Beating The Boulders Of The Rubicon In The Hummer H3

Female drivers take challenge of the Trail

Aug. 5, 2006. 01:00 AM
NIKA ROLCZEWSKI

Lake Tahoe, Calif. – Talk about being between a rock and a hard place:

To my left is a row of thick tree trunks and to my right is a drop of 15 metres. Under my right tire – a boulder the size of a rhinoceros.

This is the route to the top of Cadillac Hill on California’s famed Rubicon Trail. But I’m not in a Cadillac – I’m in a Hummer H3.

The “baby” of the Hummer clan – or as the GM engineers would prefer to call it, the “Urban Hummer” – has come a long way in refinement.

Compared to the primitive and brutish nature of the Humvee, the military vehicle the H3 has evolved from, I am in the lap of luxury – stereo, air conditioning (on, of course) and GM’s OnStar system in case I get lost.

It might not seem like I am roughing it, but I am. The Rubicon Trail is actually a county road that’s not maintained, which cuts through the High Sierra in California. Running just west of Lake Tahoe, this world-renowned four-wheel-drive route is the crown jewel of off-roading, covering a total distance of about 35 kilometres.

Originally used by native Americans, the Rubicon was also the route taken by the horse-drawn wagons of European immigrants in the 1840s.

By the end of the century, it had become a road and was used to reach the Rubicon Mineral Springs Resort and Hotel. The first vehicle into Rubicon Springs arrived in 1908, driven by a woman from Lake Tahoe.

On this trip, I’m one of five female journalists trying it for ourselves, taking a 2007 H3 and a few 2006 models over a total of 19 kilometres – close to 10 kilometres one way, a night of camping and then back the same way.

It takes real determination and a total of three days to manoeuvre the Trail’s full length. Do the math and you’ll realize that means you drive a total of about 12 kilometres each day. Slow and steady, this is not a speed event. Rated a 10 out of 10 in off-road difficulty, the Rubicon is the place to test your skills if you own a rock-crawling vehicle.

My own off-roading abilities are limited. Apart from an occasional unavoidable drive along a dirt road or maybe a curb-hop here and there, I don’t like bumps or ruts in a road. Though I’ve packed my tent, backpack and bug spray, I’m clearly in the wrong place.

So how did I handle driving at a snail’s pace of less than 2 km/h along some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever seen?

Carefully, in a Hummer straight off the showroom floor.

For H3 buyers there are two packages available in addition to the $39,995 base model: the luxury package ($44,710) and the adventure package ($41,335), which turned out to be appropriately named.

Though the luxury model has more toys, the adventure version’s off-road suspension and the fully locking electronic rear differential made a difference in easing the H3 up and over rocks on the Rubicon instead of just crashing into them. The StabiliTrak stability control program, which is included with the four-speed automatic transmission, also helped smooth the ride.

The pressure in the specially developed Bridgestone three-ply tires was reduced at the start from 36 p.s.i. to 20 p.s.i. to allow the tires to morph over the rock’s edges, adding some much-needed grip.

It’s abuse, I thought, as the skid plate underneath screeched while it did its job. How could anyone put their $40,000 vehicle through this type of torture?

But the H3 proved to be right at home. From pebbles to sharp-edged rocks, the SUV never faltered – even with me behind the wheel.

I can’t take all the credit because we had help from the engineers supplied by the car maker.

As we drove up to Cadillac Hill (according to legend, named after a Caddy that plunged down it in the 1930s), it became challenging just to see the rocks I had to drive over.

With no CAA towing service, getting stuck in a rut wasn’t an option, so I asked for guidance from the GM spotters who would stand at the most extreme sections of the trail and let us drivers know what steering angle to take and when to expect the truck to drop off an obstacle.

In four-wheel drive with “Low” selected on the transmission, I concentrated on putting a tire where the GM professionals told me to through a series of hand signals.

I learned to trust my spotter, who was effectively the driver’s eyes. Even the mirrors were turned face downward – there was nothing behind to watch out for, just what was below.

At times there was no room to drive anywhere but up stone embankments and too close to branches, and I cringed at the damage I thought I caused. But the creaks and bangs I heard are normal for this type of driving.

The H3 teetered precariously close to the edge enough times to make me gasp. It hung at an angle that seemed sure to end in a rollover, but somehow it righted itself with a small clunk as the suspension did its job.

Going around rocks and tree trunks? That’s for rookies. One wheel at a time, one rock at a time, the H3 picked its way through nature’s obstacle course.

Maybe its sure-footedness is not so surprising, given the H3’s lineage. Its distant predecessor began life back in 1979, when AM General started preliminary designs for a High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (or “Humvee”) for military use.

The requirements were strict: an all-terrain vehicle that had mobility and agility. Humvees featured full-time four-wheel drive, independent suspension and a ground clearance of 40 cm that allowed them to climb steep slopes.

We actually came across Humvees on the Rubicon that were being used for military training, all covered with battle scars from trees and boulders. They were primitive in comparison, and I was thankful for the comparative luxury offered by the H3.

Finishing our first day of driving and covered in dust we found a picture perfect spot to pitch our tents. As “camp” typically means “no room service,” we all washed up in the stream and settled for a barbecue dinner under the stars.

Our course was altered slightly from years past, mainly because of erosion and vehicle traffic. This spring was particularly harsh, with vast amounts of snow runoff washing away sections or depositing more rocks and debris on the trail. We were warned that the route has become “more technical.”

In other words, it didn’t get any easier from that point on.

If hearing that didn’t make me want to check into the nearest Four Seasons, then the fact I could meet bears, rattlesnakes and scorpions certainly did. I prefer creature comforts to creatures.

But we didn’t rough it too badly. A satisfying steak and shrimp dinner followed by the famous “Rubicon Sunset Martini” and it almost felt like home. With a rocky hill to climb in darkness to our tent, we limited our intake.

The H3 performed like it was meant to. Though based on the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon pickup, the H3 is not a glorified rebodied version – it is built with a specific function in mind. With 23 cm of ground clearance, it barrelled over boulders, climbing vertical steps of 40 cm with ease. It can also reportedly bulldoze through 60 cm of muddy water while towing 2,000 kg.

Power was adequate for our trek, but low for daily use.

For 2007, H3 gets a new engine: the Vortec 3.7-litre inline-five, with dual overhead cams and variable valve timing.

Horsepower climbs to 242 at 5600 r.p.m. from 220, while torque goes to 242 lb.-ft. at 4600 r.p.m, up from 225.

EnerGuide reports fuel consumption is a thirsty 14.7 L/100 km in the city. Take this truck rock crawling and the consumption jumps, in our case to an estimated 17 L/100 km.

After a night spent sleeping on the ground, we headed back the way we came – back to a hotel with running hot water.

Though we were promised an easier drive back, it turned out to be more difficult, as some overnight rain turned the Rubicon’s dust into mud and its rocks into slippery hazards.

To make it back successfully, we had to adjust our angle of approach on some parts of Cadillac Hill. Both the H3 and I survived this trek with only our muddy exteriors showing the wear and tear. Both of us got a good wash at a hotel that evening.

Next morning, my H3 looked brand new, with just a couple of dusty fingerprints inside and a few small scratches outside as evidence it had crossed the Rubicon.

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Nika Rolczewski prepared this report based on travel provided by the auto maker.

Nika

Nika

Nika has had a love for cars and racing since childhood. A regional racing license holder she has been involved with the industry, working with racers, teams, journalists and automobile manufacturers in sponsorship solicitation, logistics, hospitality, road show and communication program implementation.