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Pride and Prejudice – Hummer H3 Review

Hummer says it’s like nothing else.  They mean the vehicle, but that also goes for the emotions.

Reprint of a roadtest from 2009!

The pictures show a car, but it’s not a car, it’s an emotion grenade.  Mentioning you’re driving this car is the roughly equivalent to saying you’ve dumped your partner; people instantly split for and against with equal ferocity but nobody knows the full story.  If this car was an AFL team it’d be Collingwood, if it was a sport it would be fox hunting, or even using foxes to hunt ducks.  It is Paris Hilton, you don’t want to know but you look anyway.  As a friend said:

Totally uncool – apart from the fact that it’s an ugly s.o.b., it’s completely inappropriate for Australian roads, it’s a monster to build and fuel, it’s a menace to other road users, and I would challenge anyone to come up with a reason why a suburban (or even rural) household could justify having one.  Gee, guess I don’t like them then 🙂

which is a typical anti-reaction, and that would be fine if it wasn’t based on misconceptions. Because as well as being the most emotionally charged vehicle on the market, it’s also the most misunderstood.   So we’ll start with the Hummer History.

Back in the late ‘70s the US military decided it needed a new small truck and in 1981 awarded a contract to a specialist offroad manufacturer, AM General, who say they “build the toughest trucks on the planet”.  And so in 1985 AM General delivered the first of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, a tongue-twister of a name shortened of course to “Humvee”.  The vehicle became widely used in the US military, and jumped to worldwide attention during the first Gulf War and operation Desert Storm in the early ‘90s.  That sparked consumer demand, so in 1992 AM General produced a civilian version of the Humvee, known as the Hummer.  The differences are basically the creature comforts such as your M16 rifle mount, CD player, gun turrets, ignition keys, glovebox and door chimes; which feature applies to which model is left as an exercise for the reader. 

In 1999 AM General and General Motors finalised an agreement which saw GM take over the Hummer name and production, which was a success so in 2002 GM developed the Hummer H2, and called the original Hummer the H1.  The H2 looked like the H1, but smaller, and it didn’t share the same military heritage.  The H2 was followed in 2006 by the smaller-again the H3, based on much the same running gear as the Rodeo, now Colorado. The H3 found its way to Australia in 2007 and is the subject of this review.

So when my friend, and others, go on about the Hummer’s size they actually mean the H1 or H2, not the H3.  Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to explain this distinction as whoever is expounding their views on things Hummer tends to be frothing at the mouth.

In fact the H3 isn’t as tall as Prado/Pajero, is shorter and about the same weight at 2178kg.  It’s just a touch wider; the H3’s track is 90mm wider, which is even slightly more than the 200 Series.  That means the ADR81/01 fuel consumption is, much to people’s surprise, about the same at 13.8L/100km for the auto.  The huge size and fuel guzzling reputation comes from the H1, which is 2200mm wide compared to the H3’s 1989mm.  Simply, the H3 is no more the H1 than the Hilux is a 200 Series.  That public perception works against Hummer because people think the H3 is a big vehicle, but it also works for them by powerful brand association because while some people hate Hummers, many love them, and some love them because some people hate them….Hummers are like a marriage, the emotions are powerful but complicated.  Unlike the vehicle itself, which is quite simple, almost as if they just bolted a body onto the nearest available chassis.

A brief tour; one engine choice, a 3.7L five-cylinder with a 5-speed manual or like our tester, a 4-speed auto.  The H3 has four disc brakes, constant 4WD with an open centre diff, torsion bar independent front suspension and a leaf-sprung live-axle rear.  There is ABS, traction control, stability control that can be disabled and side airbags so the important safety bases are covered.  And as for the looks; you can judge for yourself.  What you can’t see from the photographs is the H3 Experience, and that starts when you get in.

Like most American vehicles the seating positions are sunken, with a small windscreen and high window sills that make it difficult to even reach out for taking a carpark entry ticket.  At least the A-pillars are small so visibility out front isn’t too bad.  Like so much about the H3, you’ll either love it or hate it, but nobody is going to love the ride.  It took Mrs P, experienced in assessing many a car’s ride, all of five hundred metres to declare it was “horrible”, although that’s a touch harsh.  Chalk that up to an indifferent suburban suspension tune and the rear leaf springs.  How people drive these things with 22” rims we have no idea, one would expect the constant jiggling to loosen the links on their gold chains. 

Now suspension will make or break a vehicle’s handling, so the H3 is at somewhat of a disadvantage with its rear end.  Fortunately, it’s all-wheel-drive so can get its power to the ground, but the simple open centre diff sending torque when it’s not needed is a definite limitation compared to say a more intelligent Torsen or e-diff, and at low speeds the power steering pump can’t keep up with quick demand, and neither can the auto at any velocity.  It’s only a 4-speeder from the ‘90s in a 2009 world of fives and sixes, and there’s no command shift or second-gear start.  The H3 does as well as it can with its transmission and suspension, which means it is nowhere near the top of the current class for onroad dynamics.  You may think the 180kw and 2178kg tare would make it a rocket ship or at least nicely quick, but that would prove you’ve not been paying attention to Fraser’s periodic explanations about engine output.  In the case of the H3 the engine develops 180kw is at a massive 5600rpm, by which time the thing is sounding like it’s about to rip loose from the car and launch into orbit.  Furthermore there’s a measly 328kw of torque at a peaky 4600rpm, and it’s all fed through only four gears.  So as far as oomph goes, suffice it to say that the expectation set by the cover is not matched by the story.  If that 328Nm was developed at a more sensible 3000rpm it’d be much better even if you lost say 20Kw, and especially if Hummer could give it an extra cog.

