Remember the original Hummer, the military vehicle that AM General converted for consumer use? And remember when GM made consumer-friendlier versions of the Hummer in the form of the H2, H2 SUT, H3 and H3T that maintained that military look?
Things didn't work out so well for GM and the Hummer brand, but there are still many who think a ruggedly refined and muscular-looking big SUV or pickup truck has a consumer base. And if U.S. Specialty Vehicle has its way, it will be providing those potential customers more choices, one of them being the Rhino GX 4×4.
We first saw the monster truck in a basement booth at the ; we'd never seen anything like it before.
U.S. Specialty Vehicle is one of a growing number of boutique automotive customizers that are finding a niche in the U.S. and the global marketplace building custom vehicles not available from the big automakers or military defense suppliers. We should note that these companies – American Expedition Vehicles, Icon 4×4 and Legacy Motors are among USSV's competitors — are not building are not dumbed-down versions of military project trucks. Instead, these are top-quality, luxurious cruisers for consumers who want something unique and dramatic.
From what we experienced during our short drive in a Rhino GX in the suburbs outside Los Angeles, it's no wonder USSV is selling 200 of these luxurious road-warrior people-haulers per year, most of which get shipped to China and the Middle East where price is no object.
The Rhino GX starts it life as a Ford F-450 two-door chassis-cab dualie with either the gas V-10 or Power Stroke diesel V-8 for motivation. It's worth noting that since the underpinnings are from the Ford factory chassis cab, the optioned Power Stroke turbo-diesel is the de-rated version producing 355 horsepower and 670 pounds-feet of torque rather than the current max-rated Super Duty Power Stroke available with 440 horsepower and 860 pounds-feet of torque.
Underneath the truck, USSV keeps the stock front suspension and axle, using the factory coil springs and shocks. In the rear, however, it's a little different. To provide the most comfort in a ginormous vehicle like this, USSV replaces the Ford factory dualie live-axle-and-leaf-spring setup in favor of a multilink military-grade live axle that uses hydraulically controlled heavy-duty struts that can adjust to any road condition or input in micro seconds. In addition to providing load-leveling and a kneel setting, this active rear suspension also helps deliver a factory-rated 14,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating to the GX, which calculates to about 5,000 pounds of payload capacity on a fully loaded model. Towing capacity is 20,000 pounds.
The wheelbase of the truck is just more than140 inches with an overall length close to 19 feet, making the GX just a touch shorter than a half-ton Ford F-150 SuperCrew short bed. The GX is taller, wider and heavier than a normal 4×4 half-ton.
USSV makes the angular steel shell of the Rhino GX body at its Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., headquarters, creating a unique body shape that emulates the look of F-117A Night Hawk and SR-71 Blackbird fighter jets, both of which have stealth capabilities. The truck also is meant to look like a Desert Storm troop carrier with its lower footholds and upper grab handles built into the body.
For now the truck can be ordered only in SUV configurations in Stealth Black, Tactic Green or Desert Sand with seating for four to six. But USSV provides a huge list of standard features and special options that cater nicely to Rolls-Royce or extreme adventure/survivalist enthusiasts. Our favorite view of the truck is from the rear where the full-size spare sits on a heavy-duty tire carrier, which can swing out of the way to open the troop-carrier-styled rear access door. You can even order the Rhino GX with bulletproof glass.
As you might have guessed, this vehicle can get expensive, with prices starting at $194,000 and easily climbing to $250,000 with all the special-order boxes checked.
The Rhino GX will be sold throughout the U.S. at select high-end automotive dealerships; Lamborghinis, Bentleys and Range Rovers are among the vehicles that usually get cross-shopped with this type of rig.
During our short test drive, we found the Rhino GX to be surprisingly nimble for its size and even quick off the line. Visibility from the driver's seat is tricky given the smallish rear window, but the decently sized Ford towing mirrors do a good job of minimizing blind spots.
Our test truck was equipped with 38-inch Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ tires (on 10-lug 20-inch alloy wheels), which looked properly proportioned but delivered more road noise than we like. Still, the aggressive tire tread is a perfect fit with the "wide-mouth" Jeep-like fender flares and tall stance. Although our test truck didn't have them, we recommend ordering the auto-retracting side steps to make entering and exiting the vehicle easier.
We performed several emergency brake tests and found the stopping power to be strong, smooth and predictable, especially with just three adults inside. Checks of the factory computer trip readout (reflashed for the new tire size) revealed numbers in the low teens with the V-10 gas engine when comfortably cruising through city streets. On the highway we saw those numbers jump, averaging between 15 and 16 mpg. During a long-distance drive of their own, USSV employees said a diesel-equipped Rhino GX averaged more than 17 mpg, delivering just less than 19 mpg when cruising interstates.
As impressive as the Rhino GX looks on the outside, it's really the interior that puts this big truck in a class by itself. Due to the height of the chassis-cab platform, the rear floor of the GX sits higher than other full-size SUVs, but the unique shell allows for extra headroom so passengers don't feel restricted or confined. Additionally, sitting up a little higher provides a more commanding view for all passengers. Our test truck came with two custom rear bucket seats (with tons of legroom) with a center pass-through to the cargo area in back; however, you can order a pair a removable flip-and-fold third-row seats to accommodate two more passengers to carry a full family.
There's no doubt unique vehicles like Rhino GX will catch the eye of wealthy car collectors and "Duck Dynasty" types around the world, but to make the 4×4 more accessible to a wider audience, USSV has created a smaller, less expensive model that starts at $75,000. Called the Rhino XT, it looks like a cross between a Toyota FJ Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and a tank; it will be lighter, will seat four and will offer a Pentastar V-6 gas engine. It will be available later this year.
For now, USSV doesn't have any plans to make a pickup truck version of the GX, but then Hummer didn't plan to make the H2 SUT or H3T at its startup. Don't be surprised if you see more customized full-size ultra-luxury pickups in the future. If Ford, Ram and GM can sell thousands of fully loaded one-ton dualie diesel premium pickups each year, you can bet smaller companies are going to want some of that market. Our guess is it won't be too long before one of the one-ton pickup makers is selling their top-of-the-line haulers for $100,000. And it likely won't have the world-class rear suspension setup the Rhino GX offers.
Cars.com photos by Mark Williams