveal numbers for the kid-sized SUV brands, a spokesman said Hummers are hot this year because they are new.

Some parents say they can t afford a $50,000 Hummer H2 for themselves, so they buy a toy one for their children, said Kelly Cullen, company spokesman.

Barbie Jeep years ago was a big thing, she said.

And among some local drivers, they continue to be.

Ashton Strutz, 7, of Holland, Ohio, preferred the Barbie Take-Along

Tunes Jeep 4x4 and said she would like the Adventure Series Hummer H2 better but not more than the Jeep if it were red.

The Jeep comes with a portable boombox and six CDs, one of the features that 4-year-old Erricka Lincoln of Toledo favored most and may find herself regularly playing with after Christmas .

The Hummer H2 s color wasn t a problem for 7-year-old Erica Hart of Maumee.

I like the color of it, and I like these, she said while fiddling with buttons on the radio, which plays eight songs.

Jessica Gonzalez owns an older model Barbie Beach Ranger Jeep 4x4, and the 6-year-old Toledoan was taken with the Barbie Jazzy Jeep Wrangler.

Too bad we didn t have them when we were growing up, especially with lights and sirens, said her father, Daniel Gonzalez. He preferred the Fire Rescue Jeep with its abundance of features among the toys, but between the adult versions of the vehicles would choose a Hummer H2.

The Fire Rescue Jeep also earned Bryce Amstutz s vote, and the 3 -year-old Holland boy appeared most fascinated with the water cannon.

It caught the attention of 3-year-old Quentin Weddell of Findlay too, but he said he liked the Adventures Series Hummer H2 best.

Quentin s father, Robert Weddell, said he would rather have a toy Jeep than a toy Hummer.

But he and some other parents said he wouldn t want either adult-size vehicle.

They re gas guzzlers, said Bryce s mother, Keena Amstutz.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.

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