The Best Sleeper Cars – U.S. Edition

13 04 2012

Welcome to part II of our sleeper car appreciation fest, this time dedicated exclusively to amazing rides from Uncle Sam’s domain. Before going any further it’s important to mention 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 though, a very important choice was made: no messing with the classics! The muscle car era (the first one, we’re living in the second, thank goodness) has produced some truly unexpected and beautiful wonders and some might even fall in the sleeper category, but I much rather leave them all in the perfect dreamland of classic American muscle where they belong and not pester them with any other definitions.

Basics, covered let’s kick things off with a gem from dearly departed Pontiac.

Pontiac G8 GXP

Ok, ok…fine; calling this  car “American” isn’t  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…) so we’ll roll with it. This good looking brute still found a home in the hearts of many, although it should have been a whole lot more appreciated than it was. We’re 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 something properly special. Think of it as a GM “best of” edition; you get a nice, discrete, great handling car but with the option of tearing up some pavement when needed…Actually, 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. The 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, Challenger, Viper, 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 hood. That spare parts bin V8 makes the Australian-American more than capable of crawling its way 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’s put that in perspective for you: that’s faster than an Aston Martin DB9, faster than a W12 Bentley Continental GT…

Pontiac GXP (rear angle)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. Despite being something pretty damn decent, the G8 was not a sales hit. It wasn’t the car’s fault. Even without being on steroids, the base model and the GT were really good cars, good performance, decent handling, nice interiors, strong styling, the whole package really. However, for a Pontiac they were pricey and that turned a lot of people off 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 and it will become a collector’s item, let me assure you. The last of the Pontiacs, the big finale before closing curtain…seems to make that 30 grand sound less scary doesn’t it? Fine, it doesn’t; still a huge pile of cash, 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, a bit dumb. The GXP was frequently called the “poor man’s M5”, but as we  perfectly well know, the M5 is in a class of its own, it’s been distilled to borderline perfection over decades, so why put the “little” Pontiac (or any other car) under that pressure? Automotive journalism sometimes really misses the point. The GXP has the merit of being a great machine all by himself, doesn’t need to be M5 measured. If you own or plan to own a neat G8 GXP and it makes you feel better to say your Pontiac can keep up with a V10 BMW, go right ahead but we’ll just love it for what it is: something great, extremely cool and most importantly, unique.

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GMC Syclone

“And now for something completely different”. It’s far more accurate to call this little gem a hot rod than a sleeper, but it does such a great job at being both that it just had to make this top 3. When you think “pickup truck” you’ll probably get the mental image of a Ram or F150, maybe lifted, a few neat off-road accessories, a bunch of needless but cool looking headlights…yeah, this one in particular looks nothing like that.

Meet the Syclone, GMC’s answer to the question: “hey, wonder how fast we can make one of these things go?”. At first glance, this tiny truck doesn’t look that impressive…not much going on in terms of style either: short, boxy, kind of Japanese looking…but yet, there’s something about it, something that tells you to wait for it because things are gonna get pretty interesting. It all starts 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 awkward 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  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); they claimed the Syclone would develop 284bhp when it was actually closer to 330 and could manage a 0 to 60 time of 4.7 seconds when independent tests would get that down 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, after all 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.

We’ve established he Syclone 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 other fun things under there…however, it’s no F1 and it will be outmaneuvered in the corners by a “proper” sports cars. Should you care about this? Not at all.

GMC Syclone (rear angle)

What the Syclone excels at 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, you’re absolutely fine just blasting by. The little GMC will make you happy and other people miserable every time you’ll want it to and isn’t that what it’s all about?

The Syclone didn’t invent the sports truck concept, but it did apply it much better than 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 grand. As we usually plead regarding rare cool cars, if you find one and if you can afford it, do it! 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 tough, what more can one ask for?

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Shelby GLHS

This third choice is a bit out there, but bear with us. The whole point of a sleeper car is being incognito until it’s time to unleash the power. Well, this last one manages that pretty well but…there are other factors. Meet the 1986 Shelby GLHS. Yup, pretty horrible and 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. It’s usually always possible to find something to like in every car, something in its history perhaps, maybe a design detail of some sort…but in this case, one can’t really 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 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 it can be stated 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.

Shelby GLHS (rear angle)

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 a genuinely huge fan of his number 001 GLHS, not because it was a product of his company but because it was a decent performance machine. Buyers liked it too; at little less than 11 grand the strange Shelby was a sales hit, providing a bigger bang for their buck than any other U.S. car of the time in a similar category. 500 of these were built in 1986 and you can get one today in very good shape for anything from 10 to 20 thousand dollars.

Should you? Definitely not. Ok, ok…objectively, 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, future collectable, good acceleration and top 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 any better…plus, with one of these you can’t really say to anyone “I drive a Shelby” with a straight face can you?

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Image credit

G8

Syclone

GLHS

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