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Daniel Pund reviews H3 Alpha

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Are You (Alpha) Man Enough?

By Daniel Pund, Senior Editor, Detroit

Date posted: 02-13-2008

The 2008 Hummer H3 Alpha reminds us of an old advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes, the one where a cowboy is seen lighting his cigarette from a flaming log plucked from the campfire.

You see, cowboys don't use Bics or Crickets. Hell, this guy is so manly he doesn't even use the manliest, smelliest of lighters, the Zippo. Hell no. He uses a chunk of fiery lumber like a real man — a Marlboro man — is supposed to.

Similarly, the 2008 Hummer H3 Alpha seems to say, "Let the crossovers have their comfy rides and reasonable step-in heights and decent cargo space and fuel economy. I am the Alpha male. The leader of the pack. I will breed first, eat first, walk first in line and I will light my cigarette by whatever absurd means I damn well please."

As a blatant play for machismo, the H3 and the use of the name Alpha doesn't quite compete with hiring actors to play fictitious square-jawed cowboys and isn't nearly as creepy/silly as the "Big Horn" edition Dodge Ram pickup, but it is the result of carefully constructed image marketing.

Can the inclusion of a V8 pay off?

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

At the risk of extending the metaphor even further, the original Hummer H3 introduced in 2005 with a 3.5-liter inline-5 was closely aligned to the Marlboro Man in one way: He/it might look tough and rugged and capable of all manner of physical feats, but actually sucked wind when the going got tough. Its paltry 220 horsepower gave it a power-to-weight ratio less advantageous than your average minivan, and so all the hyper-masculine styling gewgaws seemed, well, particularly ridiculous.

GM pumped up the five-cylinder shortly after the H3's introduction, but that was merely a stopgap until the Hummer could do the sensible thing and plunk a V8 under that fake, plastic hood vent. Sure, it required the firewall to be modified and the front frame rails to be swapped out, since this 300-hp 5.3-liter V8 is essentially the same engine that powers most GM full-size pickups.

Due to some exhaust constraints and air emissions sensitivity, the Alpha's version of this V8 makes 15 fewer horses than the engine makes in the big pickup. Still, that's 58 hp more than the 3.7-liter inline-5 that remains the choice in the base model of the H3. In day-to-day driving, the V8's massive increase in torque will matter more to owners than the off-road friendliness of the inline-5. At 320 pound-feet, the V8 pumps out 78 more lb-ft of twisty torque action than the five-banger. Its peak torque also arrives at 4,000 rpm instead of 4,600.

This means that an H3 Alpha won't get left at the lights by every other car on the road, as the original did. The Alpha gets up to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds. Not exactly greased lightning, but it is more than 2 seconds less slow than the original, plus much, much quicker than a stationary object. Still, the Alpha is a second slower to 60 mph than the V6-powered Toyota FJ Cruiser, another truck on the cartoonish extreme of styling, and only about a second quicker than the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, the basic off-road buckboard that can muster only 205 hp.

What the hell?

Road-Slugging Weight

Forget about those car-based unibody crossovers with their newfangled coil springs and such; the Hummer H3 is heavy even for a body-on-frame truck-style truck. The Alpha, which is 7.6 inches shorter in length than a Honda Accord sedan and seats the same number of people, weighs 5,143 road-punishing pounds. The Wrangler Unlimited and FJ Cruiser are each nearly a half-ton lighter. The V8 and its requisite cast-iron differential (it's a torque requirement thing) that turn the H3 into an Alpha are part of the problem, but even the base H3 is grossly overweight.

Curiously, owners will pay no great penalty in fuel economy for choosing the V8 — at least not compared to the poor economy of the inline-5 version. In mixed driving, we averaged 13.4 mpg in the Alpha. And the observed economy of the original Hummer H3 we tested in 2006? 13.3 mpg.

The V8 doesn't strain in around-town driving, either. The inline-5 always sounded like it was going to bust a vein. The V8 provides almost effortless (if not overwhelming) thrust. The Alpha can be had only with the four-speed automatic transmission that's an option on the base version. And despite the V8's credible torque output, we'd like a couple more gears than we have here. Then when you request some juice at the bottom of a slow on-ramp onto the expressway, you won't have to wait and wait and then get a violent thunk of a downshift that sends the engine into its raucous upper rev range.

