H2 Fever

Our Senior Editor, Jack Roberts, was recently given a chance to drive the SUV everybody’s talking about: Hummer’s H2. Here’s his report.

What’s it like to test-drive a new H2 for a week?

Surreal.

I’m glad it’s gone.

Don’t get me wrong. The Hummer H2 is a remarkable vehicle that more than lives up to both its predecessor’s heritage and its current reputation. And I’m extremely grateful to GM for tossing me the keys to a sage green model and turning me loose for a week. It was a blast to drive and I’ll miss it.

But all the same, I’m glad they came and got it.

When I was a teenager, I thought the ultimate in cool would be to have a really hot car that turned heads at traffic lights and created a stir wherever you went. Well, after driving an H2 for a week, I can now reliably report that such an experience is unnerving, to say the least. Everywhere I went in the Hummer, people pointed, heads turned and necks craned for a better look. Strangers in gas stations and convenience stores ambled up to inquire about price, performance and luxury. Pretty girls honked their horns at me when I went past (which wasn’t really a bad thing). And cops in squad cars waved at me as I cruised down the roadway, which is enough to freak anybody out.

I didn’t even cross the parking lot at the office before I had a crowd of editors and salesmen poking, prodding and sitting in the Hummer. Of course I had to give rides, and of course I had to let my various bosses behind the wheel. And this went on all week. It was almost impossible to get any work done. Every 20 minutes or so someone would knock on my door and say, “Hey man, let’s go for a ride in your Hummer.”

What I’m saying is that if you like attention, then Hummer’s new H2 is the vehicle for you. Subtle it’s not. And if you don’t like the sensation of being constantly gawked at and talked about, you probably ought to stick to driving something a little more low-key – like a Cadillac Escalade.

Surprising sophistication
But if you’re looking to make a statement, then you definitely need an H2. They’re large machines – so I suppose it’s only natural that they collect stares when they go by. When you first get behind the wheel, you feel like you’re not only taking up a whole lane by yourself, but that you’re spilling over into the other guy’s lane as well. It takes a little while to mentally adjust to the H2’s bulk. But this adjustment process is helped along by the fact that every other car on the road scrambles out of your way when they see you coming.

But don’t be intimidated. The truth is the H2 drives extremely well. It’s the Jackie Gleason of SUVs – big and bulky, but surprisingly nimble on the dance floor. Everyone I let behind the wheel was blown away by its finesse through curves and turns, its maneuverability (despite its massive bulk) in parking lots, its ample power and the outstanding luxury levels inside. I watched more than one friend climb from the driver’s seat with his mental gears working overtime, trying to figure out how in the hell they could finagle the financing and talk their wives into letting them have one. It’s worth pointing out that as I write this, not a single one of them is anywhere near acquiring an H2, and several wives are sick to death of hearing what great trucks they are.

Though intimidating at first glance, the H2 actually drives more like a car than a truck. Its ride characteristics put me in the mind of those big Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles from the ’70s. My demo model featured GM’s big block Vortec 6000 engine under the hood. And although you’re never going to burn rubber in a vehicle this big, the Vortec put out ample power and surprised many of my friends and co-workers with its responsiveness.

The smoothness of the ride is not to be believed. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the interstate going the legally posted speed limit (ahem), or juttering along a dirt road out in the country: The H2’s ride is surprisingly docile. A buddy of mine took it down the worst road in our part of Tuscaloosa County. He couldn’t get over how easily the Hummer disregarded the potholes and cracked pavement. “My teeth would be chattering right now in my truck,” he said.

Far be it from me to criticize GM and Hummer’s marketing efforts, but almost everyone who climbed into the H2 was floored by its luxurious interior. Apparently the word isn’t fully out yet that this Hummer ain’t meant to carry soldiers. “My” demo model listed for $55,725 and was loaded to the gills with options including leather, heated seats sun/moon roof, full instruments, Bose sound system and power everything.

Passenger after passenger commented on how comfortable the seats were, and about how much room they had to stretch out. But despite the room, the driver’s seat and the control layout is surprisingly compact. Every switch and control is within easy reach, although you’ve got to stretch a bit to move the rear-view mirror. The tilt steering wheel and the armrests would do a sports car enthusiast proud, and the stereo is not to be believed. If you’re in the market for a GM car or truck, and you are even remotely interested in music, you need to go ahead and spec the Bose sound system. The high quality sound and dynamic range it offers is well worth the additional cost.

Serious off-road chops
Creature comforts aside, how does the H2 perform off road? A quick jaunt down U.S. Highway 11 to a friend’s hunting retreat in Hale County, Alabama, allowed some friends and me the chance to find out.

It had been raining hard for a couple a days, so the entire farm was a soggy quagmire of Alabama gumbo mud. But as sloppy as the terrain was, we never came anywhere near to getting the Hummer bogged down. It was so sure-footed, it was all we could do to get it to fishtail a bit as it charged down the track and through the slop.

Since it was a loaner, we refrained from any extreme mud-ridin’ (as it’s called in the South). But the Hummer not only dared to tread through mud that would swamp most pickup trucks, it did so at 20 or 30 mph, sending sheets of brown water and mud jetting into the air as it blew past. But the H2’s frame and suspension are so beefy, the ride was uncommonly smooth, even when crossing the deepest ruts and negotiating knee-deep mud holes.

We did consider taking it along a powerline to see how well it could handle some really serious mud and a bit of climbing, but the hunting club bordering my friend’s place decided they didn’t want an H2 plowing up their green fields.

Which was probably just as well. That powerline looked pretty intimidating. We were split down the middle as to whether or not the Hummer was up to the task. I think it could have handled it – especially considering we’d never needed to shift into four-low on muddy tracks. But, on the other hand, who wants to walk to the barn in the rain, jump-start the tractor and pull a $60,000 truck out of green field?

Arianna Huffington would not approve – but who cares what she thinks?
There’s no doubt the H2 was a hit with my friends and co-workers – men and women alike. And although GM has seriously upgraded its ride and comfort levels, the performance that made Hummer a household name in the first place hasn’t been sacrificed one bit. Unlike some SUVs, which wouldn’t last 10 seconds in some serious mud, Hummer hasn’t compromised the H2’s performance one bit. This is one truck that lives up to its name off the paved road.

But that performance comes at a price. Despite all the rave reviews from my friends, there is a downside to driving an H2: fuel economy. Frankly, the H2 is a gas hog. It goes through a tank of unleaded like the Wermacht goes through France. According to the on-board computer, my loaner averaged 10.2 miles per gallon the week I had it. And that included a fair amount of highway driving.

Now, I don’t give a damn what Arriana Huffington thinks about the ethics of driving a big SUV. It’s still a free country. But I put almost $100 worth of fuel into the H2’s 32-gallon tank over six days – and that’s enough to make you think twice about using one as a daily driver. But, on the other hand, if you can afford the H2’s $55,000 price tag, the odds are you’re probably not going to sweat a $45 fill-up every week or so.

All in all, Hummer’s new H2 is an impressive mix of luxury and performance. It is extremely well thought out, and commands attention anywhere it goes. And, as far as high-end SUVs go, the H2’s $48,000 base price is downright reasonable considering its capabilities.