When I first barreled the new 2003 Hummer H2 into traffic, a woman in the next lane looked up from behind the wheel of her generic four-door family sedan, horrified at the sight of this mammoth, slab-sided beast. The scornful gape of her jaw and the anger in her eyes suggested that I had done something awful, like cook the books of a Fortune 500 company or buy a ticket to a Dana Carvey movie. In reality I was merely another sorry commuter stuck in rush-hour traffic. Still, my fellow motorist seemed appalled by the mere existence of the monster I was driving. Of course, it didn't help that the Hummer's high stance, protruding accessories and aggressive appearance suggest it should be the Official Vehicle of Steroid Abuse.
On the other hand, when I got home my teenage nephew came flying out of the house, shrieking: "Dude! That is totally sick! That is the ill-est thing I've ever seen!" His sisters, aged nineteen and fourteen, followed in short order and they, too, praised the H2 for being freakishly over-the-top. All three grabbed their cameras and demanded to have their pictures taken in front of the H2.
Score: youthful drooling Hummer lovers 3, respectable suburbanite Hummer haters 1. Okay, it's not market research, but it's enough to make me think General Motors has a hit here.
The Hummer's roots date back to 1979, when the Army solicited bids for a new form of military transport called the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV, which came to be nicknamed "Humvee." In 1984 the Army ordered 55,000 of what AM General called the "Hummer" for combat use, and a civilian version went on sale to the public in 1992. While that Hummer was popularized by celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was—and is—horrible for on-road use: huge and ungainly, bog slow, awkward to maneuver. On the other hand, it was good at what it was made for, which is to go where there is no road at all.
In 1999, General Motors purchased the Hummer brand name from AM General; GM renamed the vehicle "Hummer H1" and began work on the new-for-2003 H2. Using the platform developed for the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade, GM crafted a design that combines the rugged military looks of the original Hummer with a platform suitable for real-world commuting. That's why the H2 looks every bit as out-there as its forebears but is as docile to drive as a Tahoe. Yes, it has bigger tires, higher ground clearance and more off-road capability than a Tahoe or Escalade, but it's not at all ungainly on the highway or even in town.
In fact, the H2 is nine inches shorter than a Tahoe and only two inches wider, making it plenty maneuverable, though at 6,400 pounds it accelerates, brakes and turns at a leisurely pace. Its standard-issue GM four-speed automatic transmission is fine for most purposes, but some drivers will lament the lack of a manual gearbox option. Hey, you can't have everything, even in a three-plus-ton Tonka toy.
The cockpit is well equipped—my tester was decked out with leather seats, a Bose audio system and a huge sunroof. There's ample room for five as well as an optional third-row seat to hold a sixth passenger, though that seat comes at the expense of cargo room. Still, a slight space squeeze is a small price to pay for a vehicle that makes as much of a statement as this one does. Whether that statement appeals to you might well be a function of age and social status. But for those who are young or who like to feel that way, this Hummer is a capital-H Hoot.
Scorecard - Hummer H2
BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $48,065/$52,870
MPG: 12-14 (est.)
ENGINE: 6.0-liter V-8
TORQUE: 360 lbs. per ft.
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 9 to 10 seconds