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Hummer owners put vehicles to the test

AM General Corp. offers course on art of off-road driving

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The course looks like something a child dreamed up for his Tonka trucks in the backyard.

This is no sandbox, though: It's 320 acres where Hummer owners learn what their oversized sport-utility vehicles can do.

They drive up hills so steep that looking out the small windshield reveals nothing but sky. They traverse 2-foot-high steps, large boulders and water that nearly covers the wheels.

"I wouldn't do this with mine," said Joseph Berardi, a construction contractor from Jersey City, N.J., as he rolled down a 20-foot slope without touching the brakes.

"Oh c'mon," instructor Brian Kroeger challenged. "Next time you dig a basement, you'll be driving that big boy down there."

The AM General Corp. Off-Road Course is kind of an amusement park for Hummer owners. The course in South Bend includes both manmade obstacles on a course in the front of the property and natural obstacles that cover the rare hilly terrain in northern Indiana.

At more than 7 feet wide, 6 feet high and 15 feet long, the Hummer dwarfs other passenger vehicles. The price is large, too — $70,000 to $100,000, depending on options. Yet it seats only as many passengers as an old Ford Pinto, and doesn't offer much more leg room.

But most Hummer buyers aren't looking to lug a soccer team across town — they're after power.

The Hummer academy costs $5,250 for a five-day course, or $3,900 for a two-and-a-half-day course, but these students are here as part of a sales incentive package. More than 1,700 people pass through the academy each year — most of them come from the military, drive fire trucks or ambulances, or work for Hummer dealers. But several times a year, everyday Hummer drivers can attend.

The Hummer is built in nearby Mishawaka, alongside the military Humvee that AM General sells in 40 countries. Only about 25 vehicles are built per day, 20 of them military versions.

During a tour of the plant, the Hummer owners peer over workers' shoulders. They ask about the costs of the machine-gun turrets and the missile launcher hardware, but are told they're not options on the civilian vehicles.

The training course provides the unsettling feeling of a roller coaster in spots, though the speed is much slower. And unlike a roller coaster, every trip around this track is a little different.

"Throttle on the way up, brake on the way down," Kroeger instructed Berardi as he approached a large log. The Hummer climbed the log with ease, then dropped with a bone-jarring thud.

"Brake a little sooner," Kroeger said with a smile.

Watching others drive the obstacle course looks strange as the Hummers contort slightly as they pass over obstacles and wheels lift off the ground.

"Hopefully, one of the others will get stuck," Berardi said after he finished the section first.

He didn't have to wait long. Wendy Orthman, a General Motors Corp. spokeswoman, went over a mogul too slowly and bottomed out. Instructors quickly hooked her Hummer to another and pulled her free.

It was a prelude to later in the day, when the instructors purposely mired three Hummers on the course. The instructors showed students how to winch one free, how to use a plow-like device to dig into the ground to free another, then use a Hummer with a tow strap to pull out the third.

The students connecting the tow strap to the third Hummer were told to go slow and steady, and Berardi, driving the mired vehicle, was counseled to stay off the gas until his wheels hit the ground.

Brian Whitehead, the one doing the towing, hit the gas of his vehicle and raced off. Berardi's vehicle lurched forward and he hit the gas. The vehicle quickly slid along the ground, jumped out of the rut and over another to get free.

"That's a pretty rough ride right there," said Whitehead, a Hummer owner from Annapolis, Md., with off-road experience.

"That was violent," Berardi agreed, laughing.

The boulder course presented a different set of challenges. Because of the limited view from inside the Hummer, drivers can't see the stones when they're close. Someone else outside must guide the drivers with hand signals as they cover the 100-foot stretch of boulders.

On this day it was raining, the tires were muddy, and the vehicles occasionally got stuck, but everyone managed to get through.

If nothing else, the students take from the school the confidence to test the Hummer's capabilities.

"Now I'll take it offroad and I won't panic when I hear noises," said Richard Maus of Sarasota, Fla.

He thought for a second, then considered another noise he might hear.

"If my wife had seen me driving like that," he said, "she would be screaming at me."