Sometimes, being at the right place at the right time is all that matters. GM is hoping it's captured that magic sense of place and time in the all-new Hummer H2. And it's going to great lengths to prove it. Less than two years ago, AM General (the maker of original military Hummer vehicles) and General Motors entered into a partnership that allows GM to use the "Hummer" name for an upcoming product. That product is here, and it represents the next step in the nameplate's evolution.

"We knew this [vehicle] would have to be the real deal. No pretending here," says Assistant Vehicle Line Executive Ken Lindensmith. "Staying true to the heritage, giving it ultimate capabilities, and still making it look like nothing else on the road-that's what we have to do." "It" is the Hummer H2. We caught up with the H2 development team on the Rubicon Trail, just outside Lake Tahoe in California, where we got our first taste of what could be the strongest SUV around.

It's safe to say the creation of this rough and tumble off-roader is without precedent. In fact, the way the H2 team was organized and allowed to operate is something of an experiment that could determine how future GM products are designed and created for years to come. The group was given considerable independence from traditional engineer/ design-by-committee methods.

Stemming from the GMT 800 Tahoe/Yukon platform, the new H2 had to incorporate some amount of the original military Hummer's DNA: squared-off hood and side-door body panels, squatted windows and flat glass surfaces, impressive approach and departure angles, and flip-forward hood to name a few. Other H1 design cues include heavy-duty front and rear tow loops, round headlights, and a seven-slotted front grille.

For power, the design team selected GM's powerful Vortec 6000 V-8, rated at 325 hp in this installation. It's mated to a beefed-up version of the 4L60-E (now called the 4L65-E) four-speed automatic transmission, then backed by a sophisticated full-time Borg-Warner transfer case with a stout low-range gear.

The H2's underpinnings are significantly different from those found beneath a stock Tahoe. In fact, the front third of the new Hummer is all 34-ton Suburban: driveshaft, axle, frame, suspension, brakes, A-arms, etc. Out back, the H2 also uses the same 2500 Suburban (14-bolt) solid rear axle and offers a choice of an adjustable, load-leveling air-suspension system or a more traditional coil spring/five-link setup. We're told all H2s will get monotube shocks, but final valving is yet to be determined.

Even though H2 team engineers know most drivers won't get anywhere near its limits, they knew their four-wheel-drive system had to be one of the most competent sold in the U.S. Besides the aforementioned transfer case, the H2 will have a selectable locking rear differential, dual-mode four-wheel traction-control system (for high and low speeds), and a progressive throttle program that makes the truck more controllable when driving in low range. And at the outer edges, huge 32-in. (standard) or 34-in. (optional) tires put all that tractive force to the ground. It's worth mentioning that a robust air compressor is included as part of the airbag suspension option, perfect for filling up those inflatable boats and mountain-bike tires.

From a style and comfort standpoint, the original Hummer's interior is appliance-like at best-and an ergonomic nightmare. The H2, being an all-new rig designed for consumer use from the get-go, is worlds better in just about every way. Engineers reclaimed several inches of additional width by reworking the wheel offsets. That translates to more interior width, which is quite noticeable with what seems like much more hip and shoulder room than anything in its class (and we're not yet quite sure what that is!).

Dash and gauges are clearly General Motors, with a center console stack that includes a new radio/six-disc CD changer, A/C, its new hands-free phone, and On-Star setup; a nav system will follow soon. We believe six-way-adjustable seating will be standard, possibly with a rear-area bucket-seat option. Finally (and amazingly), even with a vehicle this large, the only place to put the full-size spare was inside, which takes away a significant portion of overall cargo capacity.

While the SUVs participating in this Rubicon adventure were very early prototypes, it's our guess the suspension systems are close to final spec. They performed quite well, both on pavement and during extreme rock crawling. Monotube shocks and 3/4-ton anti-roll bars kept things in check through the mountain passes (6000 ft at 55 mph). We preferred the air-ride system for its versatility, offering both "kneeling" and "extending" modes for short passengers or uneven terrain. That said, we found the pressures a little stiff when the landscape turned from dirt road to broken and chunked granite. These mule vehicles used a variable-ratio steering box, a touch faster than we'd like, but precise and comfortable for a vehicle this big. Several engineers made similar comments to us, so we suspect a different ratio is in the works.

Although much of our time was spent at slower speeds, brake control always felt confident, however steep our climbs or descents. The big four-wheel discs with dual piston calipers should be plenty capable of handling full 8600-lb GVW loads. Likewise, the Vortec 6000 V-8 seems right home in the H2, providing good low-end torque off the line, with adequate upper-end horsepower for passing and pulling up grades.

With still more concentrated testing and experimentation ahead of them, the '03 Hummers are on course for a summer/fall 2002 on-sale date through an estimated 125 dealers. That's about double the number that exist today. GM estimates it'll produce between 30,000 and 40,000 units in the first year, though it's hard to gauge what true demand will be, as there's little else in the way of direct competitors.

Today, just being in the right place at the right time isn't enough; having the right product is key. From what we've seen, the H2 looks good and appears to have the right off-road stuff, too. Now we'll have to wait and see if buyers want another Hummer. Our guess: If GM can keep the price reasonable, this could be bigger than anyone ever imagined.

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