Mild to wild: Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

The Lexus IS F: Getting on the gas is exciting business.
The Lexus IS F: Getting on the gas is exciting business.
Posted: August 19, 2013

Let's talk about rides that aren't what they appear to be at first glance. Let's look at some vehicles that aren't nearly as prosaic as their appearances, purposes, or pasts might suggest. Let's check out some seemingly mild-mannered machines that slipped into a phone booth and emerged with a big S on their grilles.

In other words, let's look over the most memorable Wolves in Sheep's Clothing (WISCs) that I test-drove this model year.

WISC #1: Toyota Tacoma X-Runner. There have been some hot-rod full-size pickup trucks offered over the years (the Ford F-150 Lightning comes to mind). But who would expect sporty performance from a compact pickup?

Well, as alien as it might seem to someone like myself, whose compact pickup is a four-banger that struggles to get out of its own way, Toyota has a small pickup as powerful and sporty as it is rare: the Tacoma X-Runner.

The X-Runner is an extended-cab Tacoma fitted with a 4-liter V-6 that delivers its 236 horses to the rear wheels via a fun-to-play-with six-speed manual gearbox. The peppy drive train is teamed with a suspension rendered more athletic by the addition of special Bilstein shock absorbers and a rear stabilizer bar. A hood scoop, fender flares, and ground effects complete the sporty picture.

This critter is a bit thirsty but lots of useful fun for a base tag of $26,775.

WISC #2: Lexus IS F. This baby Lexus is intended to compete with the BMW M3, the perennial benchmark for high-performance compact sport sedans.

You wouldn't know this to look at it. With the exception of a reasonably sporty nose job, the 2013 IS F is a pretty anonymous compact sedan. But once you climb behind the wheel, you realize that this car is a genuine WISC. This smallish sedan is motivated by a big, 5-liter V-8 that passes along 416 horsepower to the rear wheels with the assistance of a sporty, eight-speed automatic transmission and a limited-slip differential.

Getting on the gas is exciting business in the IS F. Zero to 60 is accomplished in well under five seconds, and that excellent engine performance is matched by athletic handling.

With a base price of $61,600, there's nothing compact about this compact's sticker.

WISC #3: The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. Given its legendary name and the Mercedes-Benz engineering that went into it, you would expect this high-end, full-size SUV to be competent on and off the road, and quite luxurious. And it is.

What you might not expect, encountering an SRT model in the shopping center parking lot, is a rendezvous with one of the great WISCs of our time. As the SRT's chief engineer, Dave Cottrell, told me: "It feels and drives like a sports car, but it happens to be an SUV."

Indeed, the SRT's 470-horse Hemi V-8 and slick, eight-speed automatic gearbox conspire to vault this 2.5-tonner from 0 to 60 in an astonishing 4.6 seconds, then put it on the elevator up to the 160th floor.

With a base price of $62,995, this luxury, high-performance SUV is still $30,000 under its cheapest German counterpart.

WISC #4: Buick Regal GS. For those of us who remember the Buicks of yore, with their Beautyrest rides and wallowing ways, the idea of an athletic funster from these folks is hardly reflexive. But the Regal GS midsize sedan turns out to be a delicious devil in a family-car disguise.

The GS is powered by a turbocharged, direct-injected four that extracts 270 horsepower and a wad of torque from a measly two liters. Stir in a nice six-speed manual gearbox, excellent handling, and a set of Brembo performance brakes and you have a recipe for fun.


Contact Al Haas at alhaasauto@aol.com.

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