SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Following a trail through the thick hardwood forest, I maneuver my vehicle up and down steep inclines, through water crossings and across deeply rutted mud tracks at the back-end of a convoy. We're on a mission and only the "tailgunner" follows behind. "Engage 4-Low, first gear and, when you get to the big uphill, lock the rear differential," calls the lead scout over the radio. Completing the instructions, I gently apply throttle and climb the slick, precipitous uphill with ease.
We're on a reconnaissance but, although our vehicles might look the part, it's not a military reconnaissance mission. Instead, our task is to evaluate the all-new "baby HUMMER" both on and off the road, in conditions that range from the city streets of Chicago, to the Illinois freeways, and the four-wheel-drive trails and obstacle course on the grounds of the 320-acre HUMMER Academy. Here, in northern Indiana, at a facility originally designed for the HUMMER H1, is an obstacle course (rock piles, off-camber moguls and hill climbs with sheer angles of approach, departure and sidehill) and a proving grounds for The General's H2.
We're not referencing the General nicknamed "Stormin' Norman," however, who became associated with the version of HUMMER made famous by CNN, as we watched it storming the dunes of Kuwait in the Gulf War. Dubbed the "High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle" or HMMWV (hum-vee) for short, the military-spec version was first built in 1985, by AM General. Seeing the success of this attention-grabbing model, General Motors purchased the nameplate and, borrowing its Chevy Tahoe platform for underpinnings, has spawned a new, more street-friendly version, the H2. But, don't expect it to be too friendly. The latest model is not too soft, not too hard, and for many, it will be just right.
2003 HUMMER H2
Think of it as a limousine for Dr. Livingstone. Capable of plowing through six inches of water at 40 mph, chugging through a 20-inch-deep stream, clambering up 16-inch steps, or rocks, and sweeping through deep sand, the H2 offers superior off-road capabilities while comforting passengers with a high-tech audio system, dual-zone climate control and, if you wish, leather heated seats.
This uber-SUV is the latest evolution of the HUMMER brand, which has a humble heritage as a military workhorse. It gained cachet as a street vehicle in the late 1980s and 1990s, when celebrity drivers such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (who owned eight) roared around Hollywood, making utilitarian chic the next big thing. HUMMER adapted its original military vehicle into the H1 street version, a civilian in its fleet, which retained the all-terrain DNA of its predecessor. Though a niche vehicle, the H1 appealed to a specific market - nearly 80 percent of owners are men aged 40-45 with an average income of $150,000 or more per year.
With more creature comforts than its stablemate, the H2 is designed to capture a broader market - including women - who are "rugged individualists," according to GM. Previous H1 buyers owned an average of six other vehicles, and it's likely that the H2 also will be an addition to an already large fleet of vehicles in owners' garages.
The latest HUMMER is unmistakable from the outside and a head-turner on the streets of Chicago and on the freeways. Though scaled down in overall size and weight, the "baby HUMMER" is taller and longer than the H1, with a wheelbase of 122.8 inches, almost seven inches longer than that of the Chevy Tahoe, and short overhangs (32.6 inches in the front and 34.6 inches in the rear)-- handy for getting in and out of big holes off-road.
2003 Hummer H2Enlarge Photo
2003 HUMMER H2
Underneath the body, thick skid plates and an
undershield protect from rocks and other debris. A unique, chassis-mounted steel
rocker panel protector also provides protection. Seventeen-inch wheels and a
minimum 10-inch running ground clearance contend with most obstacles, we found
at the course and in the woods.
GM is banking on individualization as a key to the new HUMMER's appeal. The automaker has created a bevy of exterior parts and accessories that customers can spec out while at the dealership, such as a wraparound front brush guard, tubular assist steps, a roof-mounted luggage basket and roof-mounted off-road lamps.
