Hummer ain't Jeep, and it never sinks At the cost of six of its military colleagues, the ultimate off-road vehicle does things by extremes

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

There is a certain sinking feeling a driver gets as a 4×4 gets mired in the mud. Momentum drops. The engine labours. The vehicle sinks down into the bog. Perhaps it was hubris to fight the laws of physics with a 3,200-kilogram vehicle on a rain-soaked field.

It was fine in the forest. It scrambled to the top of the deepest culvert we could find without pause. But in the search for a bigger challenge, we just had to go through the gumbo of the fields and tempt gravity. After all, the dealer's last words before the test drive were, "You'll never get stuck." Getting unstuck can be a challenge. Sometimes a little damage ensues. That is harder to explain on a borrowed vehicle. And with a 3.5-ton truck, being stuck takes on bigger proportions.

The Hummer has a lot of proportions. It's a huge vehicle, almost 2.2 metres wide. It sits up high on its oversized 37-inch tires like an insect ready to strike at its prey.

Yes, this is the same Hummer you've seen on news reports from Afghanistan, Desert Storm, and just about any other ground conflict involving the Americans and what the manufacturer discreetly calls "friendly nations." With distribution now through General Motors, there are six dealers for friendly Canadians, including Roy Foss in Thornhill.

This is the inspiration for the upcoming Hummer H2, details of which were released last week. The original one is now called the H1. The manufacturer is AM General Corporation.

It makes 24 of the High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) per day — 20 for military forces and four for privileged customers. The enlisted men nicknamed them HUMVEES or HUMMERS. Like Jeep, the name has become a brand for the civilian version.

During World War II, the reconnaissance vehicle of choice carried a quarter-ton load. In today's battleground, it carries two tons. Its capabilities have also been increased, even to the extreme.

The H1 can be airlifted and dropped from a helicopter or cargo plane. A parachute is used for higher drops. Where necessary, the chute is thrown out the cargo door, inflates and pulls the Hummer out behind it quicker than Rambo's knife can gut a fish.

But let's not confuse the action heroes. The Hummer is Arnold's machine.

Schwarzenegger, who will begin filming Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines this spring, was the first non-military buyer.

He does promotions with the manufacturer, which has supported his charity of after-school programs for kids in inner cities.

Some of the extreme specifications of the H1 seem unbelievable. The ground clearance of more than 40 cm is twice that of most off-road SUVs. Its angles of approach, break-over and departure are so severe that it can drive up to a bolder or wall more than half a metre high and just crawl over it. Water up to 76 cm deep can be forded without any modification.

Should anyone shoot out the tires, the Central Tire Inflation System will keep them inflated indefinitely. (The tire pressures are displayed constantly on the dash and can be adjusted with a flick of a switch.) If a machine gun destroys the entire wheel, the flat tires can keep going for more than 30 km at 50 km/h.

The secret (with the military involved, there was bound to be at least one) to much of the Hummer's extreme capabilities lies in tucking the mechanicals up inside the body.

The wheels are driven by a planetary gear set at each wheel (not through the hub), multiplying the torque. Power disc brakes are inboard (instead of at the wheels). The penalty is gear noise, cramped interior room and a slight rocking of the vehicle when stopped (due to play in the gears at the wheels, outboard of the brakes).

Those brakes are effective and, overall, the drive is surprisingly easy. Some additional noise insulation has been added to make the Hummer interior quieter than when it was first commercialized.

Just four passengers fit inside. The centre console is so wide, those sitting on the right cannot reach over to touch those on the left. A removable rear-facing bench holds two kids.

A Monsoon stereo with six-CD in-dash changer and upgraded upholstery were added to civilize this beast.

The 195 hp 6.5 L turbo-diesel V8 engine was another addition, which the Forces have subsequently adopted. It adds to the noise, but also announces the presence of a truck with torque.

In recent years, TorqTrac4 (TT4) computerized traction control has been added to help lock up the axles when they slip or get buried.

For 2002, the body styles have been reduced to the Wagon and the Open Top convertible. Popular options such as the front brush bar and tire inflation control have been added to the standard list.

A couple of detail differences include new integrated side marker lights and reflectors. The passenger-side of the centre console doghouse has been re-contoured for a bit more room.

If things aren't extreme enough for you, wait until you see the price. The most popular model, the Wagon is now selling for about $165,000, or the value of six Jeeps. That will sink the bank balance.

Speaking of sinking, my H1 tester sank but was not sunk. Just as the vehicle was about to come to a stop, clicks could be heard at each wheel. The TT4 was kicking in. Slowly, ever so slowly, the H1 kept creeping along until we reached firm ground.

Only then did I dare let off the throttle.

What a relief. How amazing.

Looking back at the tracks through the mud, it was visible where we should have been stuck, where the trail of ruts suddenly deepened. Looking back at all the off-roading I've done and witnessed, the Hummer H1 is simply the most impressive vehicle in the extreme.

HIGHS Extreme off-road capabilities Presence Exclusivity LOWS Interior noise Width Price

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