The Rubicon that figured in Caesar’s path to Rome was a river, a narrow little one when I last saw it, but crossing it was the difference between remaining a provincial governor or ascending to emperor. Caesar crossed and in so doing established a metaphor about decision making for XXXXIV or so centuries to come.
The Rubicon I crossed also has claim to metaphoric status. It is arguably the most famous off-road adventure site in the country. And is thus a test for driver, vehicle and support crew. Bragging rights matter. I took on the Rubicon recently in a Hummer H3, the smallest of three Hummers descended from that military standby of mid-Eastern warfare.
The H3 is ranked as a mid-size SUV. The one that the Goldilocks manqué in Hummer’s three bears commercial judges “just right” and wheels happily away in. I share the judgement.
Although the very word “Hummer” has come to be a synonym for profligate abuse of fossil fuel, the fact is the H3 is rated as 16 mpg city and 20 highway, a reasonable thirst for a vehicle that can carry five people and 29.5 cubic feet of their stuff (or 55.7 cubic feet if the rear seats are folded) or that might be towing 4500 pounds. Hey, it’s a truck!
All Hummers are distinctive in appearance with a charming heavy-duty toy look about them. The H3 can be mistaken for its middle sibling when on its own, but put both in the same sight line and it’s clear that the H3 is almost a foot and a half shorter than the H2 and half a foot narrower. It has also made a few circles around Jenny Craig and is 1700 pounds lighter.
The trend in real estate these days seems to be to buy an aging cottage, tear it down and stretch the new house from property line to property line, or as close as city regulations allow. That’s the Hummer approach and that’s why the H2 looks more massive than the Silverado pick-up truck on whose platform it is built. The H3 similarly looks bigger than the Colorado, its donor.
But the Hummers are more stylish and appealing in appearance than the space-hungry dwellings I’ve seen. Accepting that design is a more subjective matter than 0-60 or mpg, I’ll go on record as an admirer of the hip-industrial blockiness of the Hummer 2 and 3. The exterior and interior of these vehicles are bold, innovative and smart. However, I’d like one even smaller – a piccolo to this bassoon and flute. Maybe the coming(?) H4 will be that.
The 2006 H3 was criticized as being underpowered, although 220 hp looks adequate on paper. But this is a mountain to move. The 2007 H3 gets a new slightly larger engine; a Vortec inline five-cylinder displacing 3.7 liters instead of the 3.5 of the 2006. That’s good for 242 hp. Torque, that desirable ability good for quicker departure from a stop and more secure passing on two-lane roads, is now 242 pound-feet. The engine has other tweaks and refine-ments which will make it even smoother and probably save gas.
The extra few ponies are hairy-legged enough to turn the trick for me, though I’m looking forward to GM’s new clean diesel engine for much better fuel mileage as well as great low-end torque. A diesel could be as little as a year in the future if demand and competition hasten the pace. (A guess. GM isn’t “discussing future products.”)
Now a word about the Rubicon Trail over which we crept in the H3, a handful of women motoring journalists and some brightly capable young women from General Motors, Hummer’s source. Engineers were among them. So we tolerated a few men as well. Someone had to supply pushing power now and then and put out the morning cereal.
The trail stitches across rugged (and beautiful) wild country north of Lake Tahoe in California’s Sierra Nevada range. Its jumble of rocks (small, large and huge – both smooth and sharp) climbs up and pitches down through forested slopes. The trail is closer kin to a creek bed than to a road. Sometimes in the verdant tangle large fallen trees crisscross each other with shafts of sunlight brightening the emerald moss on their rotting shanks. Chain saws have cut raw pathways through those that made the error of blocking the trail. Count the rings thus exposed; there are many.
The Rubicon trail was at one time a relatively passable county road leading to fashionable resorts tucked in the wild. It remains a county road but its relative pass-ability has been in steep decline since the 1930s. In the between-wars years when everyday road cars had huge wheels, high ground clearances and gears low enough to pull stumps these resorts were visited by motorists seeking fishing streams and Sierra views combined with some downy luxury featured by some of them. (The road too narrow for two-way passage was one-way in one direction until 2 p.m.and then reversed polarity.)
One of the challenging climbs (or descents – we did it both ways) of the Rubicon is called Cadillac Hill because in the late ‘20s a car heading to or from one of the resorts left the road and tumbled through the saplings and rocks into the deep ravine. Some say its crumpled frame is still to be seen, though not by us. Anyway, as a knowledgeable Rubicon historian told me, it’s a LaSalle, which means it was only related to a Cadillac.
