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.

And this is the first morning. In the afternoon, you learn recovery techniques. AM General covers the factory equipment tools and instructs on the tree strap, clevis, and snatchblock, and the beauty of a standard pair of work gloves. Myriad factory-approved winches are available for the H2, but, as we learn later, those cool-looking permanently mounted front-bumper winches inhibit approach angle.

The afternoon culminates on a nice, long run through the trails of deepest, darkest Mishawaka. The densely forested plot of land is surreal, as you make your way through trails that seem barely wide enough for a mountain bike while traffic whizzes by on a highway close enough to hear passing cars. On "Upper Donner Pass," student Jeff Crooks, of Provo, Utah, takes a yellow H2 where it can't go. Instructors put the tree-strap training to good use, and he's winched out, back onto a trail of big, muddy ruts. "I'm having the time of my life," Crooks says.

Then we learn rockcrawling, "walking" the H2 along a cobble of stones that exist for the purpose of scraping the underbody and ripping out differentials and for teaching a guide's hand signals to help avoid damage. By the end of the first day, the small class is convinced this stuff is what their SUVs should be doing. "It makes you feel that, if you don't take it off-road, you're not using it right," says Bob Dikman, of Tampa, Florida, who uses his H2 to show his commercial-real-estate clients various tracts of land.

Day two begins with instruction and a brief competition that teaches how to use the Garmin GPS. There's a rock-climbing exercise, again requiring a trusty guide with good command of hand signals. Approach the steps at an angle, raise one wheel at a time, and apply torque. The exercise has its perils: one student destroys a differential (not guilty). In the afternoon, we're led into steep, muddy, high-articulation trails that make yesterday's off-road run feel like a walk in the woods. It involves lots of mud and water, muddy, technical articulation trails that call for the tow strap, and a broken tie rod (again, not guilty). The second day ends with a set of off-roading games designed to test students' abilities. Paying participants are pleased. They'll take their own Hummer H2s off-road in the next few weeks, will wear them in with a patina of trail mud and wear, and make their way home without breaking anything or getting in trouble. We're pleased. Like anything else that involves automotive fun (otherwise involving speed), this studied instruction on how to play in the mud is another way for adults to act like kids. Jeep and Land Rover drivers, beware: Hummer H2 coming through.




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