The Horror, the Horror

Other than the changes brought by the engine transplant, the H3 remains very much the same proposition as it ever was. This is to say that its handling and braking performances are about average for a vehicle really meant for off-road driving. With its nose pointed firmly downward, the Alpha stops from 60 mph in 136 feet. That's better by 7 feet than the Wrangler Unlimited, but farther by 10 feet than the FJ Cruiser.

Our test truck came equipped with the $1,375 off-road suspension package, which includes LT285/75R16 Bridgestone Dueler A/T RH-S tires, a 4.00:1 two-speed transfer case, electronically locking rear differential and specially tuned dampers. Essentially, these are exactly the off-road options that you would choose to make the Hummer H3 Alpha behave at its worst on a paved test track.

This thing predictably hates slalom cones and resents being sent out onto the skid pad. The tall, soft sidewalls of its off-road tires flex pretty easily, and they make the H3 Alpha hop around and lift its inside tires and generally make an ass of itself. It records only 0.69g of lateral grip, which at least is better than the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited's 0.64g. The FJ Cruiser matches the Alpha's grip but does so in a less, um, entertaining fashion.

So what did we learn? Well, we learned that the chassis of the Hummer H3 is not bad, at least by the standards of a vehicle supposed to be dedicated to off-road performance. And we also learned that when we take off-road vehicles to the test track, we're going to feel a twinge of guilt about it later.

Dedicated Follower of Fashion

If the H3 Alpha was our daily driver, we would probably get used to the slightly bouncy (though never harsh) ride quality. We could certainly learn to live with the interior, which is constructed of reasonably nice materials. And we might actually appreciate its 6,000-pound towing capacity (up from the base model's 4,500-pound rating).

But at every stoplight we could be reminded of the sacrifices we'd made for Hummer's pseudo-military, tough-guy look. We have an easier time seeing overhead stoplights while driving a Corvette. It's the fault of that narrow windshield — almost like a viewport in some kind of military bunker — that's so much a part of the H3's butch look.

At least this test truck came with the optional rear-vision camera system. This is both the solution to the H3's visibility issue and part of the cause. It's not just the windshield that's like a gun slit — all of the windows are, and the rear one is partially blocked by the tailgate-mounted spare tire. Solution: rearview camera.

Problem is that the system on the Hummer is integrated into a great big rearview mirror. Put the H3 in reverse and a little screen powers out of the rearview mirror frame to display the camera image. In any gear but reverse, the screen retracts. It works, but the huge rearview mirror frame blocks a big patch of the small windshield. To be fair, the FJ Cruiser has equally poor visibility.

Further, we have been constantly annoyed by the difficult task of loading anything onto the too-tall floor of the too-small cargo hold. We'd want to saw off the steps on each side because they are good only for dirtying your pant legs. And, frankly, we'd be embarrassed by the fake hood vent and the silly stylized and nonfunctional snorkel air intakes at the base of the windshield.

Wherever Particular People Congregate

If you happen to fall into that sliver of the population that loves to go out for some extreme rock-crawling and mudslinging and hates Jeeps and will only buy a product with a domestic badge, then the 2008 Hummer H3 Alpha is a great choice.

For all its window dressing and over-the-top machismo, the H3 Alpha is truly a great off-roader, certainly with the fat 33-inch tires, creeper gearing and locker diff of the off-road package. Its approach and departure angles and ground clearance aren't quite as extreme as the single-minded Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, but they are more than adequate for anything you're likely to face.

But if you're going to pretend that the H3 Alpha is somehow a reasonable commuter car, then you might as well don the chaps and the hat and prepare for some saddle sores. You will pay a high price for the look, and the $8,565 increase in base price from the standard Hummer H3 is only part of it.

Like cigarette smokers, traditional truck-based, heft-wagon SUVs represent a smaller and smaller segment of the population. We like cowboys and all. We're just not sure we want to be one.






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That rearview mirror is trick. The author is correct, though, it is too big and sacrifices visibility even more than the signature Hummer styling does.

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