SOUTH BEND, Ind. P The Hummer H2 is engineered to do things average buyers would never think of doing with their SUV, and that is precisely why it is wears the Hummer badge.

The H2 is the civilian Hummer. The only thing it shares with the military-based H1 is the look, name and a couple of tow hooks. It was designed and developed by General Motors, but it is built by AM General in a new plant in Mishawaka, Ind., home of the original Hummer. GM licensed the Hummer name from AM General and has an agreement to buy completed H2s from it. Since the Hummer H1 is derived from the military model that won such praise in the Gulf War, putting it in an urban setting is about as practical as wearing combat boots with a suit.

The H2, on the other hand, was designed for urban use from the outset. It looks about as serious as General Patton on a bad day. The frame is a shortened version of GM's 2500-series three-quarter-ton pickup truck chassis. The center section has been boxed for stiffness, while the front and rear sections have shorter overhangs for off-road maneuverability. The H2's 122.8-inch wheelbase is 6 inches longer than a Chevy Tahoe, yet overall length is 9 inches less.

In terms of luxury, the H2 is much like the GMC Denali, with optional leather seats, power sunroof, Bose stereo, dual-zone automatic climate control and rear-seat audio controls. The rocker panels have rock guards, and flares keep rocks from damaging the body.

Optional side steps make getting in and out easier and they can be removed by taking out a handful of bolts. Front and rear tow hooks are standard, as are front and rear receivers for trailer hitches. The front hitch would be handy for backing a boat down a ramp or parking a trailer in a campground.

The H2 will be sold only through 150 planned Hummer dealers, many of which will build new facilities. Prices start at $48,800.

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of product development for GM, described the Hummer as an "iconic brand whose military heritage is undiluted by extraneous vehicles." The H2 is unquestionably rugged, he said, yet it reflects luxury "in the sense of acquiring more capability than you will ever need." Owning something that is capable of more than we will ever use triggers a pride of ownership, he said.

The engine is GM's 6.0-liter V-8, and it cranks out 325 horsepower and 385 foot-pounds of torque. A unique electronically controlled throttle changes sensitivity when the low-gear transfer case is engaged, giving the driver a throttle that is easier to modulate in difficult off-road conditions. Full-time four-wheel drive is standard, and the driver has seven driving modes from which to choose. An Eaton electronic rear differential lock permits climbing over large rocks or up steep grades. The traction control system applies the brake to any slipping wheel, enabling the H2 to move if only one wheel has grip.

EPA fuel economy numbers are not required for vehicles in this segment, but our test vehicle averaged a little over 11 miles per gallon in city and highway driving.

To see just how capable the H2 is, a group of automotive writers tested it recently on the Hummer test track here. On a small infield section, we drove over huge rocks, up steep slopes and through nearly 2 feet of water. It walked up a 16-inch step as easily as a caterpillar slithers over a log. Out on trails through the 326 acres of Hummer's test facility, however, we really put it to the test. Spring rains left the ground wet, and one of our caravan got high-centered in muddy ruts that were nearly 15 inches deep. Tow straps to the rescue. The rest of us made it through. At one point, we had to creep down a steep slope, then charge through a muddy hole and up the other side. That's when the H2's locking differentials, TC2 traction control and height-adjustable rear air suspension all came into play. I slithered up the hill with the tires spinning so hard that mud splattered in through he sunroof.

Our mud wallow was a pretty good test of the H2's ability to deliver "more capability than you will ever need." I can't imagine more than handful of H2 owners who would ever put their $50,000 trucks to a tougher test, but it is clear the vehicle can handle almost anything you can throw at it. GM engineers developed its off-road ability on trails such as Poison Spider in Utah and the rugged Rubicon Trail in California, a 14-mile boulder crawl that takes two days to complete.

On the streets and highways where the H2 will live most of the time, it drives pretty much like a Chevy Tahoe. The squared-off profile means headroom is not as plentiful, especially with the optional sunroof, and the meaty tires with all-terrain tread are a little noisy at freeway speeds. It holds five people in a conventional seating configuration, but a single, third-row seat expands seating to six. The back seat is a bit snug, and almost half of the cargo space is consumed by the in-vehicle spare tire.

The interior design is as chunky as the exterior. The seats are similar to those of a GM SUV, but the instrument panel is completely new. Gauges and controls are borrowed from other GM trucks, as is the steering wheel with fingertip controls. The shift lever looks as if it came from a Boeing 747, but the linkage is borrowed from a Chevy Trailblazer.

Hummer's H2 distinguishes itself from other luxury SUVs by being truly capable off-road. Plant capacity is roughly 40,000 a year, so you won't find one on every corner of the suburbs, and intentionally so.

A smaller Hummer, the H3, will be built at some unspecified time in the next couple of years, and there will be an SUT variation of the H2. The Hummer may have been instrumental in the Gulf War, and GM is banking on the name being instrumental in its war to gain SUV market share.

Price
The base price is $48,800, including destination charges. Two option packages will be offered. The Lux Series, priced at $2,575, includes AM/FM radio with six-disc CD changer, heated leather front seats, chrome appearance package, tubular assist steps and custom carpet floor mats. The Adventure Series, priced at $2,215, includes an air suspension package, brush guard, first-aid kit, tool kit and portable lamp, six-disc CD changer, roof rack crossbars and custom carpet floor mats.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles. Point: The Hummer H2 is a go-anywhere vehicle with amazing off-road capabilities, especially considering its size. It looks rugged, yet stylish, is well-appointed and is likely to become the darling of the wealthy off-road set.

Counterpoint: Fuel economy is pretty poor, headroom is limited by the sunroof and the luggage space is compromised by the interior mounting of the spare tire.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 6.0-liter, 325-hp V-8
Transmission: automatic Four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 122.8 inches
Curb w eight: 6,400 lbs.
Base price: $48,800
As driven: not available
Mpg rating: 11 mpg average.
> >