Humming about the countryside


The H3 is characterized as a mid-sized SUV, which nominally competes with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, the Toyota FJ Cruiser, BMW X3, and Nissan Pathfinder. But that comparison is based more on price than function, since the Grand Cherokee, BMW and Pathfinder are designed for the highway, not the woods.

Special to the Guardian
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 3:49 p.m.

They call it the Hummer H3 Alpha and, according to the commercials, there is nothing like it on the planet.

Facts

HUMMER H3 ALPHA

MSRP: $42,220

EPA mileage: 13 mpg city, 16 mpg highway

Towing capacity: 5,900 pounds

Performance/safety: 5.3-Liter cast aluminum V-8 engine producing 300 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; 4-speed automatic transmission; independent front suspension; multi-leaf spring rear suspension; traction control; stability control; 4-wheel disc brakes; daytime running lamps; fog lamps; power rack & pinion steering; antilock brakes; dual frontal air bags; head curtain an side air bags; front and rear recovery hooks; 16-inch chrome wheels.

Interior/comfort: AM/FM/ XM satellite radio; navigation system; single-disc, in-dash CD player; Monsoon sound system with 7 speakers; OnStar communications; leather seats; powered, heated front seats with lumbar support; rear backup camera.

When the H3 was first introduced, the guys at General Motors billed it as an almost cuddly Baby Hummer with ads showing a grown-up Goldilocks driving away with the Baby Bearís ride.

They wanted to make the point that this was a comfortable, go-anywhere machine, one that rivaled Land Rover for interior comforts but still ran rings around it in the wilderness.

Cute ads, therefore, werenít quite enough. They did not showcase the off-road capabilities of the Hummer H3 which, in essence, is what a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon would become if it grew up and overdosed on Barry Bondsí steroids.

So Ed Welburn, the Howard University artist who is now in charge of all of GMís crayons, decided to upgrade the basic H3 to the new H3 Alpha by putting in a big, gas-drinking, 300-horsepower V-8 engine, slapping 33-inch tires onto its 16-inch chrome wheels, and turning it loose.

Not surprisingly, the H3 Alpha easily won the 1,200-mile 2007 Baja 1000 off-road stock car race through Mexico and earned Four Wheeler Magazineıs 2008 Off-Road Vehicle of the Year award.

Even with those credentials, however, it takes a while to get used to the capabilities of the Alpha. In Bear Mountain State Park, just south of West Point, the park rangers found an off-road playground that was a bit too rugged to be marked for a hiking trail. It was characterized by downed tree trunks, small boulders, gravel and potholes large enough to hide a Volkswagen Beetle.

None of this phased the Alpha, which climbed over rocks and tree trunks, plunged into depressions and powered its way back up without disturbing Coltraneís solo floating from the seven speakers in the Hummerís Monsoon surround-sound system.

The H3 also can roll through two feet of water, or ride across a 60-degree slope without falling over.

The H3 is characterized as a mid-sized SUV, which nominally competes with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, the Toyota FJ Cruiser, BMW X3, and Nissan Pathfinder. But that comparison is based more on price than function, since the Grand Cherokee, BMW and Pathfinder are designed for the highway, not the woods.

In reality, it competes with the Land Rover LR3 in terms of function, luxury and price and then, to a lesser degree, the youth-oriented FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra.

Head to head, you would have to compare the Hummer to the Land Rover ó two SUVs that can go anywhere, do anything, and look good enough to be parked in front of the fancier restaurants.

Outside, the Hummer is always identifiable as the civilian version of the military vehicle that is the staple of desert combat forces minus, of course, the machine gun mount.

At nearly 16 feet long and seven feet wide, it is not the easiest car to squeeze into urban parking spaces.

On the positive side, the Alpha has power adjustable, wide leather captainís chairs and both the padded bottom and back may be heated. There is enough head and leg room for five NFL players to take a comfortable cross-country trip. The Alpha also has an easy-to-use, satellite-based navigation system and XM radio.

There also is a backup camera that slides out of the rear-iew mirror, thus allowing you to look out of the front and rear simultaneously.

On the other hand, the Alpha has only a single-disc CD player. There are no fingertip audio controls and it lacks Bluetooth connectivity ó features you tend to expect in a car costing more than $40,000.

It does have OnStar, GMís satellite-based communications network that features live concierges and turn-by-turn navigation delivered in a robotic voice. In that regard, there are fewer amenities than one would find in a Land Rover, which resembles a mobile living room.

Out on the open road, the Hummerís wide stance turns it into a sport SUV capable of running with the Land Rover and BMW X3. It has traction and stability control, which combines with the flat stance to make a vehicle that simply does not roll over and gives equal bear hugs to smooth highways and winding mountain roads.

Which is a good thing. Most motorists will never use the type of off-road capabilities that are built into the H3 Alpha. But anyone who has ever been on a long drive understands what it is to gaze wistfully out the window at a beckoning, distant mountain range.

If they are driving an H3 Alpha, any time the horizon calls, they can just turn off the highway, and go.

Roger Witherspoon writes a syndicated automotive column from New Jersey. He may be reached at Roger6T6@aol.com.

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