Welcome to part II of the best of the sleeper cars, this time dedicated exclusively to astonishing machines from Uncle Sam’s domain. Before going any further it’s important to realize that actually nominating proper American sleeper cars it’s kind of tricky because the U.S. has a long proud tradition of stuffing big engines where they don’t belong and just generally making slow and depressing things go fast as hell. For this article I’ve made a choice: no messing with the classics! The muscle car era (the first one, we’re living in the second, thank goodness…I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise) has produced some truly unexpected and beautiful wonders and some might even fall in the sleeper category, but I much rather just leave them all in the perfect dreamland of classic American muscle where they belong, not pestering them with any more definitions. So, having said that and being well established I’ll stick to fairly recent cars let’s kick off the top 3 with a gem from dearly departed Pontiac.
Ok, ok…fine I’ll admit it, calling this an American car is not exactly on the level, but hey, the U.S. was created and built by immigrants (no matter how hard some people try to forget it…) and since I’m the judge around here, I’ll allow myself to proceed with making my case. I think this nice looking brute found a good home in the hearts of many, although it should have been a whole lot more appreciated than it was; I’m talking about the G8, more specifically of the (as Auto Blog’s Jonathon Ramsey put it) “@#$%&*! awesome” G8 GXP. Built by Holden in Australia as the Commodore and rebadged as a Pontiac for the U.S. market (just like it had been done with the Monaro/GTO a few years earlier), the G8 is special, and I do mean special. Think of it as a GM “best of” edition; you get a nice, discrete, great handling car with the option of, you know…tearing up some pavement when needed…Actually I think the GXP should have been called the “Bruce Banner”, you don’t want to get it angry…
Powered by Corvette’s LS3 V8, the GPX packs 415 bhp. All that power is handled by a six speed Tremec TR6060 (manual or automatic…please get the manual one…), the same ones fitted in many rides that make you giggle with excitement like a schoolgirl such as the GT500, the Challenger, the Viper, the ZL1, etc, etc, etc…If there comes a time when you actually need to stop, that’s ok because the GPX is equipped with Brembo brakes suitable for stopping the rotation of planets. The G8 is sleeper car perfection, it looks nice but there’s not really much of a clue about the savagery that’s going on under the bonnet; that spare parts bin V8 makes the Australian-American more than capable of crawling up the food chain, away from fast sedan territory and towards the domains of some big, mean dogs. 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds, that’s four – point – four (GM would tell you 4.7, but that’s a lie) Let me put that in perspective for you, that’s faster than an Aston Martin DB9, faster than a W12 Bentley Continental GT…
So, let’s recap the advantages of owning a GXP real quick: you get a discrete sedan that can perfectly well be your sensible and practical daily driver (yes, yes…I’m leaving out the V8’s fuel consumption figures, I’m biased, so sue me) that blows the doors off the competition when you want it too. The G8 was not a sales hit, but that wasn’t the car’s fault. Even without being on steroids, the base model and the GT were really good cars, good performance, cool handling, nice interiors, strong styling, the whole package really. However, for a Pontiac they were pricey and that turned a lot of people off from getting one; plus, the monetary incentives offered were very low, they only got better when Pontiac was at its last breath. Bad news for a truly astonishing piece of automotive engineering that had a tragically short life, great for you the lucky buyer. Let’s get one thing straight, this is not a cheap car! The lowest you can get it will be about 30.000$, which is a lot…or is it? This is a low production numbers machine which means it will become a collector’s item and it will be a rare one too, let me assure you. The last of the Pontiacs, the big finale before closing curtain…makes that 30 grand sound less scary doesn’t it? Fine, it doesn’t but you get my point.
Back when this car first came out people spent hours comparing it to the M5 which is, let’s face it, really stupid because there isn’t a comparison to be made; the GXP was frequently called the “poor man’s M5”…this honestly makes me want to slap someone. The M5 is in a class of its own, it’s been distilled to perfection over decades so don’t put the “little” Pontiac (or any other car) under that pressure, the GXP has the merit of being a great machine all by himself. If it makes you feel better saying your (hopefully by this time I’ve done my job and you really really really want one) Pontiac can keep up with a V10 BMW, go right ahead but don’t place them on the same scale. Just love it for what it is, something great and extremely cool.
“And now for something completely different”. It’s far more accurate to call this little gem a hot rod than a sleeper, but hey, it does such a great job at being both that it just had to make my top 3. If you’re anything like me, when you think “pickup truck” you immediately get the mental image of a Ram, probably with raised suspension, maybe a few neat off-road accessories, a bunch of needles but cool looking headlights…yeah, this one in particular looks nothing like that. Meet the Syclone, GMC’s answer to the question “hey, I wonder how fast we can make one of these things go?” At first glance, this tiny thing doesn’t look that impressive…not much going on in terms of style, short, boxy, kind of Japanese looking even…but yet, there’s something about it, something that tells you to wait for it because it will get pretty interesting. Things start to heat up when you hear that back in 1991 (the official production run is from 91 to 92, but in 92 only 3 were made) this shy looking thing was the fastest accelerating car in the world! That’s right, the little GMC would beat everything you could possibly throw at it, becoming famous for making Italian stallions run and hide. The Syclone would simply humiliate cars like the Ferrari 348 and even the almighty 455bhp, V12 Lamborghini Countach 5000QV. Seriously, how cool is that?
