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If the smaller H3’s job is to expand the HUMMER brand into the mainstream of the SUV market, then the H1’s continuing task is to supply the authenticity that keeps the brand from sliding into parody. But authenticity comes at a price and with the introduction of the more powerful, more capable and more civilized 2006 H1 Alpha that price is a little more manageable. Even though the actual sales price is higher. And sometimes parody is too delicious to resist.
HUMMER AlphaEnlarge Photo
The H1 is, of course, the civilian version of the original military HMMWV – the Humvee. This isn’t a vehicle designed to shuttle Timmy between pre-school and play dates, but to support him twenty years later when he’s bounding between where he’s bunking and where he’s making history. It sacrifices such niceties as interior space efficiency and insulation from mechanical clatter in favor of survivability under extreme stress and the ability to persevere over insane terrain. When AM General and the Pentagon were designing it back in the early Eighties, they likely never imagined they’d be painted in any colors except Olive Drab and Desert Sand.
But Bright Red, Screaming Yellow and Blistering Blue would all look good on the H1 Alpha. Fuschia, Mauve, Ecru or Eggshell White would, however, still be a stretch.
More than a compromise
From the outside there isn’t much apparent difference between the H1 Alpha and the regular old H1. Sure there are a few “Alpha” badges strewn about, and it wears an attractive new set of wheels, but this machine’s profile is unmistakable – from the slotted grilled across the grated hood up the flat windshield and over the canvas top this couldn’t be anything but a Humvee/H1. The substance of the Alpha is under the hide where the 300-horsepower Duramax 6.6-liter turbodiesel V-8 and Allison five-speed automatic transmission from GM’s Heavy Duty pickups have taken up residence.
Until now Humvees and civilian HUMMER H1s have always used GM’s 6.2- and 6.5-liter diesel V-8s. That engine family is used in other military vehicles and that’s a critical concern for an army that does its own maintenance and maintains its own supply lines. In fact it’s so important that current production military Humvees are still getting the 6.5 (now assembled by an AM General subsidiary).
2006 HUMMER H1 AlphaEnlarge Photo
As good as the 6.5 was for the United States Army, it wasn’t particularly thrilling for civilians. In the 2004 H1 the 6.5-liter turbodiesel grunted out just 205 horsepower, while the Duramax is rated at 300 horsepower and a chunky 520 pound-feet of peak torque at 1500 rpm. Beyond that the Duramax is quieter, revs more easily, and is generally more pleasant. Throw all that together with the slick performance of the Allison five-speed and the H1 Alpha now moves with some poise and athleticism. For a truck that weighs nearly four tons, anything less than awkward stumbling is an achievement.
But it would be going too far to call the H1 Alpha quick. HUMMER claims that the Duramax knocks a full three ticks off the H1’s 0-60 mph acceleration dropping it from 16.5 to 13.5 seconds. That’s about two seconds more than it takes a Toyota Prius to do the same trick. And if there are two vehicles that are constantly being cross-shopped by buyers, it’s the hybrid Prius and the H1 Alpha – it’s sure to be a long-running heads-up rivalry.
Wedging the Duramax and Allison transmission into the H1 while retaining the truck’s 16-inches of ground clearance required a new oil pan for the engine and the reconfiguration of some components. This is minor stuff however, and it doesn’t affect the engine’s essential character or the transmission’s slick operation.
Serious stuff down below
For sheer intimidation it’s tough to top the H1’s all-independent suspension. The A-arms that support each wheel each look to be about the size of a VFW meeting hall and should the moon ever fall into the Earth, the H1’s coil springs could probably bounce it back into a safe orbit. The suspension looks out of human scale – like a three-year old boy trying to drink out of a two-liter bottle of Coke.
