Hummer H3 polishes your image in a size you can live with

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When we drove the original Hummer a few years ago we got stares at every stoplight. We were questioned in parking lots. We even were followed into a driveway where we had pulled in to visit a relative.

That vehicle, similar to the one that patrols the streets of Baghdad, is now called H1 in the new General Motors/AM General parlance.

AM General still builds the original — with a price tag well into six figures — as well as the military version.

GM saw a money maker and in 1999 bought the rights to Hummer and developed the H2, a slightly smaller – it lost a tad more than 10-percent in size – and more user friendly version of the H1 built on a Chevrolet Tahoe platform. During a couple stints behind the wheel of the H2 over the past 24 months, we found that it elicited almost as many stares and questions as the bigger Hummer, probably because standing alone it looks like a H1 twin.

To squeeze even more mileage out of the popular Hummer profile, GM has introduced an even smaller version for 2006 called the H3. It’s based on the new mid-sized Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon truck platform but retains the same macho profile that Hummer lovers love.

But it is maneuverable, turns in a tight 37-foot circle, offers a smooth ride and features predictable handling. And it has incredible off-road capabilities for those few people who actually spend weekends climbing and wading in places off limits to most vehicles.

While this smallest Hummer is by far the most practical of the three and certainly more fuel efficient, it will still put a hurting on your pocketbook at the gas pumps. Fuel efficiency in this case is relative. The H3 will definitely yield better mileage figures than the H1 or H2.

Even with GM’s modern 5-cylinder engine, the H3 — with a 4-speed automatic transmission — is rated at only 16 miles per gallon city and 19-mpg on the highway. And in real-world conditions expect more in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 miles to the gallon on the highway. If you should break into double digits in town, congratulations.

We were a bit chagrined that we didn’t keep track of the actual mileage during our test week because the gas gauge moved from left to right at an alarming pace.

But if you are determined — the price of gas be damned — to purchase a mid-sized sport utility that offers a pleasant ride on pavement, the ability to go anywhere off pavement, and a macho image, by all means put the H3 on your short list, which might also include the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder along with some smaller SUV brands.

The H3 is a rather endearing vehicle, with enough power to make it reasonably proficient in most driving situations. It has decent low-end torque to make it feel aggressive in stop-and-go driving and just enough horsepower to allow for seamless merges in high-speed traffic.

The 3.5-liter engine develops 220 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque, which in many applications would provide exhilarating performance. But as the engine mounted in the H3 that is asked to pull nearly 5,000 pounds, it’s a tall order. For comparison purposes, the H3 has been measured from 0 to 60 in a leisurely 10.2 seconds by one publication and 11.1 by another.

A six cylinder — perhaps the inline 6 found in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer — or a turbocharged version of the 5-cylinder would have yielded more satisfying performance, but gas mileage, such as it is, would have been sacrificed.

The H3 setup is useable providing a towing capacity of 4,500 pounds; good for most weekend chores including pulling a boat.

We like the look and feel of the H3. It offers the macho styling of its bigger siblings, yet is much easier to maneuver even in tight parking lot situations. Steering is responsive. The H3 can not only be effortlessly guided down the road in a straight line, but enter your favorite stretch of curves and you will find the H3 stable without a lot of sport utility lean.

General Motors likes to tout the H3’s off-road capabilities, which are enormous, according to journalists who have experienced the truck off road. So tout they should.

Included is a sophisticated 4-wheel drive system. Under normal conditions, the Hummer’s full-time all-wheel drive splits the power to the front and rear 40/60 giving it its solid rear wheel bias. Put it in 4-wheel drive mode and the torque is distributed 50-50. An electronically controlled low range is standard.

If you add the Adventure Package option, you will get a super-low range that allows for crawling over rocks at 1.7 miles per hour.

Note that the H3 can be purchased with a manual transmission, something that may interest serious off-roaders, although we have always been more comfortable with an automatic while doing reckless traversing of the landscape. But then again most people don’t think we are serious about anything.

The problem is that the H3’s rather substantial price reflects the cost of its off-road equipment. And off-road equipment is not needed for 95 percent of the people who will buy the H3.

Base price of the Hummer is $29,500. Our test vehicle, which included the Adventure Package for $1,025 and an automatic transmission with stability control at $1,695, was priced at $34,264.

Other options are available that can push the price of an optioned-out H3 upwards of $40,000.

Inside, the Hummer delivers an upscale ambiance with a handsome looking cockpit, good seats, and switchgear that is intuitive and generally easy to use. The stereo has tuning knobs, still the best way to adjust a radio, and the climate control settings are accomplished by three rotary dials.

Figure on seating for just four adults. Like most vehicles this size, the middle place in back is uninhabitable. But for four, comfort can be achieved.

The “pillbox” side windows, a necessary design quirk to get the Hummer look, may cause claustrophobic reactions in some people. Make sure you do an extended test drive to determine if you can live in the H3 on a daily basis. The slit-like windows didn’t bother us, and we had no visibility complaints.

When hauling cargo is the order of the day, the seats can be folded to yield a load floor covered in a hard plastic that should be easy to clean. Cargo capacity with the seats up is 29 cubic feet, and 56 cubic feet with the seats folded. That’s comparable to a small sport utility.

Two mid-sized vehicles that General Motors calls competitors — the Grand Cherokee and Pathfinder — have cargo volumes of 71 and 79 cubic feet respectively.

We like the H3 for its on-road demeanor. And we believe those who say its off-road prowess is considerable. But interior volume is not as good as its competitors and performance is average at best.

You will end up paying extra for image (it has a great one). And if image is a priority, then the H3 is an excellent choice.