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Neighborhood bully

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?

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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.

There are a few ergonomic issues that are not as severe. The power-window buttons are farther back than you’d like. And by virtue of those high windows, the sills sit way up on the door, which makes resting your elbow out the window akin to reaching for your carry-on luggage. The five-passenger interior is simple and appropriately modern, though a bit too “public transit” for most tastes, even in a no-frills vehicle like this. “Plastic” was the word most used by our friends.

Pluses included a comfortable ride and amazing steering for a rack-and-pinion system turning 33-inch off-road tires. The H3 offers a stability enhancement system, which boosts safety. And a surprisingly modest base sticker price of under $30,000 shaves more than 20 grand off the cost of an H2. Wow.

Off road the H3 offers a new Borg-Warner electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system that’s standard, with a choice of operating modes, from normal road conditions to boulder crawling. The optional low-range gearing (a diggy 4.03:1 ratio) with fully locking rear differential could probably put you atop Half Dome, if the rangers didn’t string you up first.

We never got to the Sierra to test that, though a few spins around some open fields found the car to have a low center of gravity and big feet, by virtue of the impressive Bridgestones that came on our Adventure version. This thing would no doubt be a blast off road, if that’s your thing. Car and Driver’s testers found it handled the rugged Rubicon Trail in the western Sierra in fine fashion.

In the end, this vehicle is as serious and functional as the tow hooks that dot its bumpers. There’s something to be said for that. The little boy in me liked its Tonka truck sense of fun, the fact that it could take you anywhere. I’d like to put one of these in my earthquake kit for the next 8.0. Yet, the adult in me is leery of its reduced visibility and especially the low gas mileage, perhaps a necessary evil of its off-roading verve and blocky, iconic shape.

The H3 makes you fantasize about what would’ve happened if General Motors had started with a Hummer this size and downsized from here. There’s no doubt consumers find this vehicle more appealing -- GM has sold more than 19,000 of the H3s since they debuted this year, topping the big H2.

Were GM a bit more provident, there’d by now be a small, swaggering Hummer with an electric boost that got 40 miles a gallon and emitted lollipops from its tailpipe.

You wouldn’t consider trading your Prius for that? Come on.

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2006 Hummer H3

Base price: $28,935

Price, as tested: $36,605

Powertrain: Four-speed automatic; Vortec 3500 3.5-liter inline five cylinder, with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder

Horsepower: 220 at 5,600 rpm (est.)

Torque: 225 pound feet at 2,800 rpm (est.)

Curb weight: 4,700 pounds

0-60 mph: 10.3 seconds

Wheelbase: 111.9 inches

Overall length: 186.7 inches

Fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city, 19 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Pedestrians will still hiss


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