But despite its massiveness, the suspension works pretty dang well on-road. The bead-locked, 37-inch tall Goodyear Wrangler GSA tires aren’t particularly quiet on pavement, but the ride motions aren’t extreme and the beast’s mass seems to crush bumps down to nothing. Sure the steering is uncommunicative, the vehicle is so wide that you have to keep in mind time zone changes between the side view mirrors, and parking shouldn’t be attempted until your squad leader has declared the LZ Cong-free. But if you can keep track of the truck’s corners, piloting the H1 Alpha is a manageable challenge.
In 2004 the H1’s interior was updated with new instrumentation, a couple acres of leather upholstery, and one of GM’s Monsoon sound systems. Many of the bits and pieces seem to be straight out of the GM truck parts bin, while the no-airbag-at-all steering wheel looks like it comes straight out of the NOPI tuner parts catalog and the controls for the on-board tire inflation/deflation system has the retro-styling of a B-29’s navigation station. But there’s no getting around the fact that this huge truck provides dinky interior space.
That interior stinginess is a direct result of AM General’s decision to protect the drivetrain by positioning it up high along the vehicle’s spine. That keeps everything vital safe from attack from below, but it leaves the driver and passengers sitting in narrow tunnels on either side of it. Despite being 86.5 inches wide overall, hip and shoulder room is scant and trying to talk with the shotgun passenger across the engine cover involves a lot of shouting or cell phone usage. The driving position is also unusual; you sit up close to the steering wheel and the wheel itself is close to the dash and windshield. It’s all a bit claustrophobic and tanklike. Beyond that many of the controls seem to have been distributed around the cockpit randomly and those on the engine cover heat up as the engine heats up. Finally it’s not easy to hoist one’s self up into the H1 through its smallish doors either. Well maybe it’s easy for a 19-year old, five-foot nine-inch corporal who weighs 140 pounds, but I’m old and fat.
Ultimately, though all those compromises that keep the H1 Alpha from being a perfect commuter car pay off immensely off-road. There simply isn’t a more capable four-wheel drive machine offered for sale to the public.
Take some air pressure out of the tires, knock the transfer case into low range, and the H1 Alpha will simply crawl over boulders and rocks while the Duramax churns at barely more than idle. This isn’t a machine for snaking up narrow trails, but across open ground it’s nothing less than phenomenal. And the military ought to be jealous because the H1 Alpha with the Duramax is clearly a better off-road machine than their Humvee with the old 6.5.
As of right now all new H1s are H1 Alphas and the Alpha name will eventually migrate to the H2 and H3 as higher performing versions of those machines are developed by AM General and/or GM. Alpha will be to HUMMER what SS is to Chevy, Red Line is to Saturn and the SRT badge has become to Chrysler products.
Driving an H1 back and forth to the mall? That’s still simply ludicrous to the point of parody. Your kids aren’t elite Army Rangers yet; let them ride in a minivan until they’re ready to practice counter-insurgency tactics.
Still what the H2 and H3 wear as affection – hood appliqués that suggest towing points, wheels that hint at an inflation system that doesn’t exist – the H1 incorporates as genuine features. If you need to lift the nose of an H1 Alpha those steel loops protruding from the hood really can be used to yank the thing skyward and the tire-inflation system works brilliantly (if noisily). In the right environment, the HUMMER H1 is authentically awesome.
The combination of authenticity and awesomeness doesn’t come cheap. The H1 convertible (and the top is really more a “removable” rather than an easy “convertible”) starts at $126,185 and the hard-roofed wagon runs $137,508. That’s not a lot for a truck that’s a chore to use in everyday traffic, but it may be a raging bargain for those of us who don’t live every day lives. There may not be a lot of those people out there, but HUMMER expects its H1 Alpha clientele to be an exclusive bunch anyhow.
2006 HUMMER H1 Alpha
Base price: $126,185
Engine: 6.6-liter turbodiesel V-8, 300 hp/520 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 184.5 x 86.5 x 79.0 in
Wheelbase: 130.0 in
Curb weight: 7847 lb
Safety equipment: Seat belts, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and the ability to intimidate most other drivers
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles comprehensive with 12 free service visits during warranty period