Spoils of War (Part Two)

General Motors’ military adventure was fated to end badly.

L to R: Hummer H3, H2 and H1. Image: medium.com

Now in control of the Hummer marque and its product planning and marketing, General Motors was keen to maximise the sales potential of its newly acquired off-road specialist. Its ambition was to rival and even displace Jeep as the leading US marque in this space. To do so, it needed a full range of models that were more suitable for on-road use than the  uncompromising and unwieldy H1(1).

Hummer’s second model, the H2, was launched in 2002. It was based on a GMT800 series full-size truck and SUV platform and was powered by a 366 cu.in. (6.0-litre) V8 petrol engine, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The engine produced maximum power of 325bhp (242kW) and torque of 385 lb ft (522Nm). The H2’s off-road statistics were more modest than those of the H1, but still impressive. Ground clearance was 10” (254mm). Wading depth was 20″ (508mm) and the H2 could climb a 16″ (406mm) step. Approach and departure angles were 40.8° and 39.6° respectively. The quoted kerb weight was 6,400lbs (2.90 metric tonnes), representing only a modest reduction over that of the H1.

The well-equipped interior was largely lifted from the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. Although it was broadly similar in size to (and much more spacious inside than) the H1, the use of mainstream GM hardware allowed it to be priced at around half the $110k GM was then asking for the H1. This, and its much better practicality, opened up a much wider market for the H2 and in 2003, its first full year on sale, around 35,000 were sold in the US.

Car and Driver magazine published its road test of the H2 in the August 2002 issue of the magazine. Regarding its modestly reduced off-road capabilities compared to the H1, the reviewer concluded that, in all real-world situations, the H2 was “no more likely to suffer butt burn than the H1”. That said, the replacement of the H1’s independent rear suspension with a live axle and coil springs did cause some “skittering” over ridged surfaces and a noticeable hop when a rear wheel hit a bump. The H2’s recirculating ball steering was heavier but more direct than that of the H1, and “quick enough to play dodgem”.

2003 Hummer H2. Image: caranddriver.com

The ride and handling compromise was commended. The former was “surprisingly comfortable” and “GM engineers did an impressive job of balancing everything from impact harshness to control over body motions.” 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 10.7 seconds but, despite the four-wheel disc brakes and Bosch ABS, the stopping distance from 70mph (113km/h) was 244 feet (74 metres), barely improved over the H1. EPA official fuel economy was 10mpg city and 13mpg highway(2).

Overall, the reviewer liked the H2. He summarised it as follows: “golly-gee easy and reassuring to drive, but it is not a Hummer poseur. It handles serious off-road chores with ho-hum ease.” However, a colleague of his was troubled by the H2’s image, commenting that it was “a shameless appeal to latent male adolescence, with exterior styling that cries out for camo paint and machine-gun mounts. Although far more civilized than the original H1, it has few other redeeming virtues, aside from plentiful ground clearance.” His girlfriend had nailed the H2 by describing it as “the male equivalent of a push-up bra.”

Despite those misgivings and an image that many found repellent, the H2 initially proved to be a strong seller, so GM set about designing a third, smaller model, the H3. Whereas the H1 and H2 had been broadly similar in size, the H3 was a significant step downwards. It was 188” (4,775mm) long(3), 74¾” (1,899mm) wide, 73¾” (1,873mm) high, and stood on a wheelbase of 112” (2,845mm). That made it 15½” (394mm) shorter, 6½” (165mm) narrower and 4” (102mm) lower than the H2. The H3 was also a massive 1,800 lbs (816kg) lighter than its larger sibling.

The H3 was wholly a GM product in design and manufacture. It was based on the GMT355 chassis that underpinned the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon mid-size pick-up trucks. The launch engine was a 3.5-litre inline five-cylinder petrol unit, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission with permanent 4WD, a locking centre differential and electronically controlled low-range mode. The engine produced maximum power of 220bhp (164kW) and torque of 225 lb ft (305Nm). EPA official fuel economy was 14mpg city and 18mpg highway(4). The entry price for the H3 at launch was $29.5k, roughly half that of the H2.

2008 Hummer H3. Image: nytimes.com

The H3 was launched in 2005. Car and Driver magazine published its first road test in August of that year. Serious off-roaders would require the manual gearbox version for optimum control, because the automatic transmission version required “exaggerated throttle openings to climb an obstacle and then gives zilch engine braking down the other side.”

