The trail to the Woodpecker Mine is a narrow ravine in the desert, one of the most challenging off-road tests in Arizona. It's hot, remote, and difficult-a place where you need more than brand image to get you through.
Fortunately, the Hummer H3 is not Arnold Lite, a girly-man in disguise. It may have started life as a humble Chevy Colorado pickup, but the H3 has been honed into a true Hummer.
It sure looks great. The sheetmetal repeats all the Hummer idioms without venturing into cartoon animation. There's no disguising the interior's pickup-style architecture, yet it looks surprisingly upscale with either standard cloth or optional leather seats.
But it's the H3's off-roading prowess that really gives it the right to wear the Hummer badge. The coil-spring, independent front suspension and leaf-spring, solid rear axle look simple, but they deliver amazing articulation with either the standard 32-inch Goodyear tires or the optional 33-inch Bridgestones. There are four underbody skid plates, the chassis's minimum breakover angle is 24 degrees, and the turning circle is just 37 feet. There's a two-speed, electrically controlled Borg-Warner transfer case. The center and rear differentials can be locked for off-road driving (which also alters the response of the throttle and brake systems), and even the electronic stability control is set up for the dirt.
We spent a full day crawling through dry streambeds between low hills covered in twisted saguaro cactus, clambering up steep ledges, and rolling slowly across boulder fields. It was hard going, and only something as compact, agile, and capable as the H3-or a Jeep Wrangler-could have measured up. An H1 or an H2 would have been stuck fast.
The H3 also fits into the real world remarkably well, something the too-big, too-much H2 has never managed. The steering has plenty of on-center feel (a difficult thing to accomplish with geometry calibrated for off-road driving), the ride is composed, and the cabin is remarkably quiet.
Unfortunately, the H3 is also slow. It weighs 4700 pounds, and the 220-hp, 3.5-liter in-line five doesn't have the power to give it much of a push when you jump on the throttle. Hummer decided early in the H3's development that good fuel economy should be a priority, so 20 mpg is possible on the highway. Still, you'd think twice about packing the H3 full of passengers for a ski trip.
We think a lot of people will buy H3s, particularly at the low $29,500 base price. The only question is whether or not that low price will ultimately cheapen the Hummer brand.