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Review: 2003 Hummer H2

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SEE ALSO: Hummer Buyer's Guide

Base price: $48,065 Price as tested: $52,870 EPA mileage: not rated

By Des Toups

Nobody stares at a Chevy Suburban. Everybody stares at a Hummer H2, which collects eyeballs the way pockets collect lint. Which is the point, after all.

No vehicle on the market commands -- and demands -- attention the way the H2 does.

Despite the Hummer's relatively benign 189-inch length, shorter than a Ford Explorer, its puffed-up presence overwhelms everything else on the road.

The huge, slotted chrome (editors note it’s plastic) grille fills rearview mirrors; the slab-sided body presents a wall of painted metal and towering tires to the next lane. Running boards aren't an affectation, they're a necessity. A single parking space won't handle its 81-inch width (plus a foot on either side for mirrors).

If the H2 were a person, it would suck all the air out of a room. All of this bluster is wrought in the name of off-road ability -- something General Motors, in massaging its large-truck platform with minimal overhangs, a raised suspension, new sub-frame, locking rear differential and all-wheel traction control, has provided in spades.

The H2 succeeds admirably in replicating the look and off-road abilities of the hulking, legendary H1 (the civilian version of the Army combat vehicle now also sold by GM). It is far better mannered, more comfortable and downright pint-sized in comparison, yet offers the same feel of relentless force in the face of immoveable objects.

Indeed, upon climbing into the driver's seat, one is immediately seized with the impulse to run over something. Fortunately, the feeling passes. And then, unfortunately, the H2 must pass muster as a passenger vehicle, duty for which it is considerably less suited.

Perhaps it's a good thing the H2 does everything but shout its presence, for the person behind the wheel can't see much at all. The near-vertical side windows are so shallow and so high off the ground that many cars pass without the H2 driver ever knowing they were there.

The driver sits well inboard, making matters worse. The large side mirrors, equally high, aren't much help. Headrests, spare tire and rear pillars create a blind spot to the rear capable of hiding a minivan.

Parallel parking requires a spotter, because everything smaller than a building is invisible. I've driven Corvettes with better visibility -- and they didn't weigh more than three tons.

That weight -- 1,000 pounds or more heavier than its Chevrolet truck kin -- means everything about the way the H2 drives on pavement suffers, the same way your own abilities would be compromised if you carried an extra 40 pounds and wore clunky shoes.

It's felt most in the brakes, which simply aren't up to the task of halting this much mass. One freeway panic stop will be enough to convince most H2 drivers to leave themselves plenty of room. But at least its four-wheel discs are huge, the better to fend off fade.

All versions of the H2 share a 6-liter, 316-horsepower V-8. Torque, the muscle that actually propels this hefty machine, is a respectable 360 lb.-ft, but the H2 seems a logical candidate for GM's super brawny, 6.6-liter Duramax diesel, which develops about the same horsepower but delivers a mighty 520 lb.-feet of torque. That option certainly wouldn't hurt the H2's dismal gas mileage; the H2 sucks its 32-gallon tank dry alarmingly quickly. We never saw double digits.

Power seats and a nine-speaker CD/cassette stereo are standard. An Adventure series includes a trick, self-leveling air suspension with even more travel, an onboard air compressor (so true off-roaders can deflate the tires for sand and re-inflate them afterward) and a first-aid kit.

A Luxury series adds heated leather-trimmed seats, a 6-disc changer, side steps and lots of brushed chrome accents. Niceties such as a sunroof, brush guards and off-road lights are optional. The H2 seems sparsely featured for a sport-utility in this price class, which includes such capable machines as the Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover Discovery.

Even with every box checked and a sticker nearing $57,000, the H2 is by no means a luxury wagon. Interior plastics are adequate for a machine perhaps half the price. They look fine, but controls the driver touches feel flimsy and cheap. The console-mounted shifter in our tester, a hefty chrome-plated lever, waggled theatrically in its gate. Flat windows and a blunt shape mean wind roar is ever-present, and cracking a window or opening the sunroof invites a torrent of air into the cabin.

Of course, those looking for luxury are probably looking elsewhere. Those looking for a suburban-duty hauler should, too. While the H2 is a massive vehicle, all of its extra height and width is devoted to ensuring its off-road prowess. A Chevy Tahoe of roughly similar size seats more people and holds an additional 18 cubic feet of cargo. Add the H2's single-occupant third seat (useful only for emergencies) and cargo capacity becomes ludicrous: Three suitcases and a baby seat, removed from the hatch of a tiny compact, wouldn't fit in the hold of this three-ton machine.

For all its trade-offs, the H2 might be a reasonable proposition for those in the hinterlands. But in town -- where I've seen H2 owners circling parking lots interminably looking for a space that might fit, where small cars disappear in its acres of blind spots, where unpredictable pedestrians and bicyclists make its sluggish brakes unsafe -- it feels like a bull in a china shop.

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.