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2009 Hummer H3T

Marc NoordelooswritersJim Fetsphotographers

You'll never hear auto writers complain that a Lotus Elise can't ford a two-foot-deep creek or climb a 60-percent grade, so why persist in deriding the lackluster on-pavement performance of off-road-focused SUVs and trucks? Probably because, image aside, most of these rough riders never meet anything more challenging than a heavy rainstorm or a gravel driveway. That includes General Motors' megamacho Hummers. Nonetheless, just as Lotus always conducts its press launches at racetracks, Hummer chose the rocky trails of Moab, Utah, for the first drive of its new four-door pickup, the H3T.

The T, as the gang from Hummer refers to the truck, is basically an H3 SUV with a 22-inch longer wheelbase and a five-foot pickup bed behind the rear seats. The result is a pretty big truck; it's only eleven inches shorter than a Chevrolet Avalanche. Engine choices for the H3T are the same as for the H3 SUV, so, sadly, the pickup's extra 150 pounds make the H3T even slower. A lethargic and long-geared four-speed automatic neuters both the 242-hp five-cylinder and the 300-hp V-8. You can get a five-speed manual with the smaller engine, although, in the SUV at least, very few buyers choose it.

But Hummer product director Ross Hendrix filled us in on a little secret. The much-unloved in-line five-cylinder will (finally) be going away. A direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6 from the new Chevrolet Traverse crossover will take its place. More important, this new V-6 and the V-8 both will get a six-speed automatic. E85 fuel capability also is in the cards. While this is all good news, we'll have to wait until the 2010 model year for the change.

Hummer is also seriously looking at diesel power for the H3 and the H3T. Markets outside of America will soon get an Italian-sourced, 2.8-liter turbo-diesel, but that engine can't easily meet U.S. emissions standards. GM has a new V-6 diesel that will find its way into both the Cadillac CTS and the next Saab 9-5 in Europe, and Hummer is looking at using this engine in the States. We like this idea, provided diesel prices come down from the stratosphere (at this writing, diesel fuel in Michigan costs nearly $1 per gallon more than regular unleaded).

But back to Moab and the H3T. As we pulled out of the hotel parking lot onto the paved road for a brief route to the trails, we were quickly reminded why Hummer chose to take us off-road for the majority of our drive. The H3T may ride better than its SUV sibling due to its longer wheelbase, but the dead steering, archaic transmission, and secondary chassis vibrations clearly show that there are better options if you're looking for on-road drivability.

Luckily for Hummer, the pickup shined once we reached the Sand Flats Recreation Area near Moab, where we ran the Hell's Revenge 4x4 Trail, a 6.5-mile route that is both challenging and full of gorgeous scenery. Our truck featured the optional off-road adventure package. Included are 33-inch tires, different shocks, a revised low-range transfer case, and the secret weapon for rock crawling: locking front and rear differentials. No sheer rock face, deep hole, or collection of boulders could stop the H3T. Well done, Hummer, for making a truck that doesn't just look the part.

Unfortunately for Hummer, not many people commute daily on a road called Hell's Revenge. Plus, with growing concerns about fuel economy, it's high time for GM's most rugged brand to reassess how it will move ahead into the future. One Hummer engineer shared his interesting idea for greener paths - use technology from the upcoming Chevy Volt to build a hybrid Hummer, since the torque of an electric motor paired with a small diesel engine could make for an even more impressive off-roader. But for now, prospective H3T buyers who want a rock-crawling, mud-slinging pickup but who intend to spend most of their time on pavement would do well to wait for the new V-6 and the more modern six-speed automatic.