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If you understand what we just wrote, you'll also understand why we recommend the 5.3-liter V8 over the standard 3.7-liter inline 5-cylinder engine.

Even though hard core off roaders will appreciate the I5's 70:1 crawl ratio, it only has 242-hp and 242 lb-ft and a 4.56 rear axle (what is this, a HD pickup?). We think you’re going to find yourself out of gas, so to speak, at speeds over 65-mph with the I5. The V8's extra horsepower and torque are well worth the extra few dollars because you’ll get better overall performance on and off-road. However, it’s disappointing only a four-speed automatic transmission is paired with the 5.3-liter V8, because if a 6-speed gearbox was available it would likely benefit the H3T with improved fuel economy (which hasn’t been announced yet) and off-roadability.

A Hummer rep tells us the H3 family will receive GM's new 3.6-liter V6 gasoline direct injection (GDI) motor in the not too distant future. We expect this will be the end of the I5 in the Hummer lineup.

On the back half of the trail Hummer engineers take the H3T from our novice hands to demonstrate its extreme capabilities in two optional 'challenges'. The first is "Hell's Gate" and the second, amusingly, is called "Tip-Over Challenge". Both require the use of the H3T’s front and rear e-lockers.

Picture Hell's Gate like a big horseshoe, where the open side marks the entry and exit points and the round part is pointed downhill, at what looks to be a 25 to 30 degree angle. The descent follows a V-shaped rift in the sandstone, where the gap is reasonably centered between the H3T's wheels. It's coming back up the other side of Hell’s Gate that's incredibly difficult (you can see it in the video on page 1). The rift on the far side changes to a shape like a V leaning to one side – with one wall near vertical and the other at a shallow angle. Ascending requires a spotter to help the driver keep the passenger side wheels on just the right line. If the line is lost, the vehicle can slide down the wall leaving its passenger side flush with the rock – not good for the vehicle or forward motion. The spotter also serves as the eyes of the driver because all the person steering can see is blue sky. It takes two tries, but the H3T manages to slowly walk its way up Hell's Gate. At times only three wheels are touching the earth.

Tip-Over Challenge doesn't appear difficult at first glance. The giveaway is its large cloudy patch of tire blackened rock, instead of two neatly spaced worn rubber lines. A sandy base doesn't provide much traction before hitting its slick slanted face. Even with both lockers engaged the H3T quickly overcomes the rock's static coefficient of friction, making the tires squeal in protest as they slip. Still, the truck slowly climbs up the challenge. Lesser rigs that have tried this obstacle have flipped over on their backs, like desert tortoises falling on the tops of their shells.

The rest of the drive was difficult but manageable. Several times we bottomed out the H3T's extended wheelbase but the underbody shielding protected the delicate parts. By the end of the trail, except for a bent rear license plate, the truck wasn't worse off for the wear.

It's difficult to imagine a more capable factory off-road pickup than the Hummer H3T. With front and rear electronic locking differentials, a 5.3-liter V8 and a footprint that places it somewhere in between mid-size and full-size pickups, Hummer has created a class all its own. This is the truck for serious rock hounds who work their truck hard during the week and even harder on the weekends. Jeep wishes they had this truck.

Assuming the American Axle strike doesn't last through the summer, the first Hummer H3Ts should arrive at dealers by September. Pricing hasn't been announced.

Rivals:
The Dodge Power Wagon is a worthy competitor, but it would have been difficult or impossible to navigate the gigantic three-quarter-ton Ram 2500 through some of the sticky cramped trails the H3T conquered.

Strengths:
V8 engine and minimal electronic nannies to babysit and distract through rough spots. The 4:1 gear reduction in 4-Lo enables the H3T to crawl over gotchas without the need for brakes, freeing the driver to identify and navigate the best path on the trail. It takes getting used to, but once you do you'll be thankful for the convenience.

Weaknesses:
V8 engine and four-speed transmission. While it easily beat Moab's rocky trails, it's going to be difficult for the H3T to rack up big sales wins in a rocky economy. Are house poor truck buyers going to want a purpose-built off-roader when fuel prices are on their way to $4.00/gallon? We wish it had GM's new V6 GDI engine today.


Sidebar: Chevrolet Colorado ZR3?

When Chevrolet sold the S-10 compact pickup, from 1994 to 2003, one of the trim options available was the ZR2 package. ZR2 equipped S-10s were transformed into very capable factory-built off-road pickups, with a wider track, upgraded suspension, extra skid plates, and 31-inch tires for improved ground clearance. Both the S-10 and ZR2 option disappeared in 2004 after the new Chevrolet Colorado small truck replaced the S-10.

Today, the closest you can come to the S-10 ZR2 in performance and spirit is the 2009 Hummer H3T. It also shares a modified version of the Chevy Colorado platform.

But as we crawled around Hell's Revenge in the H3T we were followed closely by two of Hummer's ace technicians from GM's Arizona Proving Grounds. There were riding in a very interesting 'mule' that I'm sure ZR2 enthusiasts would love to get their hands on. It was a Hummer H3 SUV wearing the skin of a regular cab, short bed Chevy Colorado. Under its hood was the I5 mated to an automatic gearbox. The back was filled with tools and spare parts in case any of our vehicles broke down.

Hummer engineers swear up and down it's nothing more than a toy, so don't get your hopes up for production. But in honor of the S-10 ZR2, Colorado, and H3T, we nicknamed this one-off the Chevy Colorado ZR3.


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