There's a new reason to love-or hate-Hummer.
For 2008, the maker of brutish, military-styled sport-utility vehicles is offering a powerful V8 for its smallest and best-selling model, the 5-passenger H3 SUV.
For Hummer fans, the addition of the 5.3-liter, small-block V8 to the lineup brings a hearty and pleasing 300 horsepower and 320 lb-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm-more power than ever before-to the midsize H3.
Indeed, along with the new powerplant, Hummer brings back for 2008 its "Alpha" label to highlight that this top H3 with V8 is a performance model.
No doubt this won't please environmentalists who already consider any Hummer, whether it uses the base, 242-horsepower 5-cylinder or new, 8-cylinder engine, a poster vehicle for gas-guzzlers.
But shoppers seeking a distinctive and capable SUV should put the H3 on the test-drive list.
Hefty price tag with V8
Just be aware that the newest model, the Alpha, is pricey.
With standard 4-speed automatic transmission, leather seat trim, shiny, chrome-covered, exterior accents and power front seats, the Alpha's starting manufacturer's suggested retail price is more than $38,600.
This is some $8,500 more than the starting retail price for a base, 2008 H3 with 3.7-liter, inline, 5-cylinder engine and manual transmission. And the base H3's starting price of around $30,000 is more than many competitors'.
It's true that all H3s come with standard 4-wheel drive. But there are several off-road-ready, midsize SUVs with lower starting retail prices and more powerful engines that have at least 6 cylinders, not the 5 of the base H3.
An example: The 2008 Nissan Xterra, which has a starting retail price of around $22,000 with 261-horsepower V6, manual transmission and 4-wheel drive.
Another example is the 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is offered with two V8s providing higher performance numbers than the new small block in the H3.
Yet, even the top Grand Cherokee with 330-horsepower, 5.7-liter HEMI V8 providing a whopping 375 lb-ft of torque has a starting price about on par with the H3 Alpha.
So, it's fair to say both "regular" H3s and the H3 Alpha are premium priced for the segment.
But then, what other midsize SUV is so palpably and visually tied to modern-day military duties and offers such an arresting image?
Environmentalists correct on one issue
Let me get one thing out of the way. None of these midsize, off-road-ready vehicles have great fuel economy.
The federal government fuel economy rating for the 2008 H3 Alpha is only 13 miles per gallon in city driving and 16 mpg on the highway. This is akin to the mileage of a large, four-wheel-drive, pickup truck like the Chevrolet Silverado and is just a bit worse than the 13/18-mpg rating of a 2008 Grand Cherokee fitted with 330-horsepower, 5.7-liter V8 and all-wheel drive.
But the truth is, even lesser H3s with 5-cylinder engine gulp down the gas, in large part because of the H3's overall weight. The best government rating for a 2008 H3 with five-cylinder engine and automatic transmission is a mere 14/18 mpg for a manual transmission model.
At least the H3-all models including the H3 Alpha-requires only regular gasoline, not costly premium.
Commendable new engine
The new H3 engine is a version of the capable V8 that's in the Silverado.
It makes the H3 seem sprightly and energetic, even on hilly mountain roads and at higher altitudes.
In fact, the test H3 Alpha got up to speed swiftly, with confident, pleasing engine sounds all through the acceleration, which, by the way, is estimated at a commendable 8 seconds for 0 to 60 miles an hour.
Yet, in city traffic, the V8 idled smoothly, the transmission moved through the gears virtually imperceptibly, and the vehicle merged and traveled with other vehicles easily.
I liked that I could easily modulate the power via the gas pedal, and I found the engine response so noteworthy, it made earlier test drives of the H3 with 5 cylinder seem a bit lacking.
The 5 cylinder stressed some at high altitudes and during some highway passes.
Towing capacity with the H3 Alpha is 6,000 pounds, up from 4,500 pounds with a non-Alpha H3.
Good off-road manners
Off-road, the newfound power in the H3 Alpha doesn't make the vehicle some uncontrolled, off-road racer.
Instead, while the H3 Alpha can move through terrain in a zippy, unperturbed manner in high gear, the vehicle's available low gearing provides the right slow-speed, deliberate "crawl mode" over rocks and treacherous ground that off-roaders demand.
Because off-roading can put the vehicle in awkward positions, engineers installed a special oil pan so the V8 always has oil pressure, regardless of the kind of steep grade the vehicle is driven on.
Other changes involve frame modifications so the V8 could fit under the hood, new engine mounts to support the heavier engine and new suspension tuning.
And, as always, the H3 with 5-cylinder engine performs admirably off-road, too.
But what is surprising is how nicely the test H3-even with optional off-road suspension-rode on pavement. The ride was smooth and comfortable, with truckish motions coming through only on big abrupt bumps.
I did hear road noise and wind noise, though not as much as I expected.
And, of course, driver and passengers get great views out in front and to the sides of the H3.
Everyone must climb up a good bit to get inside this tall-riding vehicle which has a minimum ground clearance of at least 8.5 inches.
Odds and ends
I suggest getting a rearview monitor to help a driver see what's behind the H3 as the vehicle backs up. Otherwise, it's impossible to see what's back there from the front seat.
Note that Hummer sells a nifty rearview monitor that slides out stealthily from the right side of the rearview mirror when the vehicle is put into reverse. This monitor-just a few inches square-displays what a camera detects aft of the tailgate.
Also not to be missed is the tidy turning circle of the H3. It's just 37 feet, which is akin to that of some compact cars and makes for stress-free U-turns.
But at 85.5 inches wide, the H3 is a tad wider than a Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner and thus, sometimes needs a tad more room between obstacles on off-road trails.
The rear license plate on the H3 can get dented and pushed up under the rear of the vehicle during off-road maneuvers.
Thank goodness Hummer now includes curtain airbags as standard equipment on the H3. They had been optional on 2007 models.
Other standard safety features on the H3 Alpha include electronic stability control and traction control.
The H3 earned top, five-out-of-five stars for front- and back-seat passenger protection in side crashes. It received five out of five stars for driver protection and four out of five stars for passenger protection in frontal crash tests.