Equipped with a Vortex V6 Chevrolet engine (actually a small block V8 minus 2 cylinders), the Syclone was based on the humble Sonoma pickup and later tuned to performance perfection by a company called PAS Inc especially for GM. GM of course, in its finest tradition lied about the performance numbers (some say for insurance purposes, I still don’t see the point); they claimed the Syclone would develop 284bhp when it was actually closer to 330 and a 0 to 60 time of 4.7 seconds when independent tests would get it to around 4.3. This is by name a pickup but it can’t really be perceived as one, you could never do regular “pickup stuff” with it, the bed could only carry up to 500lbs safely, but that’s completely beside the point because this is – for all intents and purposes – a sports car. So, we’ve established that this is fast, surprisingly discrete for an American pickup, and very few people will recognize it for what it is, making it a perfect sleeper; where do the critics begin to put her down? Well, first of all the Syclone was indeed faster than a Ferrari or a Lamborghini…up to a certain point, because it was limited to just 126 mph which was absolutely ridiculous. The transmission is a 4 speed automatic, which is never good and the interiors…well, early 90’s U.S. car…you can’t expect much (actually expect as little as possible, and then work hard to imagine even considerably less than that). As far as handling goes, for the time and type of car it is, the Syclone doesn’t do that bad, I mean there’s all wheel drive, lowered suspension, Bilstein gas shocks, independent low-rate torsion bars, limited slip differential, and a few more fun things under there…however, it’s no F1 machine and it will be outmaneuvered in the corners by a “proper” sports cars. Should you care about this? Not at all, what the Syclone is good for is applying the element of surprise; out there in the real world, the streets of Anytown U.S.A. aren’t exactly Laguna Seca so you won’t be racing anyone in a ridiculously demanding scenario, so you’re fine just blasting by. The little GMC will make you happy and other people miserable every time you’ll want it to.
The Syclone didn’t invent the sports truck concept, but it did apply it much better than the others. Just under 3000 of these were built and you’re lucky if: first you can find one, second it will cost you less than 20.000$. As I usually plead regarding rare cool cars, if you find one and if you can afford it, shut up and give someone selling one your money! It’s cool, it’s rare and it will just keep getting cooler and rarer. It’s reliable too, legendary funny guy Jay Leno owns one of these since 91 and claims that not a single thing as gone wrong with it so…fast, special and reliable, what more could you ask for?
My third choice is a bit out there, but bear with me. The whole point of a sleeper car is being incognito until it’s time to release all the power. Well, this last one manages that pretty well but…there are other factors. Meet the 1986 Shelby GLHS. Yeah, I know…trust me, I know…based on one of the sorriest, most depressing looking cars the world has ever known, the Dodge Omni, the GLHS is probably the strangest thing ever to bare the Shelby name. I’m a complete car fanatic and I proud myself of being able to find something to like in every car, something in its history perhaps, maybe a design detail of some sort…but in this case, I honestly cannot hold on to anything, it’s just a bottomless pit of yawn inducing boxiness.
The origins of this wheeled box are not exactly great either; based on a Simca design, the Omni was Chrysler’s attempt to rival with the sales phenomenon known as Volkswagen Golf (“Rabbit”); not surprisingly there wasn’t not much of a competition going on between the Golf and the Omni because, you know, the Golf was good and the Omni…wasn’t. So why on earth would Shelby commit such heresy against his own name, mess with such a low ranking thing, I mean this is the man who created performance legends like the Cobra and the GT500. Well, it seems one shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Shelby’s apparent complete lunacy. GLHS stands for “Goes Like Hell Some More” (originally “goes like hell Shelby”, an evolution of the name of the “best” Omni, the GLH); I don’t know if I can say that it goes indeed like hell, but it wasn’t that slow either. 0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds, top speed 130 mph. Doesn’t sound like much, but in a time of less than impressive performance, Shelby managed to squeeze 175bhp from a 4 cylinder engine in order to get these figures. The lightweight 2.200lbs GLHS had good maneuverability and a decent manual 5 speed box to please the serious drivers. Reports say that Carrol himself was genuinely a huge fan of his number 001 GLHS, not because it was a product for his company but because it was a decent performance machine. Buyers liked it too, at little less than 11.000$ the strange Shelby was a sales hit, providing a bigger bang for their buck than any other U.S. car of the time. 500 of these were built in 1986 and you can get one today in very good shape for anything from 10 to 20.000$; should you? I certainly wouldn’t, but I have to try and be objective with this one because on one hand you have a fine sleeper, the very definition of that concept (that’s why it’s on this list after all): low recognition, low production numbers (highly collectable in the future), high speed…on the other, you have one of the dullest looking objects ever to be put on this Earth, not even the special rims and Shelby stickers can make it look better…plus, with one of these you can’t really say to anyone “I drive a Shelby” with a straight face can you? Steeping completely outside the heart of the article for a minute, if 10 grand sounds about right for your budget, let me give you a piece of advice: forget sleepers, forget speed and go for flash, get yourself a good classic cruiser instead.
Consulted sources and used images
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