Modern chariot of the military, the AM General HMMWV has become a mechanical symbol of freedom. The mere sight of one conjures patriotic spirit and forces a smile. Designed in the late 1970s to extreme performance specifications that would daunt even NASA engineers, it's the Humvee's unrivaled capabilities and unmistakable appearance that have transformed the mighty vehicle into a respected off-road icon.

In a rare case of military-commissioned hardware becoming available to the public, the civilian Hummer started selling in small numbers in 1992. While some packaging elements were softened for real-world use, the hardware that made the Hummer special remained intact. This is historically fitting coming from AM General, a company whose roots stretch back to Willys-Overland and the production of the original "Jeep" during WWII.

Through the years, we've evaluated the Hummer in the harshest conditions available, ranging from Death Valley Torture Tests to running the AM General's Indiana proving grounds. In these brutal environs, the Hummer's abilities never cease to amaze. At AM General, we've run the gamut, putting the Hummer through military-grade tests: scaling a 22-inch vertical wall, traversing a 40-degree side slope, climbing 60-degree grades, and fording 30 inches of water. Perhaps being built to have a 15-year service life in the hands of 18-year-old drivers is the most impressive spec of all.

Without question, its off-road credentials are impressive, but how does the Hummer do in suburbia? Representing the extreme end of the vehicle spectrum, with a Ferrari F60 at the other, compromises are assumed with the Hummer. It is a massive 7154-pound vehicle that measures 101 inches across at the mirrors, requiring it to be driven more like a large commercial vehicle than nimble sport/cute. But for the driver who can appreciate the heritage and abilities, the abundant compromises can lend a certain novel charm.

Ingress requires at least average-length legs and certain spryness; it's necessary to step over a large sill that gives the long body essential structure. Inside, all passengers find themselves cocooned in tight chambers despite a living-room-sized interior. It is hard to believe a battle-dressed soldier would have adequate space. A wide central section accommodates the high-mounted engine and transmission, a design feature critical to the 16-inch ground clearance. The seats are basic 1980s-era buckets with limited adjustments, though they are downright cushy compared the punishing pews the mil-spec Humvee uses. Likewise, the dash and its accompanied switchgear appears kit-car crude, but again is quite full-featured compared to the Spartan military models. Fire up the 6.5-liter turbodiesel V-8 and the truck chugs like a Freightliner, ensuring the neighbors can easily track its comings and goings. Visibility is hampered by the short vertical glass and towering ride height. Backing out of the driveway requires a mirror triple-check, due to a significant blind corner on the driver's side.

Once on the road, the Hummer feels large and ponderous. Its 195 horsepower work to get the rig up to speed, with glacial throttle response. Passing maneuvers are feasible but they must be strategized. Momentum management is the key, whether accelerating or decelerating. Driving in the slow lane and leaving a generous amount of space between vehicles are natural cautions and prove to be little inconvenience. The auditory assault from the engine, 37-inch tires, and to a lesser degree, wind noise acts as a rudimentary speed governor. Fortunately, the powerful Monsoon stereo can drown out the noise with large speakers aimed right at the passengers' heads.

For both performance and sound output, we wish the 6.6-liter/300-horsepower Duramax turbodiesel offered in the Chevrolet heavy-duty pickups were available. For now, AM General is very committed to the older 6.5-liter due largely to the military necessity of minimizing the number of parts and service protocols, especially for forward deployments.

Designed to negotiate tight motor pools, trails, and war-torn streets, the relatively small turning radius adds tremendously to the suburban driving ease. With a 26.5-foot turning diameter, the Hummer can pull into most parking spaces without a five-point operation. Of course, losing sight of the car next to you when parking does take some getting used to. The steering wheel itself is slightly undersized. Factor in the extremely flat turning dynamics (due to massive springs to accommodate the 1.5-ton cargo capacity), and handling is actually one of the most fun aspects of driving the big Class 3 truck. Braking is not quite as enjoyable. The pedal travel on our tester was limited to almost millimeters, requiring deft pressure application to get the desired result without lunging passengers forward. On the plus side, the four-channel ABS disc brakes provide an extra measure of safety and control when the surface is slippery, especially off pavement.

Tooling through greater suburbia a decade after the Gulf War, the Hummer still turns heads. Motorists being aware of the vehicle helps on those occasions when you need to make a tough turn through traffic, there is less worry the oncoming vehicles won't see you. We had curious onlookers ask numerous questions as we drove around, with the most frequent being, "How much does it cost?" No one was prepared for the answer: $109,000 base price for the wagon. Our tester had the new-for-2002, two-piece 17-inch wheels, pushing the grand total to $111,302.

Practical? No. Fun? Oh, yeah. The Hummer can be used daily by an impassioned, well-heeled driver, but it's most appropriate commuting only as a reminder of the great adventures it can take on the weekends. Although its house-like price puts the original H1 well of the reach of most Americans, the dirt-bound fantasy vehicle will soon spawn more livable and affordable H2 and H3 models.

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