More Sport, Less Utility

The Hummer SUV is macho, all right, but it falls short where other SUVs excel

General Motors' (GM ) all-new Hummer H2 is the ultimate sport-utility vehicle. The more urbane follow-up to the militaristic H1, the H2 chugs fuel and hogs the road. It also plays up the rough-and-tumble SUV image: The thing is capable of rolling over terrain that even most army recruits will never see.

I spent an entire day driving the H2 on an off-road course outside South Bend, Ind., where military contractor AM General builds both Hummers for GM. Before that, I tooled around Detroit highways in a fire-engine-red H1, a street-legal version of the army's Humvee assault truck. The H2, with its $48,800 base price, is much more drivable than the $113,000 H1 and far more distinctive than the copycat SUVs on the road. GM hopes to sell 40,000 of the H2s a year, vs. only 770 for the full-blown H1. But the "baby hummer" strikes out where other big SUVs excel. It seats just six instead of eight or nine, and it has virtually no storage space despite its corpulent frame.

The H2 is at its best driving through the deep woods--where GM estimates that only 10% of its image-conscious buyers will go. At the AM General course, I drove up a steep hill. Despite an eerie feeling that the H2 would backflip, it clawed the dirt and kept powering upward. I hit the crest and immediately rolled down a 60-degree gully, riding the brakes until the H2's fat tires splashed down in the mud at the bottom. At this point, I was staring through the windshield straight down and couldn't see anything but the floor of the soupy trail. Then I tapped the accelerator and my vehicle slowly inched up and out of the steep ditch. In seconds, my view changed from the bottom of a ditch to a patch of blue sky between boughs of tall oaks. Neither end of the H2 hit the ground.

To test the H1 and H2, AM General runs its SUVs over huge, jagged rocks. For the H1, whose carriage clears 16 inches, it's a cinch. The vehicle's essential hardware, such as the transmission and axles, is tucked up high in the truck, taking up the space between the seats. The H2, with just 10 inches of ground clearance, has a steel plate bolted on the belly of the truck to shield it during off-road driving. I inched the H2 along the rocks, wincing at the nail-on-blackboard screech of the steel plate scraping the ground. But the H2 continued on without damage.

For all of its brawn, the H2 is surprisingly smooth on the highway. I drove it a couple of hours from Chicago to South Bend, getting all kinds of surprised looks from other drivers, most of whom probably have never seen an SUV like the H2. The ride is quiet, too. I could carry on a conversation easily with the other passengers. I navigated morning traffic in Chicago and found the truck no more difficult to park or maneuver than any large SUV. The reason: It's almost 7 feet wide and 16 feet long, but it's still 9 inches shorter than a Chevrolet Tahoe and 15 inches shorter than Ford's new Expedition. Still, don't try to make a tight U-turn in this truck. With the wheels pushed to the corners, the H2 needs even more space to turn than GM's long Chevrolet Suburban.

The truck is comfortable. Since the H2 uses 40% of the parts from GM's Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs, it rides on the road like any other people-hauler. The H2 sits a couple of inches higher than a Tahoe, and driving it feels very commanding. The truck is generations beyond the H1, which nearly deafens drivers with the loud hum of the tires and the clatter of its huge diesel engine. The H2 has great brakes, too, that stop its 6,400 lb. easily. The H1 also stops well, but the 7,100-lb. truck actually rocks front to back on its loose suspension for a few seconds after stopping.

The H2 interior is a real letdown. While GM managed to keep the outside looking like the original H1, inside it lacks the one truly cool thing about the H1--its military gauges and authentic Army-truck feel. For instance, in the H1, you get big, durable switches that let the driver toggle over to the reserve fuel tank or adjust the tire inflation for highway or trail driving. The H2 has a manual pump in the rear to inflate or deflate the tires, but it's an accessory, not a gadget controlled from the cockpit. The H2's controls use the same cheap plastic knobs, buttons, and trim that GM incorporates into its other SUVs. The round, softball-size vents in the dashboard, for instance, are straight out of the $22,000 Pontiac Aztek. The leather seats, however, are plush, just like a Yukon or a Cadillac Escalade.

Considering that the H2 is pitched to compete with big SUVs, there's not much utility to it. The truck's 35-inch tires are so big that the spare takes up almost all of the space behind the second row of seats, save one small seat for a sixth passenger. Measured in cubic feet, the H2 has half the Tahoe's cargo volume.

It can't tow as much, either. Despite its 6-liter V-8 engine, the 316-horsepower H2 loses to the Tahoe when it comes to pulling a trailer. That's mostly because the hardware that makes it an off-road star--such as the steel plate beneath the truck--also makes it 1,400 pounds heavier than ordinary full-size SUVs. So the H2 spends a lot of energy just pulling its own weight--getting 12 miles per gallon at best.

So why buy it? The H2's boxy, tough profile makes the vehicle stand out from the SUV crowd. Like the H1, it has a fearsome grille, and the front windshield is almost completely vertical, giving it a military presence. Arnold Schwarzenegger drives an H1 and has offered to buy the first H2 that rolls off the assembly line. "Don't call it the baby hummer," Arnold warns in a promotional video. "You'll make it angry."

In other words, the H2 is all about feeling tough. Where the H1 is like a "No Fear" window sticker for people with lots of money, the H2 makes a masculine style statement but with a lot more comfort. Just don't expect it to be the family hauler your Chevrolet Suburban is.

By David Welch

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