You never forget the first time you hear granite biting into sheetmetal--the hairs on your neck stand up. No doubt that's what our trail boss heard as we traversed our first nasty off-road obstacle. The spotter yelled, "Whoa! Whoa! The other left! This time, watch me!" as he guided our 2006 Hummer H3 up a rock climb most people couldn't navigate on foot.

On this winding desert trail, one of the five most difficult in Arizona, all we could do was wait and listen to the granite-versus-metal torture going on around the bend. It was like sitting in a dentist's waiting room, hearing someone getting a cavity drilled. But, unlike what was happening to that poor fellow, our H3's four-wheel-drive system crawled over the nastiness with impressive ease.

Company personnel have said for months that the all-new H3 was going to be every bit a Hummer and a direct extension of the H2 and H1, but in a smaller package with better fuel economy. "Of course, we knew the H3 had to be smaller and more economical," says Susan Docherty, general manager of Hummer since September 2004. "With the H1 and H2 out there getting all sorts of attention for their size and pricing, we knew we had to do something special for the H3." "Something special," in this case, meant looking to existing, smaller platforms to keep costs and (relative) size down.

At first glance, the strategy appears to have worked. The baby Hummer offers a design consistent with the larger H2--so much so that it tends to be invisible when driving around town and not get nearly as many gawks the H2 once did. Wide fender flares and slab-sided body panels give the H3 a familial look, with the signature front grille and H3-stamped skidplate serving as key identifiers. Reactions are strongest from current H2 owners, who typically do the Daffy Duck double-take when seeing the six-inch-lower and 16.8-inch-shorter H3.

Hummer is eager to emphasize that the H3's performance capabilities, in addition to its family design cues, are rooted in gearing rather than horsepower. To be specific, gearing for slow motion. The H3's standard--and at this point, only--engine is the same Vortec 3500 used in the GM midsize pickups, which weigh more than 1000 pounds less than the H3. At 220 horsepower, the I-5 is just adequate for on-road driving in five-speed manual form and is just plain anemic when equipped with the four-speed auto, especially in urban running.