It's big, mean and not at all green. The ultimate four by four is about to hit Britain, reports Liz Turner

An American invasion force is heading for Europe, and the vehicles look familiar from CNN. The Hummer is coming to a dealer near you. But will it be viewed as a liberation to be able to own the biggest, meanest SUV on the planet, or will Brits regard the vehicles as over-weight, over-thirsty and over here?

The Hummer is an icon. Stars of sports, screen and rap have queued up to own one. Its fan websites include www., and it has appeared in films, TV series and music videos.

We can thank a certain Austrian bodybuilder for the civilian Hummer. Arnold Schwarzenegger helped the original manufacturer, AM General, to convince its parent company that it would be a good idea to offer civilians a version of its military vehicle, and he has been closely involved with the development of smaller derivatives, the H2 and H3.

"I was involved every step of the way," he said at the launch of the H2 SUT in New York's Times Square. These days, as governor of California, he's had to garage his 11-13mpg fleet and drives a hydrogen-powered "green" Hummer.

Britain won't be getting the Big Bad Hummer, at least as an official import. We're being offered Hummer Lite, the new H3, which at 74.7in wide (plus mirrors) won't go through a six-foot width restriction, but is large, not gargantuan.

Five vehicles could be called Hummers, and the stroke of brilliance has been to make them look the same.

AM General designed the original in response to the army's tender for a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle or HMMWV. This soon became known as a Humvee and the first production vehicle rolled out in January 1985. The beast became a household name during the first Gulf War.

Civilians began contacting AM General wanting to buy their own Humvee, or a version of it. Enter Arnie. He phoned the head of the company, Jim Armour, and attended a meeting to persuade company top brass that this was an investment worth making.

His reward was the first vehicle, which adopted another nickname, Hummer, when it rumbled out in 1992.

In 1999, AM General came to an unusual agreement with General Motors to join forces in order to further civilian opportunities. GM gained ownership of the Hummer brand name, and the original civilian vehicle became the H1. The current model is the H1 Alpha. It's 184.5in long, 86.5 in wide, plus mirrors, and weighs 7,847lb. It's hauled around by GM's 6.6-litre V8 turbodiesel engine delivering 520lb ft of torque and remains a favourite with off-road fiends who can afford its $125,000 (£72,000) price tag.

Meanwhile GM, in consultation with AM General (and Arnie) launched a more mall-friendly vehicle, the H2, in 2002.

It looks like a Hummer, but sits on the full-size GM chassis used by the Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade and is powered by a 6-litre petrol V8. To uphold the Hummer reputation, the H2 can scale a 16in-high vertical step, and ford 20ins of water.

The initial response to the H2 was ecstatic. But owners soon began to complain about its cramped cabin, poor load space and limited rear visibility. The 11-13mpg thirst was another problem.

The new H3 will be more practical and the interior will be more plush. Fuel consumption is quoted as "up to 20mpg" from its 3.5-litre five-cylinder engine. A turbodiesel engine will be offered later for Europe.

The H3 is almost entirely a GM product, based on the mid-sized truck platform used by the Chevy Colorado. In the States, the H3 costs between $30,000-35,000 (£17,000-20,000).

The company sees the H3 as a step towards making the Hummer a global brand. It might not be that easy, though, when all things American are not as popular as they were in Europe before the Iraq war.

The ironic part of this Boy's Own story is that when you see Hummer H2s in America, they're usually in the parking lot, and the driver is frequently a woman. So it may be down to the girls - not the macho men - as to whether the H3 wins the battle for hearts and minds in Europe.

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