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Hummer H3: Smaller but still a Hummer

For better or worse, the newest Hummer mostly shares the familiar personality.

August 18, 2005; Posted: 2:58 p.m. EDT (1858 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If General Motors created a Hummer and everybody liked it, would it still be a Hummer?

Of course not. The major appeal of the Hummer is that it's not everyone's cup of extra-strong coffee.

Hummer owners, I would suspect, like the fact that their vehicles are somewhat difficult to live with. Even the Hummer H2, which was designed as a more palatable alternative to the original Hummer, is difficult to see out of and doesn't fit well into the typical parking space. It also gets dreadful gas mileage.

The new Hummer H3, which is smaller yet than the H2, is considerably easier to manage in the real world. Its gas mileage, at 19 miles per gallon on the highway with the automatic transmission, is in line with other SUVs of its size.

But for those who want to try out the ascetic Hummer lifestyle, it still has the trademark poor visibility and ultra-truck-like ride and handling.

Don't worry. This is no mommy-mobile. The H3 is still designed for true Hummer fans.

Without a doubt, it is the best looking Hummer yet. Unlike the Hummer H2, it actually has a shape. Where the H2 looks like a giant metal box on wheels, the H3 looks lean and strong. It's aggressive rather than just imposing.

Athletic appearance not withstanding, the H3's "lazy fat guy" power-to-weight ratio is going to be hard to swallow, even for true Hummer fans. Its 3.5-liter 5-cylinder engine produces 220 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque.

Maybe that sounds OK when you compare it to the Jeep Grand Cherokee's base V-6 engine, which puts out 210 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque. But the Hummer H3 is lugging around over 900 pounds more weight than the Grand Cherokee.

It feels OK cruising around town but try to get some serious acceleration going -- especially if you happen to be going uphill -- and your macho ride suddenly feels like a six-year-old pulling a wagon full of cinder blocks.

About the ride

By the way, if you're considering the Hummer, I would strongly suggest the automatic transmission, a $1,700 option, for safety reasons. It comes with StabiliTrak, GM's stability-control program, a computerized system that helps prevent rollovers and loss of control during abrupt maneuvers.

Given that the H3 is particularly narrow and tall, a profile that generally maximizes the tendency to tip over, I wouldn't take an H3 without stability control.

The rear suspension is good old-fashioned leaf springs on a big solid axle, so the ride is bouncy and rough. Hummers are supposed to feel like they don't really belong on paved roads, though, so the effect is lively but livable. Actually, I found it kind of fun.

Then again, in my younger days I happily drove a 4x4 with solid axles in the front and the rear. After that, I can't object to much.

Inside, GM's interior designers did a really nice job with the H3. The look is sportier and more modern than the deliberately unfinished look of the Hummer H2. My test model had leather seating surfaces, part of a $1,300 option package. The big, beefy leather-wrapped steering wheel was just great.

Less great was the nasty hard plastic on the dash and door panels. That was a real let-down especially on an interior that was otherwise so nice.

Visibility, especially out the side and back, is sacrificed for the sake of the tiny-windowed armored-truck look.

So even though the H3 is a lot easier to park than the H2, it still requires a lot of guesswork as cars behind you disappear from view at a distance of several feet. There is no optional back-up warning system, either, to let you know when you're getting close to something as you back up.

To make matters worse, big metal "recovery hooks" on the front and back bumpers will maximize the penalty for any vehicle that dares to park in your way. If you happen to parallel park a lot, keep your insurance card handy.

Base price for the Hummer 3 is about $29,000. Well-equipped versions, like the one I tested, can range into the upper $30,000 territory.

Overall, if you're just shopping for a nice mid-sized SUV and you thought you might consider the Hummer H3, stop right there. There are plenty of other SUVs out there that will probably make you happier.

But if the thought of owning a Hummer makes you all giddy, go take a look. Just avoid short highway merge lanes and leave lots of room behind you.

_______________________

Have rising gas prices forced you to take steps to save on gas or to cut back elsewhere in your budget? Have they taken a toll in other ways say, long lines when filling up? We'd like to hear your story for an upcoming feature. E-mail us at gasprices@cnn.com.

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