Sally Bottke is one of those special gearheads whose eyes light up and voice quivers with excitement any time the subject of high-performance pops up in conversation. Bottke was instrumental in leading the team that managed to fit the 300 horsepower, 5.3 liter V 8 between the 2008 Hummer H3's fenders and worked out the kinks that came with the high-performance engine swap. It was no surprise the engineering manager for the GM Performance Division could barely contain herself when asked about the Hummer H3 Alpha's newfound muscle.

We found that out firsthand during a Hummer excursion that led us over the highways of southwestern Colorado and into the rugged steps of northwestern New Mexico's San Juan mountain range. It was there, just outside Farmington, where we found the famed Rock Garden, considered by many experts to be one of the toughest trails in the country.

Like the Chevy SS moniker, Alpha represents the pinnacle of performance in the Hummer lineup--both on- and off-road. The 2008 H3 Alpha, with the V 8 package and retuned suspension, is only the second in the brand to get the special label--and it's the first engineered in conjunction with the GM Performance Division.

The initial run of H3 Alphas are rated at 300 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. But by year's end they could be making more like 310 horses because of a running change that adds a factory cold-air intake to give the 5.3 a few more ponies.

The V 8, coupled with a four-speed automatic transmission, cast-iron differential housing, and 4.10:1 axle ratio, enables the H3 to tow 6000 pounds--that's over 33 percent more than in the base H3s powered by the 220 horsepower inline-five and five-speed manual.

Although the base Hummer H3 and Alpha look similar, the Alpha comes standard with the Luxury equipment package, Chrome Appearance package, 16 inch chrome wheels, and special Alpha touches such as headrests embroidered with the Alpha insignia and special badges on the tailgate and horn pad.

Under the hood is where the magic begins. Lee Visci, chief engineer of the H3 Alpha platform, says stuffing the V 8 inside the baby Hummer's tight engine bay wasn't all that easy. The engineers had to redesign the firewall and narrow the distance between it and the dash to get a couple more inches of space lengthwise. In addition, they had to make a few nips and tucks in the front frame rails to handle the aluminum-block 5.3 liter's engine mounts.