Two days as a Tonka truck terrorist
February 8, 2008
Should an automobile necessarily be responsible for wholesale personality change? Or is it more the case that your automotive choice clearly reflects the kind of person you really are, deep inside, whether you know it or not?
Extrapolating this thesis, my suggestion would be that your typical Hummer H3 Alpha driver is a hyper-Type A personality: showy, brash, rugged, adventurous, just a little self-centered and, perhaps occasionally borderline psychotic. Top ranking corporate raider by day, exhibiting latent Batman fantasies at night.
And why do I say this? As luck would have it, I had just 36 hours to capture and encapsulate the H3 experience when travel took me out of town and the world’s most ominous looking, ultra-capable, rugged and bad-ass SUV was delivered but spent the whole weekend sitting behind my house, further convincing my neighbors that I am indeed somehow connected to the Medellin Cartel. I had to cram a lot of action into just a few hours behind the wheel when I got back.
What do you do with a bright orange (er, Solar Flare Metallic), 300-horsepower behemoth riding on 33-inch tires, sporting more testosterone than a 1980s Yankees training camp?
Like nearly everyone else with a Hummer, you’ll apparently spend most of your time driving around on the freeway and menacing other drivers, comfortable in the knowledge that, with the exception of slamming into a full-loaded gas tanker, you will be the winner in any collision.
I suspect it’s an excuse more than a few H3 drivers have made after getting stuck in traffic and deciding that they’d drive up over a four foot grassy median, cut through four lanes of oncoming traffic, and then made a bee-line across a nearby golf course in order to make it to work on time: Officer, the Hummer made me do it.
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The H3’s chrome grille and an exposed buttress with skid plates and tow hooks suitable for helping bring a cargo ship to shore seem uniquely suited for pushing slower, less animated drivers out of the way, if not squashing them like roaches. It’s just that kind of vehicle.
The sad part is that the on-tarmac craziness (even more pronounced among owners of the larger, absolutely awful-looking H2 or the totally cool but inconceivably gargantuan, Army issue H1) gives a very bad name to an automobile that, when placed in extremely challenging backcountry conditions, meets or exceeds Land Rover, Jeep’s Wrangler or the Toyota FJ Cruiser.
Granted, my 36 hours did not allow me a chance to drive to Moab, but an evening spent tooling around on the unpaved, absolutely vacant Platte River canyon roads west of Denver suggested to me that the H3 Alpha (featuring the aforementioned 300 HP 5.3 liter V8 and various performance upgrades, versus the standard 242-horse 3.7 liter I-5 shared with the Chevy Colorado truck) can indeed take care of business.
A full locking rear differential, multiple electronic four-wheel drive modes and more than nine inches of clearance (and some healthy approach, departure and breakover angles) mean that the 2006 International Truck of the Year will get you where you want to go in nearly any off-road situation.
How often will you be out on the slickrock, trying to make it up Wipe-Out Hill? Not nearly enough. Can the H3’s largess and bravado then be integrated in a more civil fashion into the regular motoring populace? It clearly takes a lot of restraint.
There are some in-built controls to total automotive domination/anarchy. First of all, despite its looks, the H3 is not really the size of a Wells Fargo armored truck. Curb weight is only 4,854 pounds ” a Volvo S80 sedan is heavier than that. It is tall (74 inches) and taller still with the off-road rubber, but still relatively easy to access, though you’ll need to limbo a bit over the functional body-mounted brush bars.
The V8 does make for some ominous sounding rumbling at start-up and you’ll get a hell of a roar and a kick when you take off under full throttle, but the big engine is mated to a very clunky, chunky four-speed automatic transmission, with an archaic-looking shifter, so by the time it hops into second gear, a lot of that initial, torquey grunt disappears.
Given the bouncy ride and the roamy stance, I eventually opted to drive like other dedicated off-roaders wearing oversized rubber: at or under the speed limit. A slightly ambitious sounding 16 mpg highway figure would also preclude too much high-speed cruising, unless you happen to own a refinery in Wyoming.
The H3’s biggest concession to self-restraint is the practicalities of limited vision, a side effect of its cubist-styled, shortened windows and the tail-mounted spare. This, the littlest Hummer, does indeed look exactly like a concept car from long-ago auto show and the resulting proportions are a little light on the upright glass – for those rare Hummer drivers who care at all about vehicles, buildings or anything else around them.
The B-pillars are also as thick as Manhattan phone books and require judicious use of the large side mirrors: The rear-view mirror itself is too large, but does feature a useful pop-out rearview camera, helpful for docking the Big Box.
Interior finishes are pure Tonka, by way of fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap: black, black and more black (leather and plastic) with the slight contrast of some matte-polish chrome. Air conditioning and radio controls are rendered as tiny rubber tires ” so cute ” and the Monsoon stereo and built-in XM satellite radio will keep the Hummer hoppin’.
Again, despite perceptions of largess, some of the proportions are not so huge. I found the space under the H3’s leather-wrapped steering wheel a bit cramped for legs and knees, and a tilt-only wheel didn’t help matters much. Contrary to regular GM style, however, gear position is actually indicated on the instrument panel, so that’s helpful.
In the ultimate of ironies, the nice young men who deliver the cars traded the H3 for a Suzuki SX4, perhaps the most miniscule and austere of automobiles on the road today. Suddenly, I kept a very careful eye out for the Type-As in their Hummers.
Price as tested: $42,170
Powertrain: 300-horsepower 5.3 liter V8 with four-speed automatic
Includes: 16-inch chrome wheels, 33 inch LT285/75R16 offroad tires, leather seating, seven-speaker
Monsoon stereo system, rear vision camera, electronic locking rear
differential and two-speed transfer case, trailer hitch, tuned shocks
EPA mileage: 13 city, 16 highway