Saturday, July 19, 2003

Hummer an SUV writ large

Hummer H2

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
3 wheels1/2 wheel
SUV with 'tude.

What I drove: 2003 Hummer H2, six-passenger SUV

Base price: $48,455

Price as tested: $53,620 (including destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: Air suspension, six-disc in-dash CD changer, leather seats (heated front and rear), third-row seat, assist steps, wrap-around brush guard, tail-lamp protectors.

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, full-time 4-wheel drive

Engine: 6-liter V8 producing 316 horsepower and 360 lb-ft torque

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 122.8 inches

Length: 189.8 inches

Width: 81.2 inches

Height: 79.2 inches (coil suspension), 78.5 inches (air suspension)

Weight: 6,400 pounds

Ground clearance: 10 inches

EPA mpg, city/highway: Exempt from EPA mileage reporting. It averaged 9.5 mpg when I had it.

Warranty: Basic: three years/ 36,000 miles; roadside assistance: three years/36,000 miles

Safety: Anti-lock brakes, traction control, daytime running lights, dual front airbags (with passenger airbag turnoff switch), LATCH child seat system.

Cool: Nice engine, incredible off-road performance, throne-height seating, OnStar system

Uncool: Gas guzzler, tight cargo space, tanklike handling. Poor rating in J.D. Powers and Associates' 2003 Initial Quality Study.

Accolades: Honorable mention as editors' "Most Wanted Large SUV over $45,000"

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Car Talk
We have Arnold Schwarzenegger to thank for the Hummer H2. After all, it was his roaring around Hollywood in an original Hummer that made the Hummer H1 (as it's now called) the trendy ride of choice among the glitterati set.

The popularity of the H1 convinced GM to buy the Hummer nameplate from AM General in 1999 and develop a more user-friendly and affordable Hummer for the masses: the H2.

Compared with the $100,000 Hummer H1 - which is ungainly, uncomfortable and appeals to a few rich boys - the $50,000 H2 is easier to maneuver, has a more civilized interior and seats up to six passengers (the H1 seats four). The "civilized" Hummer appeals to men and women alike.

The H2's appeal lies largely in its looks. With its slab-sided body, bunker-like windows and chrome louvered grill, the H2 is clearly an SUV with 'tude. It looks like a Hummer.

It's all about BIG

This is my second test drive in an H2. Last fall I drove a bright yellow H2, and this year I tested a Pewter Metallic H2.

My sister and her 8-year-old were visiting when I took delivery of the yellow H2, which wasn't equipped with assist steps. We were going to a fancy party and found that climbing into the H2 while wearing a dress is an adventure in itself. Not pretty. (I have pictures to prove it.)

The first time I perched in the driver's seat, I felt like a kid playing in my parents' car. Everything is super-sized: the aircraft-style shift lever, the Dolly Parton-esque AC vents, the Paul Bunyon-size door handles - even the expansive console between the driver and front-seat passenger (no kissing possible here).

The H2 has all the luxuries of a civilian sport-ute: dual-zone climate controls, Bose nine-speaker sound system, six power outlets, OnStar telematics, and power-adjustable and heated leather seats.

It's got all the right components, but low-quality plastic gives the cockpit a down-market feel. My tester's dashboard was the metal-flake gray of a bass fishing boat.

The kids don't mind; they love the H2. For one week last fall I was the coolest mom, dropping my 8-year-old off at school. The H2's even got a passenger airbag turn-off switch, so one lucky kid can ride up front.

Kids sequestered in the second row get their own cup holders, seat-heaters, audio controls, headphone jacks and power outlets. For some reason, kids actually like riding in the optional single-place third-row seat, which sits right next to a full-size spare tire. The third seat and giant spare eat up a lot of luggage room. (Most buyers opt for the $1,500 rear-mounted, swing-away tire carrier.)

Even with the spare tire and third seat removed, the H2 is surprisingly stingy on cargo room. While it's about the size of a Chevy Tahoe, the H2 seats only six and can haul no more than 86.6 cubic feet of stuff. The Tahoe seats eight and has 105 cubic feet of cargo space.

Driving the beast

"It's like a school bus!" exclaimed my daughter from the back seat one day.

The "Baby Hummer" drives and handles like a super-sized SUV, which is to say, like a tank. It corners better than a bowl of Jell-O, but it never let's you forget it's a 6,400-pound leviathan that needs to be treated with kid gloves.

Steering feel is vague and road feel is remote, which is understandable in a vehicle wearing 35-inch, all-terrain tires. Braking is excellent, though, as we discovered during a few panicky stops.

The H2's small windows, large pillars, high front end and large spare tire severely restrict outward visibility.

The H2's immense girth - part of its charm - becomes a nuisance in the city. At first, it's fun because everyone looks at you, but it doesn't take long for the novelty to wear off. Sometimes you don't want people looking at you, and other times you don't feel like wrestling a heavy truck just to run to the store for a quart of milk. During one such errand I spent 10 minutes stuck behind a garbage truck because the H2 was too wide to pass.

The thing I like most about the H2 is the deep and rumbly note of the Vortec 6000 6-liter V8 engine, which generates 316 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 360 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It's not fast off the line, but feels strong and capable.

It felt great to finally get the H2 on the freeway, where I could let the thing run wide open like a horse. Wind noise is significant at speed, because of the flat windshield, which gives the H2 the aerodynamics of a shoebox.

It's a shoebox with a serious drinking problem. The steering-wheel-mounted fuel computer tells me I'm averaging 9.5 miles per gallon this week. I can practically see the fuel needle descend when I step on the gas. Good thing the H2 has a 32-gallon tank.

Off-road warrior

Yes, the H2 can drink any SUV under the table. It can also outperform them off-road.

My H2 dirt-driving initiation took place in an off-road park in Hollister, Calif. GM staged the event to give members of the automotive press first-hand experience with the H2's rugged off-road capabilities. With a Hummer engineer in the passenger seat, I maneuvered an H2 slowly up and down steep hills, through deep ditches and over craggy gullies and rocks.

Short front and rear overhangs give the giant sport-ute steep angles of approach and departure. For those unfamiliar with off-roading, this means the H2 can ascend and descend steep hills and gullies and bound through potholes without destroying the bodywork.

The H2 has 10 inches of ground clearance (12 with the optional air suspension) and great wheel articulation, enabling it to crawl over obstacles with precise control and few body scrapes. Its underbelly is plated, caged and armored against nasty rocks and stumps.

The H2's full-time 4x4 system has five settings, including 4 Hi for normal everyday driving and 4 Hi Locked for improved traction on slippery roads. Off-roaders will appreciate H2's 4 Lo Locked, which enables the vehicle to crawl steadily along, scaling or descending steep slopes at a slow, grinding pace, with little input on the brakes during downhill plunges.

The H2 is a wonderful off-road tool, but most owners will use it as a fashion accessory (Hummer estimates that only 5 percent of owners use their vehicle off-road).

If you buy the H2 as a daily driver, you'll probably be disappointed. It's stingy on cargo space, unwieldy in town, hard to climb into, and guzzles gas at an alarming rate. On the other hand, if you buy the H2 as fashion accessory - a third vehicle to pull out for special occasions - you'll probably be happy.

Contact Carol Traeger by e-mail at

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