Arguably, most Hummer owners have no idea what their vehicle is really capable of. It's no big secret that many buyers of these squared-off suburban tanks do so for one primary reason: status. The Hummer's status-symbol status no doubt comes from its off-road ability, but you can bet the majority of them have no plans to ever leave the smooth pavement to go rough-riding in the hills. The truth is, it just feels cool to tool around town behind the wheel of one of these things. After all, a Hummer is pretty much as exotic as an SUV gets.
Nonetheless, it would be a kick to see the look on the faces of these urban cowboys (and girls) if they did indeed venture out into the wild. They would be more than pleasantly surprised... they would be flat-out impressed. We certainly were we when we took to the mountainous rock gardens of northern New Mexico with Hummer's smallest offering, the 2008 H3 Alpha.
Not since the original (and now discontinued) H1 Alpha roamed the earth has another Hummer been given the honor of wearing the performance Alpha designation. It denotes a certain level of power and presence. The vehicle aside, the Alpha badging itself broods a definitive super-hero quality. You can easily imagine the design stamped across the chest of some caped character with disproportionately large biceps.
But there's nothing disproportionate about this Alpha package. As a matter a fact, its newfound upshot of power is a perfect fit. Its heartblood is pumped by a GM 5.3-liter small block V-8. Boasting 300 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, the H3 Alpha is a quick sprinter and can tow up to 6000 pounds of boat.
And off-road it really shines. We powered over rocks and up inclines that seemed impossible to tread. Just throw it into low, lock the diff, and prepare to accomplish the unreasonable. There's 9.1 inches of ground clearance with max approach and departure angles of thirty-nine and thirty-seven degrees, respectively. This Alpha just digs in and goes, crossing the most formidable of impasses.
The new engine's capabilities are even more impressive when you look at the standard H3's barely adequate inline five-cylinder engine, which has been known to frustrate drivers on long ascents and highway on-ramps.
Designing the new V-8 powertrain to Hummer specs did however require some purposeful modifications. The rear axle ratio was changed from 4.56:1 to 4.10:1, and the front differential case is now a tougher cast iron. Even a unique oil pan has been utilized to ensure constant lubrication even on steep grades.
Like all Hummers past and present, the H3 Alpha's V-8 will be criticized for its combined government fuel economy rating of 14 mpg. But there is a bright side; all that extra power comes with only a 1 mpg penalty compared to the significantly weaker in-line five.
The H3's chassis has also been revised to accommodate the new engine. Its suspension is now outfitted with higher rate torsion bars and re-valved shocks to handle a more aggressive driving style.
These upgrades, combined with the H3's more maneuverable size (relative to the mega H2), makes for a vehicle that can move deftly between many a rock and a hard place. We managed to tread some of the narrowest trails without a nick to the body. The H3 has the uncanny ability to weave through tight spots that at first appear too small.
Fully aware that most H3 Alpha's will never see the likes of such axle-twisting action, GM made sure that this mid-size SUV offers a solid and compliant ride on the normal streets. Its feel is certainly less truck-like and more comfortable than the uplevel H2, making it a fine choice for hauling kids, cargo, or going off on weekend road trips.
With plenty of on-road attitude, the Alpha stands out from five-cylinder H3 models with a standard Chrome Appearance Package. This includes sixteen-inch chrome wheels and a bright Alpha badge on the tailgate.
Although interior changes are for the most part limited to badging, the opulent cabin is expectedly upscale, offering a roster of techno-savvy amenities. The most eye-catching is the back-up camera display screen, which hides within the rear view mirror housing, and automatically slides out into view when summoned. The whole H3 line elevates its passenger safety with standard head curtain side airbags, which were previously optional. Other standard safety-related features include StabiliTrak electronic stability control and four-wheel ABS with traction control.
Starting at roughly forty-thousand dollars, the H3 Alpha is a very complete package, inside and out. And yes it's true, most of them will never leave the confines of suburbia. But so what? If this utility gets you the head-turning looks, carries the kids to soccer practice, and chariots you comfortably to work, then who's to say it's not for you? And every so often, while you're sitting at a red light and dreaming of leaving the concrete jungle for a real one, at least you know you can.