Now that’s all well and good, but what you really need to know is whether the thing is enjoyable to drive on the road, flaws or no flaws.  And it, despite it all, it is fun.  We looked forwards to driving the thing for reasons that can’t entirely be explained and certainly defy logic.  The steering or brakes aren’t bad, and you definitely won’t hold up traffic, well at least not from a lack of momentum.

Around town the H3 is reasonably manoeuvrable and returned 16.5L/100km, but the visibility to the rear is woeful and not even the Luxury model has reversing sensors or a camera.  On the freeway there’s more wind noise than is ideal, but it’s liveable, and the engine ticks over at 2000rpm as road imperfections give you cause to reflect on the suspension tuning.  But the suspension and the car begin to work better in the rough in high-range track conditions where the Hummer feels quite assured and enjoyable. And in fact, the tougher the going, the better the H3 performs. 

The specs tell the story; the car wears 265/75/16 tyres, which are nearly 32” tall, compared to say Prado’s 30.6, helping it to an impressive 216mm of clearance, good for a live-axle.  Ramp, approach and departure angles are all very good for a stocker, as the H3 almost has a suspension lift as standard.  The engine has sufficient power in low range, and it’s nicely controllable too.  The traction control doesn’t kick in instantly, but it is very effective, the brakes are good and the extra width gives you confidence on the slopes.  The forward visibility is fine, even if it’s restricted side and back.   In other words the H3 has the specs to deliver the goods offroad, and the reality matches the theory.   About the only preconceived notion people actually have right is that the Hummer works offroad, and this is quite correct, the clearance, traction and driveability are first class.  A point to watch is the leaf spring hangers which can get caught on rocks, but otherwise it’s all good.  Even better the spare is on the door, there are factory recovery points front and rear, halfway decent offroad tyres by stock standards and, a rare thing, bashplates made of metal underneath, even if one isn’t finished off properly.  There are not many vehicles as capable as the H3 out of the box, and you can add a bullbar, suspension, snorkel and twin lockers from ARB.  Or if you go the manual-only Adventure Pack which adds crawler gears and a factory rear locker, then only the likes of the Jeep Rubicon will be able to keep up.  We did note a distinct low-range whine which is unfortunate, given that’s the gearing where the H3 does its best work.  We’d further improve the protection with the factory bashplates and rocksliders, but overall, the H3 inspires offroad confidence and is bushable as it comes from the factory. 

So a bonus point for the H3, but now we look at the interior.  Despite the width, the H3 isn’t spacious inside.  One of the car’s first jobs was as the feature vehicle on a 4WD Victoria instructor update weekend, and we tried to fit three reasonable-sized guys in the second row.  Simply could not do it, and if we had we’d probably have overloaded it given I had 30kg of kit in the rear and the payload is a hopeless 429kg.   Maybe because of this the cargo area is tiny, 700mm deep, 1070mm wide at base and 870mm tall, well down on say a Pajero.  Nor can it tow much, only 2000kg for the auto and a mere 1320kg for the manual.  And with no diesel and no long-range tank options the H3 is definitely not a long-range tourer.  Nor it is much of a family wagon for lots of reasons, not least the big rear door opening to the left, the wrong way for our country, tiny door pockets and not much interior storage.

On the value front the H3 struggles.  The Adventure model is $58k, the Wrangler Rubicon $44.   The $56k Luxury H3 is up against Pajero and Prado, but lacks the breadth of their capability, but you do get heated seats.   We found this out by accident after a passenger got in and complained his backside was getting hot. Given we’d just done a stability control on/off demonstration a bit of localised global warming on the passenger front was to be expected, but he confirmed his arse was in fact definitely and independently on fire, so after a search we located the heat control on the side of the seat.  Now the work with the stability control got us thinking, especially after a drive along a muddy road which involved some slipping around and the ESC didn’t interfere when you’d have expected it to at least tap you on the shoulder if not deliver a full-on slap.  Given the H3 is based on the Colorado which has a nice high payload of around 900kg, how come the H3 only manages 429kg?  Our theory is that they didn’t want to do a lot of stability control calibration, and ESC is easier to calibrate with a small payload range.

Normally here we’d write a summary, but is there any point?  This is not a car you buy with the head but with the heart.  Anyway, for the record it’s indifferent to middling onroad but still somehow fun, great off it, not a tourer or a towncar, nor outstanding value. Given the Jeep Wrangler does pretty much everything better one could argue there is no logical reason to own a H3, and that may be true, but who cares about logic, life’s for living.  The H3 has something special and if you’d enjoy one, go for it.  We took it to a going-away party and when the guests realised there was a Hummer outside they immediately piled out for a good look. It was the same all week, everyone wanted to check it out.  Love it, hate it, it’s an interesting car, and while we’ve certainly got our criticisms it’s one of the few cars you could drive off a showroom floor into a weekend of serious offroading and that in itself deserves respect these days.  Perhaps the bottom line is that we enjoyed our Hummer week, were sorry to have to return it, and if a close friend decided they just wanted a Hummer because they just did, then we’d drive them to the dealership and ask to borrow the car the next day just for fun.

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