The more compact size made the H3 arguably even better over rough terrain than its larger siblings because it was more manoeuvrable and easier to see out of. The ground clearance was an inch (25mm) less than the H2’s at 9” (229mm) but still more than adequate. On the road, the H3 “steers sharply and hustles through turns when necessary”, although it suffered from a “bouncy ride as a byproduct of off-road prowess”.

Hummer H2 Interior. Image: autonews.com

The H3 reprised all the signature Hummer exterior styling motifs, including “the absurdly vertical windshield, round headlights in square holes, seven-slot grille(5), simulated tire-pressure inflators on the wheels, and spare hanging off the back”. Inside, however, it was very much a well specified and trimmed conventional SUV, with “not a socket-head fastener in sight”.

The H3 was certainly a better and more useable SUV in real-world conditions than its larger stablemates, but its image remained a problem. In the words of one of the reviewers, “playing GI Joe in a pseudo Jeep is just uncomfortable while real soldiers are dying in the real thing.”

Issues of image notwithstanding, the H3 would go on to be the best selling of the three models, despite its curtailed five-year lifespan. US Sales for the Hummer range were as follows:

Year Hummer H1 Hummer H2 Hummer H3
1992 316
1993 612
1994 718
1995 1,432
1996 1,374
1997 1,209
1998 945
1999 831
2000 875
2001 768
2002 720 18,861
2003 730 34,529
2004 447 28,898
2005 374 23,213 33,140
2006 365 17,107 54,052
2007 125 12,431 43,430
2008 17 6,095 21,373
2009 1,513 7,533
2010 151 3,661
Total 11,858 142,798 163,189

The controversial and polarising image of Hummer would prove to be its undoing when GM was bankrupted by the Global Financial Crisis that began in 2008. In the words of Robert A (Bob) Lutz(6), GM Vice-Chairman from 2001 to 2010, Hummer “had become a lightning rod for the enviro-left and was taxing GM’s credibility as a creator of fuel-efficient vehicles”. The H2 in particular had become “the poster child for upper-class greed, insouciance and environmental irresponsibility, poisoning the whole brand”. The immediate termination of Hummer was one of the conditions of the 2009 US Government bailout of GM.

The Hummer marque is, however, set to rise again. In possibly the most extreme and audacious exercise in corporate brand repositioning ever, GM  announced in January 2020 that Hummer will be revived as an all-electric sub-brand of GMC. The resurrected Hummer has been unveiled, first as a pickup truck, with an SUV to follow. Whether the positive brand associations can outweigh and shake off its considerable baggage remains to be seen.

 

(1) The Hummer H1 was extraordinarily wide, but its exceptional  ground clearance necessitated a very wide central tunnel bisecting the cabin to accommodate the drivetrain, forcing occupants to sit far apart in narrow footwells.

(2) U.S. gallons, which equates to approximately 12 and 15mpg imperial (23.5 and 18.1 L/100km).

(3) With an externally mounted spare wheel.

(4) U.S. gallons, which equates to approximately 17 and 22 mpg imperial (16.8 and 13.1 L/100km).

(5) Much to Jeep’s annoyance, as they regarded this detail as their own. However, there was nothing Jeep could do about it, as AM General had continued to use the seven-slot grille on the Humvee military vehicle after the split with Jeep.

(6) Quotes from ‘Car guys vs Bean Counters’, written by Robert A Lutz and published in 2011.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

17 thoughts on “Spoils of War (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. The smaller the Hummer, the higher the sales numbers. The new Hummer EV is huge, maybe they can try a smaller one in the future in case the sales numbers are disappointing, I don’t know.

    Same as the H1 the new Hummer EV is a bit over the top, but for different reasons. I’ve heard that it had so much torque it could do wheelies. However, I’m not sure if this is true or not.

    1. Good morning Freerk. I’m certainly not amongst the target demographic for these vehicles, but can’t help wondering about the wisdom of resurrecting the always polarising marque name for the new EV. Car and Driver magazine is no bastion of environmental or social concerns, yet its reviews of both the H2 and H3 commented adversely on the image of the cars.

    2. At over 9000 lbs, the new Hummer EV is too heavy to legally traverse the Brooklyn Bridge or many other bridges and roads in the US. IMO it cannot be taken seriously as personal transportation.

    3. Wow, that’s extraordinarily dumb on GM’s part. Their unfailing ability to shoot themselves in the foot never fails to amaze me.

