I always thought you'd have to be dumber than a bag of hammers to buy a Hummer, the gas-guzzling behemoth that General Motors (GM) adapted from a military vehicle. So call me dumber than a bag of hammers. I'm giving a five-star rating to the new Hummer H3, the smaller, less expensive, and relatively environmentally friendly version. (To be exact, the base price is $29,500, and it runs 16 miles per gallon in the city and 19 on the highway.) Of course, it's a qualified five-star rating because Hummers -- even this one -- are niche products that aren't for most people.
Let me explain. The new Hummer is a wonderful vehicle for people who live in the rural snowbelt and urbanites who regularly venture into snowy areas for ski weekends or snow-shoeing or to drink fine cognac by the fire in their mountain cottage. It's especially good for families with young kids who want to feel safe, secure, and in-control in inclement weather. You can go anywhere in the Hummer H3 (believe me, I did). With GM's Onstar service (which puts you in touch with an operator at the push of a button) and satellite radio (with its many local weather reports), there aren't many emergencies you couldn't handle.
SHARED CHASSIS. To me, it's an ideal second vehicle for someone with a smaller car that gets better mileage. A lot of shoppers seem to agree: Hummer sales overall have soared 90% this year through November, to 48,648. Of that number, 56% (more than 27,000) are the new H3s. Unfortunately for GM, the H2's sales have fallen 16%, to 21,104 -- about the same fall-off suffered by other big GM SUVs, such as the Yukon.
One reason for the success of the H3, which shares a chassis with GM's Colorado pickup truck, is that it costs a lot less than the H2, which starts at $53,855. My loaner H3 listed for just $33,335. That included the optional automatic transmission with stability control, a $1,695 option, as well as such standard equipment as power windows, mirrors, and door locks, a six-speaker sound system, air conditioning, traction control, 32-inch Goodyear all-terrain tires, and one free year of Onstar service.
The test car had cloth seats, but you can upgrade to leather upholstery, power-adjustable seats, and MP3-compatible sound for $3,230. An off-road package with a special transfer case and suspension goes for $1,175. Other options include a power sunroof for $950, XM satellite radio ($350), and an engine block heater ($50) for especially cold climes.
VANISHING CARS. What the Hummer isn't good for is urban driving. It's a little like cruising around in a small Brink's truck. The hood is wide, high off the ground, and hard to see over. The cabin's roof extends way out in front of the driver, so you often have to lean forward to see overhead stoplights. Side visibility isn't great, either, because you're up high and the windows aren't very big.
How does that play out on the city street? Forget about parallel parking. I drove my test H3 around Montreal, home to lots of compact cars, and found that small cars completely disappear when they're close to the Hummer's rear. You'd have to get out and guesstimate when backing into a parking space. Also, the H3 may be 17 inches shorter and 6.5 inches narrower than the H2, but it's still huge.
Outside the city, though, the H3 is a blast. I picked up my test car up in New Jersey, brought it home to rural Pennsylvania, and woke up to discover that a foot of snow had fallen. I took the Hummer out and headed into every unplowed road I could find. I headed off-road down a steep slope into a river basin and onto a logging-style dirt path.
One night with my neighbor Ken Cole, who owns an H2, I took it up a steep gravel road into the forest in a foot of snow. At one point I backed it half into a ditch with half the rear bumper leaning against a boulder -- in a foot of snow. I never would have dared doing any of these things in my Ford Explorer.
HOW TO CLIMB STEPS. In the Hummer, I never had the slightest fear of getting stuck. The H3 has nine inches of ground clearance, only slightly less than the H2, and the big tires really grip. Let's be clear, for hard-core off-roaders who want to climb over big logs and boulders, this isn't the vehicle of choice, It's not as rugged as the H2.
But it's the only family wagon I've encountered with an owner's manual that includes instructions for climbing 16-inch steps, and GM claims it can ford a 16-inch-deep stream at 20 mph. For average drivers who want a rougher and readier alternative to an SUV, it's perfect.
The H3 has a fair amount of storage space behind the rear seats, which fold down for added space. But legroom is limited in back. I took my neighbor Fred Ostrick, a retired New York fireman, out for a spin with his brother Joe sitting behind him. These are two tall, plus-size guys, and they were really crammed. The H2 is supposed to accommodate five passengers, but four adults -- or two adults and three kids -- is more realistic.
IT'S NO LEXUS. I also did nearly 1,000 miles of highway driving with the H3 and found it a surprisingly comfortable cruiser. I was struck by what a normal vehicle it is -- not all that different from a big SUV. It's no Lexus, but the ride is smooth, and the big, bulky seats are reasonably comfortable. The interior and controls are utilitarian but clean in their design.
Critics of the H3 gripe that its 3.5-liter, 220-horsepower inline five-cylinder engine isn't powerful enough, but I disagree. The H3 cruises along easily at 70 miles per hour and will accelerate from 0 to 60 in about 9 seconds by my count, which is slow but adequate. This isn't supposed to be a Ferrari.
What the H3 shows me is this: GM may be in deep financial trouble, but it isn't giving up. The H3, which is built in Louisiana, is one of a string of great new models pouring out of the company these days. If you need a rugged vehicle with decent road manners that won't break the bank, check it out.