Rolling its military utility-vehicle counterparts through Afghanistan and Iraq hasn't done enough to burnish the image of General Motors' Hummer division. The brand struggles for the Rubicon-ready, African plains-bred creds of Jeep and Land Rover. Hummer is too suburban, too much an NFL quarterback, hip-hop artist kind of ride. AM General's Hummer Academy, at the old Studebaker military-truck proving grounds in Mishawaka, Indiana, near the HMMWV/H1 and H2 assembly plants in South Bend, is changing that reputation, 10 owners at a time.

AM General has trained military and intelligence officials driving HMMWVs on this site for decades. It began the H1 Academy six years ago and is about to conclude its second full year with the H2. It conducts two four-day, $5250 H1 classes a year and scheduled 10 two-day-long H2 Academies in 2004. A condensed version of the H1 Academy, the H2 version includes use of AM General's vehicles, a factory tour, meals, three nights at the South Bend Marriott, ground transportation, a Garmin handheld GPS system and instruction on how to use it, photography, and some nifty H2 clothing for $3575 (transportation to and from Indiana is the only additional cost). Classes are limited to 10 drivers, with two teachers per driver, two drivers per H2. The Academy also holds reunion trips to places like Moab, Utah, and Denver-to-Telluride, Colorado. (Bring your own Hummer.)

We had four classmates in the H2 Academy, plus the wife of a classmate, who rode but didn't drive. One classmate was a GM engineer; the three others were H2 owners. Each purchased his H2 online, each with a few thousand miles on the odometer.

If you have any inkling of going off-road in your H2, the three-and-a-half large is money well spent. The morning after a factory tour and a dinner with a classroom briefing, the Academy begins with an explanation of what your H2 can do with 10 inches of ground clearance at the rear diff, 40.4 degrees of front approach angle, 39.6 degrees at the rear, and a 25.8-degree breakover angle. "If it's difficult to walk on, that's pretty much the point where you don't want to drive it," AM General's Bill Thompson explains. The first morning, you drive an H2 through an obstacle course; up a 60-degree grade and down a 40-degree grade, along a couple of earth obstacles, and through a V-ditch with enough angle to make you feel like you're about to impact a concrete slab head-on. You drive through a wash 20 inches deep, reaching to the rocker panels. A steep mogul course "is everybody's favorite," instructor Chris Deak says, "but it's the most intimidating."

This is where the H2's locking rear-diff switch comes in handy. Deak calls it "the magic button." The Academy runs the vehicles at about 25 psi, versus tire pressure of 35-36 psi on-road. It's all Level 1, but if you've never done it before, it prepares you for the idea of pointing the Hummer's nose so high that you see nothing but sky and down to the point where you see nothing but cement. You'll tip the Hummer on two wheels and gently plant one wheel while lifting its opposite in the air, experiencing angles that seem too great for such a high-profile truck. The training is also counterintuitive for anyone who's attended a modern race-car driver's course. Here, you're encouraged to use left-foot braking in order to inch the H2 steadily along rocky or steep terrain.