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.
On the trail, the various gearing combinations boost the crawl ratio from a sufficient 33:1 to an impressive drive-like-a-snail 69:1 (the crawl ratio is the combined gear ratio obtained by multiplying first gear by low range gear by axle gears). With a 4.56:1 axle gear option, a heavy-duty transfer case 4.03:1 low-range ratio, and a locking rear differential option, the H3 is just about the most formidable climbing beast since the creation of the Peruvian mountain yak--and that's before you consider the 33-inch tires (the largest on any SUV in the segment) and the sophisticated traction-control system.
The four-wheel-drive system itself is full-time, splitting engine torque 60/40 (back to front) during normal pavement conditions, but is able to send as much as 100 percent of available torque to the front or rear wheels when needed. Four buttons control the system: 4 Hi, 4 Hi Lock, 4 Low Lock, and Rear Locker. We found ourselves in low range much of the time on our desert trail ride, but hit the rear-locker button for the worst terrain. Some called the selectable rear locker the "escape switch."
The interior design is just about the best on a GM truck in a long time. The simple center stack and superior materials on knobs and flush surfaces set a new standard for Hummer. We hope this new layout works its way into future Hummer models and redesigns. The steering wheel has a thick, substantial feel; the transmission levers in manual and automatic are hefty and solid; even the grab handles all around the vehicle are meaty. Seating materials feel durable and are of higher quality than current H2 interiors. The luxury package ($1025) offers a better quality leather and look, with inserts and piping, than you'd expect in a midsize SUV in a similar price range.
Speaking of which, H3 pricing starts at just a tick over $30,000, but can quickly escalate if you check a lot of option boxes (trailer package, sunroof, chrome wheels, various audio systems, NAV, OnStar, and a host of GM-manufactured accessories). GM wanted to pack the H3 with value to give it a better chance of success, but making a smaller, more fuel-efficient, easier to park, comfy-on-the-inside H3 could have some accusing Hummer of building a girlie truck.
"We haven't made a softer Hummer--we couldn't do that," says Mark Hernandez, Hummer product director. "Every vehicle we put our name on has to be a rugged, adventure-driven 4x4. What we've done is make a smaller Hummer more affordable for those buyers who couldn't consider Hummers before--this one's for the family, it's easier to park, and it'll be easier at the pump."
We can testify to the first two. But it can't be overstated: There's a clear performance tradeoff to accomplish the third. Our five-speed manual test unit, weighing 4884 pounds, with the Adventure package (big tires, locking diff, 4:1 transfer case, and heavy-duty shocks for $1025) ran a 0-to-60 mph time of 11.1 seconds. Braking distances were average for the segment, stopping from 60 mph in 138 feet. On the 600-foot slalom, the H3 managed a 56.1-mph speed through the traps, but overcoming the SUV's large contact patch on the 33-inch tires (285/75R17s made for a lot of squealing).
Although efficient, the Vortec 3500 is the smallest engine of the segment. Where many competitors offer more powerful V-6s and even some V-8s, the H3 is betting on gearing--and vast amounts of image. With the exception of flat stretches of highway or long down grades, the manual is functionally a four-speed; there's just not enough oats to carry fifth against the wind. The 20-valve I-5 is surprisingly willing to rev up to 5000 rpm and even beyond, however.
Hummer is being conservative with sales projections, estimating the H3 will bring about 25,000 new buyers to the brand per year--most likely a younger, less affluent, and family-oriented buyer. It further estimates the downsized model will likely attract between 30 to 40 percent female buyers.
With Hummer the subject of mounting environmental criticism, and soft sales due to high fuel prices, the H3 could prove to be its direction out of tough times. "This is exactly what we think a good number of people are going to want," says an optimistic Docherty. "The H3 is packed with personality, it's a serious off-roader, but this one's much more affordable and gets great fuel economy."
If company officials are nervous, they're not showing it. But it's early.
Tracking The Hummer Alpha
Like SS, and Cadillac's v-Series, Hummer has its own performance sub-brand
The strategy has worked for BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. Now GM hopes that horsepower injections will work for Hummer, as well. The 2006 H1 Alpha--the first model to wear the new Alpha badge--packs a 300-horsepower Duramax 6600 turbodiesel and Allison 1000 five-speed automatic.
This will be the only H1 sold for the 2006 model year (although big changes are being considered for the next-gen H1). An H2 Alpha is coming, but not until the all-new GMT 900 platform makes its debut on GM's full-size SUVs and pickups, due out early next year. Look for more 4x4 capability, power, and increased luxury appointments to be part of that formula--maybe even a longer-wheelbase model down the road.
The H3 Alpha will then follow. Early in the development of the Vortec 4200 I-6, GM Powertrain experimented with dual inline turbos--with huge success. The concept H3T pickup truck, shown almost two years ago, had a turbocharged and intercooled Vortec 3500. Expect the latter to be Hummer's response to the underpowered I-5, and it would be a good one. But a real performance variant needs what America does best: Why not a Vortec V-8 squeezed under the H3 Alpha's wide, flat hood?
|2006 HUMMER H3|
|Base price|| $30,195|
|Price as tested|| $35,395|
|Vehicle layout|| Front engine, 4WD, 5 pass, 4-door sport/utility |
|Engine ||3.5L/220 hp/225 lb-ft, DOHC 20-valve I-5 |
|Transmission ||5-speed manual|
|Curb weight, f/r dist|| 4884 lb, 50/50%|
|Wheelbase ||111.9 in|
|Length x Width x Height|| 186.7 x 74.7 x 74.5 in|
|0-60 mph|| 11.1 sec|
|1/4 mile|| 18.1 sec @ 77.4 mph|
|Braking, 60-0 mph|| 138 ft|
|600-foot slalom|| 56.1 mph avg|
|Lateral acceleration|| 0.69 g avg|
|MT Figure Eight ||30.5 sec @ 0.50 g avg|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ|| 16 / 20 mpg |
• Well-done interior (finally)
• Solid 4x4 capability for the price
• I-5 powertrain underspec'd
• Tight second-row seating
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