    4. Considering that weight you need a lorry drivers license over here, but this vehicle isn’t aimed at European users I reckon.

      Unsurprisingly the Rivian R1T is close to the maximum weight you are allowed to drive on a car license here. You can only add 400 kg / 880 lbs and then you hit the limit. Without a lorry license it’s useless for hauling heavy equipment.

    1. Good morning Jonas. That was my ‘deliberate error’ to see if people were paying attention, so well spotted! Photo caption now corrected. 🙂

  2. “the absurdly vertical windshield” is the only feature that appeals to me – too many vehicles have windscreens more suited to 200 mph down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.

  3. The Hummers H2s that I see still on the road in the Eastern US tend to be in much better shape than their platform-mate Tahoes, Suburbans, and Escalades from the same model years, which leads me to believe that there is still a strong following for these trucks and likely a customer base for the new Hummer EV (even at a price $110,000 and up). Strangely, I rarely see any H3s, despite more being produced according to Daniel’s numbers.

    Both the H2 and H3 display a full complement of the simultaneous design excesses and production cost-cutting that characterized pre-bankruptcy GM. Both models were offered as both wagons and short-bed pickup trucks (GM chasing after every market niche they could think of), but GM’s engineering was not up to the task of designing a truck with a unified cab and bed as a single body piece and these models (and the related Chevrolet Avalanche) are known for body flex at the C-pillar and generally rattling themselves apart. The H3’s ‘Atlas’ engine, available as an inline-5 or inline-6, was used only in the GMT355 mid-size trucks and turned out to be an engineering dead-end; GM’s replacement mid-size trucks went back to the corporate V6.

    The most egregious piece of cost-cutting is plainly visible in the interior picture. All GMT800 full-size trucks, the H2 included, do not have the steering wheel center and seat centerline in line with one another – they are offset slightly, I assume to either make use of pre-designed steering parts in the new chassis, or to simplify production.

    1. Hi Neil. Very interesting additional information, thank you. One has to wonder how GM manages to mess up so consistently. Surely their engineers cannot be that inept, in which case it must be the bean-counters overruling them?

      That steering wheel offset is very pronounced. I wonder if it forces one to sit unnaturally and induces backache on longer journeys?

    2. That’s extraordinary. You’d expect it in a tighly packaged supermini, not in a behemoth like an American full-size truck.

      When I was younger, army dump stores were a thing, since the Cold War had just ended and armies were being reduced in size. The whole testosterone overdose thing was in evidence then, too, but there were also people browsing who were simply interested in the utilitarianism and quality of army hardware. To me the H1, impractical for civilian use though it may be, still has some of that utilitarianism about it. Shame the H2 and H3 focused (and were perceived as being focused) on the image aspect, in an early salvo of the culture wars.

    3. Daniel, you owned two E30’s if I recall correctly, so you should be no stranger to steering wheel offset. I never had any backache in 9 years of driving my E30. I experienced pedal offset in other cars and that is way worse than steering offset.

    4. Well remembered, Freerk. I have to confess I never noticed the steering offset on the E30s, but here it is:

      I guess I just got used to it, though I was a lot younger and more flexible then!

    5. In the E36 the steering offset is far worse and you get pain in neck and shoulder even on short drives.
      The solution is to hold the steering wheel with one hand at the rim and with the other at the airbag cover.
      The E36 also has pedals heavily offset in the opposite direction and combined with the steering offset it makes you sit like Houdini.

    6. Daniel, It took me a little while to notice that on my E30 too. I have driven several E36’s, but never owned one and never noticed the offset of steering wheel and pedals. I think I only covered small distances with the E36, but it’s a long time ago, so I don’t remember.

  4. The H2 in particular was like most of the Lutz-era “let’s build the concept car” projects in that most of the people who wanted one and could afford it bought the first model year and sales fell off sharply afterwards. That’s the case with
    what Regular Car Reviews on Youtube once called dessert-for-breakfast cars in general.

    In the mid-late ’00s I drove past a dealership on my daily commute – actually a Chevy dealer that GM “allowed” to take the Hummer franchise as a sideline since nobody in the area wanted to build a freestanding one – and there was an H2 with “$10,000 Off!” soaped on its’ windshield parked on the front corner of the lot for most of 2008.

    I’m convinced to this day that the first generation GMC Terrain was developed as a Hummer H4 or H5 and hastily re-grilled when the Hummer division was folded.

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