GM's HUMMER division is at its tipping point. Will it be sidelined into history because of its in-your-face military connotations? Or will the addition of a smaller, kinder, and somewhat gentler HUMMER give it the legs to become a permanent member of the General Motors hierarchy?
What, you thought we'd answer all those questions in 1000 words or less?
What we can tell you is that the new H3, regardless of how well it sells, is authentically a HUMMER. It can go to places off-road that only endangered species occupy. It can weave its way through city traffic more deftly than anything this capable has a right to. And with a base price of less than $30,000, it's strikingly affordable for the image it brings with it. After all, when was the last time you saw an Explorer or a Grand Cherokee delivering supplies to Tikrit?
The H3's been born into a world where, surreally, the way you vote dictates your affection for its brutish shape and globe-trotting toughness. But there's no debating that the H3 looks every bit the HUMMER, despite the fact that the H3 is derived from GM's compact pickups. In fact, it's only six and a half inches narrower than the bigger H2, though it's nearly 17 inches shorter. The sidecars that envelope the wide-track wheels are entirely appropriate, and don't look tacked-on as they easily could. HUMMER designers got the core elements right: the windows are short, squared-off, and flush and the corners are brusque and unapologetic.
There's also little to challenge the H3 on when it comes to off-road hardware. Since it's based on the GM global compact truck platform that spawned the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon (and is built alongside those vehicles in Shreveport, Louisiana), the H3 sports a ladder frame with boxed members, which means it's no unibody wuss like a RAV4. The front suspension may be independent as God meant it to be, but the Hotchkiss rear is what gives the H3 its goat-like endurance on rocky non-roads. And to make sure the H3's more delicate innards survive the clamber to the top of some yet-unnamed pile of boulders, it wears a front skid plate, a steel plate over its oil pan, and shields over the transfer case and the fuel tank.
The H3 clambers around on standard four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case and a low-range gear for the trickiest off-road obstacles; the standard low-range ratio is 2.64:1, but a 4.03:1 ratio is available for the nutso off-roaders who will actually spend the cash on the H3 and risk denting its military-chic metal. All H3s sport a locking center differential and a locking rear differential can be had too, giving more options than the casual user will comprehend and less of the electronic decision-making that vehicles like the Land Rover LR3 offer up.
All this, plus the 9.1-inch ground clearance and available 33-inch knobbier tires give the H3 truly awesome off-roadability. HUMMER promises the H3 can ford two-foot-deep stream and climb a 16-inch vertical barrier, and it's tempting to test the H3's limits because it's so tractable off-road. Once you get used to the scraping noises generated as middle-sized rocks pass beneath, or as you slide from one boulder face to the next, it's easy to wonder why anyone truly interested in SUVs would choose anything less capable than this, or a Rubicon Jeep.
We strode large rocks through Arizona's Woodpecker Trail with barely a groan from the skid plates. And with the standard five-speed manual transmission, the H3 trundled over the boulders at idle like a tractor.
The tantalizing trail-riding talent built into the H3 makes its lackluster powertrain more tolerable. Under the hood, GM's in-line five-cylinder engine churns out 220 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque. The flaw here isn't smoothness, it's power. Hauling around the 4700-lb H3 is more than the 3.5-liter engine can hustle with authority. HUMMER says it takes 10.3 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph, about the equivalent of a Honda Element or Scion xB. However the H3 should be capable of 20 mpg, a huge leap forward from the H2's 11 mpg.
Still, it's surprising how usable the H3 feels in urban settings. On the streets of Phoenix, the H3's quick steering and relatively flat roadholding makes it more nimble than you'd ever expect, and a 37-foot turning circle lets it slip into parking spaces the H2 can only dream of. Stability control is available, as are curtain airbags. And the H3 will tow 4500 pounds, undoubtedly making it right-lane-only material but giving it useful creds when hauling boats to the lake - or fellow off-roaders out of the muck.
The interior is the nicest yet in a HUMMER, which isn't the backhanded compliment it seems to be. Cabin headroom soars, and rear-set legroom is fine. The front seats are supportive, but the rear bench is a low one, and dark too with the optional black interior. OnStar, leather trim, satellite radio, a DVD navigation system, and a CD changer are optional concessions to HUMMER's position as an upscale brand, as is the stylish metallic faceplate on the dash.
The H3 will be available with two optional packages - Adventure and Luxury. The Adventure Series includes key off-road performance equipment such as huge 33-inch tires, a 4:1 electronic transfer case, and locking rear differential. The Luxury Series includes amenities such as heated leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Adventure and Luxury series can be combined as well, for a truck offering the best of both worlds. Stand-alone options include the automatic, a huge sunroof, XM Satellite Radio, six-disc CD changer, and Monsoon speakers.
Now that gas prices finally have crunched down on the massive H2's sales, HUMMER needs the H3 to cross over to a new set of shoppers not so hung up on the roots of the brand but drawn instead to the H3's usability and rugged demeanor. GM execs are shying away from pegging H3 sales but indicate that anything less than 40,000 units a year will be a disappointment, both for its bean counters and its market soothsayers.
It should avoid that trouble, although it's hard to imagine crowds thronging for the H3 as they did for the H2 at its launch just a few short years ago. The H3 - like the Land Rover Freelander, Nissan Xterra, Toyota 4Runner, and somewhat like the Jeep Grand Cherokee - will appeal to those who like their SUVs with a strong shot of authenticity.
2006 HUMMER H3
Base price: $29,500
Engine: 3.5-liter in-line five, 220 hp/225 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, four-wheel drive with locking center differential; optional locking rear differential
Length x width x height: 186.7 x 85.5 x 74.5 inches
Wheelbase: 111.9 inches
Curb weight: 4700 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16/20 mpg (manual); 16/19 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, four-wheel drive, traction control
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, power door locks/windows/mirrors, air conditioning, rear defogger, OnStar
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles