Hummer H2

True to its go-anywhere Hummer heritage, the H2 starts to excel where roads end and trails begin. Famed off-road challenges with names like Devil's Revenge, Poison Spider, and Porcupine are a breeze for this joint effort by General Motors (hardware) and AM General (manufacturing), which goes on sale this summer. Gifted with exceptionally short overhangs, an expertly tuned chassis, and a solid drivetrain, the military Humvee's civilian little brother can do stunts off the beaten track that no other truck of similar weight and size can. Despite certain flaws, the H2's on-road performance is more impressive than its appalling aerodynamics (a bricklike drag coefficient of 0.57) and the considerable 6400-pound curb weight suggest.

But forget such subtleties as vehicle dynamics for a moment; for most people, the most important H2 attribute is its ability to draw a crowd. Its unmistakable proportions--low roofline, wide track, long wheelbase, slab sides--mimic the awesome (if rudimentary) H1. The sparkling seven-slat grille, a mean-looking windshield angled at an almost-upright 30 degrees, and a wheels-at-the-corners stance give the H2 undeniable presence. There is no doubt about it: On the street-cred scale, the macho truck scores a perfect ten.

Inside, the H2 is less impressive. Most of the plastics are low-rent, and the fit and finish of our test vehicle earned a B-minus, at best. There are also a few minor irritations inside, such as the protruding parking-brake pedal which tends to deal blows to your shin upon entry and exit. The comfortable but annoyingly unsupportive seats and the absence of stability control and side air bags are glaring oversights. On the plus side, the Hummer sports a useful multifunction steering wheel, power-folding side mirrors, and decent ergonomics. The base model retails at $48,800, but adding leather upholstery, heated seats with memory function, a Bose premium audio system, a gigantic power moonroof, a bull bar with a winch, and the chrome package pushes the price close to $55,000.

The area that disappoints most is interior packaging. There is barely enough front legroom, definitely not enough rear legroom, and the luggage compartment is dominated by the full-size spare and the optional single third-row seat. Owners who want to carry more than four adults and a picnic basket should specify the sturdy roof rack and/or the rear-mounted tire carrier. Not yet available but definitely on the horizon are road-friendlier tires with softer sidewalls and an after-market front differential lock. And in about two years, expect the H2 to offer GM's torquey 6.6-liter Duramax diesel engine; its arrival will coincide with the launch of the first H2 derivative, the Midgate-equipped 2005 SUT pickup. If all goes according to plan, the AM General factory in Mishawaka, Indiana, will be building 40,000 H2 SUVs and 8000 H2 SUTs per year by then.

Time to hit the road. On Utah's scenic byways, the behavior of the giant land crab was both benign and uninspiring. "It was not our intention to build a Porsche beater," said program engineering manager Bill Knapp, whose prime on-road objective was safe and predictable handling. The steering certainly provides plenty of on-center feel, and neither the directional stability nor the quiet, supple ride suffers much from the wide, low-profile tires. Although the H2 doesn't fall apart when pushed, it understeers clumsily at the limit despite a 40/60 percent front/rear torque split, and its brakes fade quickly. Body roll is, as you might expect, significant. On gravel and sand, however, the entertainment factor instantly triples. Here, the H2 invites you to use steering and throttle to dial in the preferred attitude within a spectrum that ranges from mild understeer to mild oversteer.

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