Others knowledgeable of the Rubicon will say since we did the hill in both directions we did not “do” the Rubicon, only tasted it, driving in and out instead of following its length, traditionally beginning at the western end near Georgetown. Mark Smith, of that city, started the Rubicon adventures in 1953 with some 115 people in mostly Jeeps.
Even today Jeep people look upon the Rubicon as their territory and look upon all others – especially Hummers – as intruders. We met many of them some of those on the trail, coming up as we were going down. We pulled into trail-side crannies to let the climbing vehicles pass by (a trail courtesy.) Indeed, for a pathway through the wild the traffic that day was as thick as Friday night near a high school football stadium.
The trail is technically “open” year round but a group called Friends of the Rubicon (FOTR) started by a public-minded man named Del Albright, plead for restraint lest the trail be closed and everyone denied access.
FOTR’s request: Use the trail only in dry weather to lessen damage. Take out everything you bring in. Everything. And that means human waste. (You can buy portable toilets designed to make that exercise even simpler than tending to your dog on Park Avenue.) These FOTR folk, and others, were coming in for a periodic clean-up-the-trail weekend.
One regular we met as we were headed in had come the full length and said it was in the roughest condition he’d seen in years, thanks to a tough winter’s heavy snows and heavy run-off. “It’s a three-day [instead of two-day] trail now,” said Josh Hall, sporting a patch from Tier 1 Off-Road, one of his father’s off-road schools. Daddy Rod Hall being the winningest driver ever in the famed Baja 1000 Mexican off-road race.
Heading out from our night sleeping in tents pitched on a rocky expanse near a stream we met the trains of Jeeps coming in for the maintencacne weekend. These were major modified Jeeps pulling two-wheel trailers all loaded and tarped. This was a combination Jeepers Jamboree (not to be confused with Jeep Jamboree) and FOTR people on their periodic trail-tending expedition. The Rubicon Springs rockscape where we had stayed would be covered with side-by-side tents and redolent with camp smoke, a Rubicon regular told me. The Jeep folk would sit by the fire, exchange Rubicon lies and down many beers but over the weekend they would use their trailered-in tools and clean up what nature and careless off-roaders had done to damage the trail and its environs. They were the ones who sawed through giant tree trunks, moved rocks to control erosion and hauled out the trash Evil Campers had left behind.
The open Jeeps, mostly assorted Wranglers but some old CJs were loaded to the gunnels with equipment for the task as well as camping gear. It was fun pulling aside to let them jounce by, admiring their huge specialty tires and winches and other serious guy-gear.
Some Jeep drivers forgot their disdainful attitude toward Hummers in their surprise that these were all “manned” by women. We in turn pretended not to notice either their disdain or surprise. “Nice tires!” we sang out in our most feminine key, rather enjoying their discomfort. Here we were in air-conditioned contentment, having done the trail they were doing. And once we hit the pavement and found an air hose to replace the 20 pounds we had bled from our tires and a drive-through car laundry to flush away the dust and mud) our H3 would be right at home in the valet parking lot of the fanciest restaurant. Or in the drive-through lane of Burger King. We weren’t type cast and they were. Nyah, nyah.
The reason we had reduced the tire pressure by 20 pounds: so the tires would grip the rocks better, sort of enveloping them and thus holding our chosen line over the rugged path. Slow but certain going. (A hiker could move faster over Cadillac Hill.)
The H3 was up to all tasks put to it. It can wade 16 inches of water (which we did not find); approach a rock wall of similar height and walk right over it, and plunge in and out of steep ravines. The figures 40/25/37 measure approach angle, breakover, and departure angle for the H3. That’s good. The 37 foot turning circle is good, too. And the ground clearance of 9.1.”
As chance would have it, within three weeks of my H3 experience I was back on the Rubicon driving the new Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep that owns the Rubicon and in this model even bears its name. Sorry, Jeep lovers, the H3 gave a more comfortable, even more competent ride over your namesake on the very same Cadillac Hill.
My driving companion and I both commented on the phenomenon surmising that perhaps the tires were at fault. They were more for mud than rocks, we thought. And no one could tell us how much air had been removed. Anyhow, these tires did not adhere to the rocks as well as those on the H3. The Jeep clung and then slipped. No big deal really. I just preferred the smoother way the H3 did it – clinging and still clinging.