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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Speed Nostalgia with the GMC Syclone

words: Stu Fowle

Every decade or so, General Motors throws a stupid-fast, totally discreet and unexpected turbocharged monster out of left field. These gifts to the enthusiast world — declarations that if the company weren't so broke, maybe all of its cars could be awesome — have come in various shapes and sizes. Today, we've got the Chevy Cobalt SS, which dominated a group of its peers on the track in our recent Turbo Toyboxes comparo. In the Eighties, a most unexpected candidate wore Buick Regal body panels, but the Grand National certainly wasn't an old lady's car. ( We wrote about that car, too.) But now, let's talk about the GMC Syclone, which fits in between those cars and spent the early Nineties beating Ferraris.

That last claim there isn't something I made up just because I know you won't be able to line the two up to prove me wrong. In a September, 1991, comparison, Car and Driver raced the Syclone against a Ferrari 348ts and found that it didn't just run a quarter-mile faster, it also carried far more beer kegs, toted more luggage, and was also more accommodating of a gun rack. The editors also argued that the Syclone fits the traditional definition of a sports car, having speed, performance, exclusivity (just under 3000 were built), two seats, a rough ride, and "exclusive mechanicals," referring to the truck's all-wheel drive. All for just $25,970 of your 1991 dollars.



The Syclone didn't invent the idea of an aggressive street truck. Dodge fused childishness and masculinity in 1978 with the Li'l Red Express (the fastest American vehicle when it was introduced) and GM itself used lots of engine and little suspension to make the Silverado 454SS, which predates the Syclone by two years. However, the Syclone has three things that those trucks don't. There's the obvious size difference — it's hard to make an argument for something being sporty when it shares dimensions with most Cadillacs — but using a compact pickup as a starting point, hell, the GMC could be called a Camaro with a high seating position and more cargo space. Then there's the notable engine difference. Cramming the biggest engine possible into the nose of a chosen vehicle is a decades-old trick, but turbocharging a V-6 pickup hadn't been done before '91 and hasn't been done since. (Fact checkers: Toyota turbo'd an I-4 pickup in the 1980s and Nissan supercharged the Frontier in 2001.) The turbocharged motor displaces 4.3 liters, despite the fact that many people assume the truck employs the Buick Grand National's 3.8-liter. Finally, and key to what makes the Syclone so outrageous to drive, is all-wheel drive. With all the weight up front and next to none out back, most sport trucks are little more than burnout monsters, but that's not the case with the Sy.

My first experience behind the wheel of Syclone #0175 begins with a joint celebration of the truck's greatest assets. I stand on the brake pedal, which in turn bites down on 11.9 inch vented discs up front and 11.2-inch drums at the rear. It's fine with me that the rears are weaker drums, I think, because I hope those two tires cut loose first. Then I ease my right shoe into the throttle. The noise that results doesn't sound like your typical car engine. More like a garbage disposal shredding a whistle, or that sound in old movies where an over-worked computer finally gives up the ghost. With the whole truck trembling, I watch the boost gauge climb through a set of orange bars until it reaches about 8 psi (full boost comes at 15 psi, but I'm not ready to break someone else's truck,) then let the throttle butterfly flap fully open while releasing the brakes. On this cool Michigan day, the rear tires catch a few fallen leaves and kick up bits of asphalt before clawing in, but the brief period of slip ends with the velour seat scooping me up with a turbocharged atomic wedgie. GMC modestly claimed 280 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, but my butt dyno disagrees. There's still much speculation in online communities that these trucks were over-achievers. How else can you explain 3800 pounds reaching 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds? That's the same time BMW claims for the 2008 335i coupe that weights 250 pounds less and has 20 (also debatable) more horsepower on tap.


As impressive as the Syclone's acceleration still is today, the same can't be said of the truck's other systems. Car and Driver's 70-0 mph braking time of 183 feet is just four feet shorter than that same magazine achieved for a current Honda Odyssey minivan. Yesterday's Ferrari-beater is today's soccer mom. The steering and suspension on this 45,000-mile Syclone feel period-correct in terms of tightness and response, which is to say they're loose and floppy. Dive into a corner and all four tires stick with tremendous grip, but the body, along with the driver, struggle to hang on. Hit a bump mid-corner and a good case is made for why live axles aren't more common here in 2008. There's also a warning sticker inside the tailgate asking owners to refrain from overloading the suspension with cargo: "Cargo load not to exceed 500 lbs. Excessive load can cause damage to drivetrain and suspension. Refer to owner's manual for loading recommendations."

To sit and meditate on the Syclone's downfalls is an injustice to this truck's complete awesomeness, though. Who cares that it only has four forward gears — it shifts well and is fast as all hell, at least up to its 126 mph top speed. Who cares about the cheesy 1990s velour seats when the sound of angry bees congregating under the hood resonates through the firewall? For six months in 1991, GM's Shreveport, Louisiana, plant was churning out examples — all of them black, all with 16-inch wheels vaguely resembling the Corvette's "sawblades"— of the baddest compact pickup ever built. It spent the workweek four-wheel drifting with the best of Audi's homologation cars of the day and out-sprinting exotics, then spent weekends helping the neighbors move a couch. It was the first to the finish line and could carry its own celebration party in the bed.


One of the best parts about the Syclone today is that they can be found for around $10,000, making them an attainable rarity. For serious collectors, GMC also built ten Syclones featuring red paint, a targa top, extra performance mods, and Recaro seats as part of a promotion for Marlboro cigarettes, but good luck finding one. When you finally do, you'll find that there's no way you can afford one. It's also worth mentioning that the Sy had a younger brother, Ty. The Typhoon, a Jimmy-based two-door SUV that went into production as the Syclone was retiring, used the same mechanicals and even still had the Syclone name across the top of the engine. It offers the same performance, two extra seats, and more availability — 5000 of them were made over two model years.

Even if you're not interested in the Syclone, ask for a ride if you ever spot one. It's an experience like no other vehicle can provide.