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Neighborhood bully

October 26, 2005|Chris Erskine | Times Staff Writer

LIKE its close cousin the school bus, the Hummer H2 is awfully hard to overlook. Higher than most, wide in the shoulders and with a scowl across its plastic front teeth, the Hummer reeks of don't-mess-with-me attitude, the sort of vehicle driven by the mouthiest parent at your kid's soccer games. For almost 14 years now, Hummers have been the baddest dudes on the block.

Enter the H3, Hummer's latest attempt to make such beefcake more acceptable to the masses, a "preshrunk" version 17 inches shorter in length and 6.5 inches narrower than its big brother, the H2. In an era of downsizing, of coming to terms with our limitations and responsibilities, is this symbolism or absurdity? If you downsize a beast, can you create a beauty?

"I'm not crazy about the big Hummers," said our cabinet guy after admiring the test vehicle in the driveway. "But this is kind of cute."

A "cute" Hummer? Is that what the world has come to?

If nothing else, the Hummer line of vehicles has always been a bold idea. The first of them, the H1, came to us when cars, like juiced ballplayers, were growing bigger and better. The H1 and subsequent H2 looked like something you played with as a kid, or your favorite power tool as an adult. Bless the Hummers' beastly hearts, they never tried to get all soft and cuddly, the way Navigator or Escalade did. The Hummer line never forgot its military pedigree or place in the market as a brawny off-roader.

Since the Hummer's inception in 1992, General Motors has sold more than 100,000, giving it a distinctive presence in an automotive market teeming with sensible gray sedans. The only competitors -- at least off road -- were Toyota's Land Cruiser and German Panzer divisions.

This new mid-size Hummer H3 seems tuned in to Americans' ability to second-guess ourselves. We're frightened by what we're seeing at the gas pump, but are we ready to write off the sort of driving pleasure we consider our birthright?

The H3 offers plenty of aerobic enjoyment. It pivots like Reggie Bush but carries a linebacker's inherent strength. I found it surprisingly fun to drive, even in crowded school drop-off points ("Sorry, children, this is not a bus. Please back off.").

The H3 even performed well while approaching the manic Dodger Stadium parking lot before a beery late-season game. Lane to lane, the Vortec 3500 engine moved deftly for a spot at the stadium gate. Though slightly underpowered on freeway onramps, the H3 offers all the oomph you'll need in city driving situations.

"Cool car," said the woman taking money for parking.

Then there's that. I am the unlikeliest of Hummer pilots, with the head tilt you see of someone reading with bifocals and a little ketchup on my shirt from breakfast. Yeah, I use ketchup at breakfast. You get the idea.

No, I am not the swordsman that Hummer salesmen expect to see strutting through the showroom door, third wife in tow. Then again, I might have just the right middle-aged angst to drive a big, honkin' Tiger Tank like this: tired of being cut off by punks in pickup trucks; up to here with the political stance of the moment.

So into Dodger Stadium we go, on a busy night, when there'll be 40,000 fannies in the seats and 15,000 cars all circling for parking spots beforehand. By the way, there is no better test track in all of Los Angeles, the ideal stretch of pavement for sudden stops, acceleration, visibility and sex appeal.

The H3, turns out, has plenty of nearly everything. Its anti-lock disc brakes offer controlled micro-stops, far better than you'd expect for a 2-ton vehicle. As noted, it's easy to maneuver -- the turning diameter is 37 feet, same as a Chevy Cobalt. Our test vehicle also had plenty of sex appeal, especially if you're into parking booth ticket-takers or balding cabinet-makers.

Visibility? That's where the H3 fell frighteningly short. The Hummer designers like to talk about form following function, but here's a case where those small, sneering windows cost us all sorts of sight lines in the front and back corners. Add in extraordinarily thick pillars, and you have more blind spots than a Major League umpire.

Grand, oversized side mirrors try to accommodate for these visual shortcomings. But were it not for my teenage lookout in the back seat, we'd still be circling the Dodger parking lot, trying to merge to our right ("OK, Dad ... ready ... ready ... NOW!"). Feel free to borrow him anytime.

WORSE yet is a powertrain that vows to deliver 16 miles per gallon city, 19 highway (we got more like 12.5 driving a mix of both). This buggy ought to come with 50 shares of Unocal stock in the glove box.

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