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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Mike Hanley
November 19, 2008
Editor's note: This review was written in September 2007 about the 2008 Hummer H3. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Ever since it debuted for the 2006 model year, Hummer's H3 has been one of the toughest-looking SUVs around, while its engine offerings have been comparatively puny. That changes with the debut of the new H3 Alpha, which gives the midsize SUV V-8 power for the first time. Already a competent off-roader, the thirsty V-8 transforms the H3 into a truck that's much easier to live with in urban and suburban jungles, which many H3s call home. Alpha Male Styling The H3 exudes toughness to the point of being almost ridiculous, what with its bulging fenders, short side windows and massive tires. Toyota's FJ Cruiser is another radically styled SUV like the H3, but it doesn't have the hard-edged look the Hummer manages to pull off.
Alpha models include a Chrome Appearance package that consists of chrome door handles and mirrors, as well as 16-inch chrome wheels and a badge on the swing gate. All in all, it's a subtle change from the regular H3, which is surprising because Hummer doesn't normally do subtle; just look at its product lineup. Alpha = Acceleration While the Alpha doesn't look much different from the regular H3, what's under the hood sets it apart from its siblings. The base H3 is powered by a 242-horsepower, 3.7-liter inline-five-cylinder engine that makes 242 pounds-feet of torque, while the Alpha's 5.3-liter V-8 generates 300 hp and 320 pounds-feet of torque. Hummer says the Alpha can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in about 8 seconds, which isn't bad when you consider the SUV's near 5,000-pound curb weight. The V-8 gets an EPA-estimated 13/16 mpg (city/highway); in comparison, the inline-five with the automatic transmission gets 14/18 mpg.
The Alpha feels relatively light on its feet in city traffic, with the V-8 producing strong acceleration. Teamed with a four-speed automatic transmission, the powertrain will quickly kick down when additional power is needed for highway passing.
While it's rather loud inside the H3, I'm not ready to write this off as a negative, because I can see some Alpha buyers really enjoying the V-8 rumble that invades the cabin when accelerating mildly, not to mention the roar that accompanies full-throttle acceleration. Less appealing is the significant amount of wind noise at 70 mph on the highway. Ride & Handling While the H3 attracts buyers for various reasons, like styling and offroad credentials (which include the ability to drive through a 2-foot-deep stream and scale a 16-inch ledge), its ride and handling probably isn't one of them. Potential buyers need to realize that they're getting a real truck in the H3, not one of the new breed of crossover SUVs that ride and handle more like a car.
In city and suburban settings, the H3 bounds over rough patches of road with exaggerated body motions that lead to quite a bit of rocking back and forth and side to side. The H3's structure isn't the most solid, either; it shakes at bumps and holes in the road that other SUVs have little trouble dispatching.
Even though the H3 is Hummer's smallest model, it's by no means tiny. It feels big when you're driving it, and sizing up how close you are to other cars and obstacles is more difficult in the H3 than in many other vehicles, even full-size SUVs. You end up driving it gingerly in congested areas.
Hummer says the 2008 H3's steering system has been upgraded for improved on-center feel and offroad reliability. The system's modest power assistance gives the steering wheel just enough heft, which feels appropriate for this vehicle, and the H3 responds readily to turns of the wheel. The Inside Subtle changes to the Alpha cabin include special emblems on the steering wheel and front-seat head restraints. Other than that, the interior is much like the regular H3's, again continuing the subtle theme seen on the outside of the SUV. The optional leather front bucket seats are comfortable and feature partial power operation (the backrest angle is manually adjustable). The tall seating position means forward views aren't obstructed by most passenger vehicles, which somewhat makes up for the climb required to get into the driver's seat.
The thick-rimmed steering wheel and beefy gear selector fall nicely to hand, and while the switches for the power windows and locks look dated, most of the cabin's trim pieces have a nice appearance. The optional front moonroof is among the largest I've seen.
One of the biggest problems with the H3 is its limited side and rear visibility. This is partly due to the SUV's short windows, which sometimes makes changing lanes — and other maneuvers that require looking somewhere other than straight ahead — a faith-based experience. The newly optional backup camera helps in this regard, but it only works when the H3's transmission is in Reverse.
The 60/40-split backseat provides decent room for adults. The seats don't offer as much adjustability as some other SUVs (they don't slide forward and back, or recline), and folding the backrests down is a multi-step process that involves repositioning the seat cushions forward and down to the floor, then folding the backrests. This isn't especially tedious to do, but the bigger issue is that you don't get a nice, flat extended cargo floor when you're done; the backrests still angle upward somewhat. Safety The 2008 H3 now has standard side curtain airbags to protect front and backseat occupants. Also standard are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Cargo & Towing The 29.5-cubic-foot cargo area behind the H3's rear seats is slightly bigger than the FJ Cruiser's. Folding the backseat provides a maximum of 55.7 cubic feet of space, which falls well short of the FJ Cruiser's 66.8 cubic feet. The backs of the rear seats are finished in hard plastic, which should make it easy to slide cargo on them, but also makes them easier to scratch.
In addition to the improved driving performance, the Alpha's V-8 engine is a boon for towing. Regular H3s with the 3.7-liter inline-five-cylinder are rated to tow up to 4,500 pounds, but the Alpha can pull a hefty 6,000 pounds when properly equipped. H3 Alpha in the Market It's a bit ironic that Hummer's fuel-conscious model now has a V-8 engine option that drinks more gas than a Chevrolet Suburban. While that's sure to rile environmentalists, a V-8 is exactly what the heavy H3 has needed all along in order to make it better suited to everyday driving.
That extra dose of performance comes at a monetary price in addition to an environmental one, as the Alpha starts at nearly $40,000. While you also get some additional amenities with the engine upgrade, that heady sum is more a reflection of the premium position Hummer enjoys in the market. And it gets away with it; despite styling-induced visibility problems and unrefined ride quality, Hummer shouldn't have much difficulty moving the Alpha off the lot.