The super SUV
Under the hood, H2's technology makes it a super-SUV. A GM Vortec 6000 6.0-liter V-8 delivers 316 hp at 5200 rpm and 360 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, the motor is supported by an all-new, driver-selected, electrically controlled, full-time four-wheel drive system.
2003 Hummer H2Enlarge Photo
An anti-lock braking and traction control system also creates better driver control on unpredictable road surfaces. In particular, the ABS system is so sophisticated that it may not even be detected by drivers, except under the most extreme braking conditions such as in loose gravel at high speeds. Traction control underlines the ABS system by transferring torque when wheels slip.
2003 HUMMER H2
Impressive are the 40.4-degree approach and 39.6-degree departure angles, underbody protection and the H2's fully welded ladder-type frame that enhance strength and stiffness for off-road performance. A GM-first standard winch receiver can handle a 9000-lb capacity winch and can be used for other accessories such as a bicycle rack.
The technological sophistication of this vehicle's traction systems and drivetrain is echoed in the suspension system, which includes an independent front torsion bar with gas-charged shock absorbers and a 4000-lb-capacity axle. Drivers can opt for one of two rear suspensions, either a standard five-link trailing arm coil spring suspension or an optional self-leveling air-spring suspension. Both are designed for on-and off-road conditions, with new variable-rate coil springs that increase support off-road and add comfort on the highway.
Though it is still somewhat spartan, the interior of this next-generation Army-mobile offers updated styling and far greater comfort than its progenitors. The instrument cluster is oversized and easy-to-read, with a white back and bold black numbering. A center console is simple and uncluttered, while the center-mounted shift lever is a bit too large for the space and gets in the way of heating, A/C and other switches.
An optional leather interior includes heated seats and adjustable seat cushions for both front and second-row passengers. A dual-zone climate control system gives second-row passengers separate airflow controls, and a new side-window defogging system aids in visibility throughout the cabin.
The new H2 comes with an AM/FM stereo, with single-disc CD player and cassette deck, and TheftLock. All systems also come with RDS technology, a nifty feature that allows a search for music stations by type, such as "jazz" or "rock and roll." Available are several high-end Bose systems.
Other nifty features include in-cabin power points, useful stowage compartments, rear compartment cargo tie-downs, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, electrochromic (light-sensitive) inside rearview mirror, heated outside mirrors, and a self-contained, on-board air compressor (from the optional air suspension system) that lets passengers inflate tires through an air hose attached to the tailgate.
2003 HUMMER H2
Billed by The General as "one of the safest full-size SUVs on the road," the H2 features active safety, in the form of its 4x4, traction control, ABS and suspension systems and includes front airbags, standard four-way adjustable headrests, as well as seat-mounted lap and shoulder belts. Child seat tethers are included, as are "friendly" trim surfaces in the cabin to help reduce bumps and bruises, in the event that passengers are jostled around during rough rides.
The newest HUMMER also includes some high-tech safety enhancements such as GM's OnStar navigation/communications system, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, remote keyless entry and power tilting mirrors that fold flat for easier parking and tight driving in the woods.
The 2003 H2 seems to have it all -- a complete package of off-road capability, in-cabin comfort and technological advancements from chassis to tranny to its rearview mirror. Wrapped in a skin that is undeniably HUMMER, this new SUV offers the cache of 4x4 without the rough-and-tumble experience of many safari-mobiles. Although it won't appeal to everyone, Livingstone's limousine may just be the missing link for HUMMER to evolve into a brand with wider consumer appeal.
2003 Hummer H2
Base price: $48,880
Engine: 6.0-liter V-8, 316 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, full-time four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 122.8 in
Length: 189.8 in
Width: 81.2 in
Height: 77.8 in
Ground clearance: 10.0 in
Curb weight: 6400 lb
Fuel economy: not tested (excluded from regulated fleet requirements)
Safety equipment: Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control, front airbags, traction control, child seat tethers, four-way adjustable headrests
Major standard equipment: OnStar, AM/FM/CD player, air conditioning, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, remote keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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