Imagine, if you will, a Friday night festival of speed at the local drag strip. It’s test-and-tune followed by grudge matches, and all the local players are there. Hot imports, domestic muscle cars, street bikes, and of course the dedicated track monsters with two feet of sticky rubber on each rear wheel. Some kid with an electric blue Acura RSX pulls up next to a group of late ’90’s & early ‘00’s Mustangs and Camaros and starts talking some smack. A few other import drivers join him. The Motown muscle crowd pulls in some reinforcements of their own.
Moments before the inevitable fight breaks out, both camps spy a pair of average-looking machines – an SUV and a four-door sedan – staging at the tree. Jokes and laughter erupt almost immediately: “What, no book club tonight? Is there a class reunion or something? Look…the real housewives of the drag strip!”
On green, however, both suburbanite specials jump with a squeal and pick up a surprising amount of speed. The sedan just keeps pulling smoothly, but the SUV occasionally bobs up and down with the telltale motion of someone feverishly rowing their own gears. It crosses the timing lights with a slight advantage over the sedan, but both go home with elapsed times very deep into 14-second territory. The laughing and jokes from both sides subside quickly as the reality sinks in. Those two mom-and-pop cars just ran as good – if not better – than a majority of the dedicated performance machines in either of the warring groups.
If this has happened to you, don’t be ashamed. The last 30 years have given rise to many unsuspecting stealth bombers, and for proper gear heads, it’s simply a matter of time before you either fall victim to – or fall in love with – the sleeper.
This time we are reflecting on some of the best sleeper cars from recent years and decades past alike, and some other models that sure looked fast but failed spectacularly when asked to prove their merit.
15 of the Best Sleeper Cars
15. Chevrolet SS
We can now safely say that the SS had found itself out of favor in the contemporary Chevrolet lineup the moment it arrived to the U.S. Available between 2013 and 2017, it was basically a rebadged Holden Commodore (VF) that’s still available in its home Australian market.
The U.S. Chevy SS version was powered by a 6.2L LS3 V8 engine taken from the C6 Corvette. It generated 415 horsepower and a corresponding amount of torque which propelled it to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. Its family car look (most people probably mistook if for Malibu) was highly deceptive considering the 4,000-pounder was able to put up such numbers but then again, that’s the definition of a sleeper car.
Fewer than 13,000 buyers in over four years and the fact that its Australian role model was downsized to a smaller platform have consigned the Chevy SS for discontinuation. The fact that its price was dangerously close to the $50,000 mark probably didn’t help either.
14. Ford Taurus SHO
Throughout its years, the Ford Taurus mostly had a reputation as a rental-lot special. It’s always had a fairly thrifty engine, enough room for the family, and a price that was friendly to rental companies. However, the Taurus had a split personality, as Ford periodically offered a performance-oriented SHO model.
In its earlier generations (1989 through 1995), the Taurus SHO used a Yamaha-built V6 engine that produced as much as 220 horsepower. The SHO continued into the bloated third-gen Taurus with a 3.4-liter V8 that produced 235 horsepower.
The Taurus SHO took a break that began in 2000 and lasted until 2010 when the latest version of the sleeper arrived. This model made use of a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 to produce 365 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque, accelerates to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, and is set to bow down at the end of 2019, alongside most of the Blue Oval’s car lineup. It’s price is currently set at around $44,000 so be quick to snag one while you still can.
13. Buick Regal GS (Fourth Generation)
Those who say Buick kissed performance goodbye with the demise of the legendary Grand National and T-Type haven’t driven the 1997-2004 Regal GS. Honestly, that’s not necessarily a big deal, because the GS is something of a softy in the ride and handling department. That’s fine if you’re traveling down the East Coast for work, but it does nothing to inspire taking the roads less traveled. For that fact, neither does the numb steering or the sloppy four-speed automatic. And even with a slightly sporty GS trim package, the Regal’s styling is still better suited for AARP conventions as opposed to SCCA track events. In other words, it’s a perfect sleeper.
What many people don’t know is that this nonchalant sedan packed the same supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 from Pontiac’s Grand Prix GTP. That’s 240 horsepower in a 3400-pound car, and that translates to high 14-second quarter-mile times bone stock.
Regal owners swear their cars are a touch lighter and faster than the GTP, but it really doesn’t matter because that pushrod six-pot is legendary for its ability to handle aftermarket power. Significant gains are just a pulley and a tune away; studies have shown – and we’re not making this up – that it’s literally harder to blink your eyes than put a supercharged Regal GS into the 13s. Now you know why granddad always wants to come over for a visit, and why he’s smiling when he arrives.
12. Dodge Omni GHLS
And now to get really silly, we hark back to our favorite decade of ridiculousness to see the hot hatchback which arguably set the standard for the turbocharged pocket rockets of today. The Dodge Omni and its badge-engineered Plymouth Horizon sibling were, for lack of a better word, crap cars. They were born out of Chrysler’s first bankruptcy, as evidenced by their stellar record of reliability and show-stopping personality. But then, Chrysler got turbo happy and decided to stick one on just about every car they made (more sleeper candidates perhaps?), including the Omni. The GLH-T (Goes Like Hell) was born, and with 146 horsepower in a car weighing just over a ton, it was among the quickest American performance cars of the day (a minute of silence, please).
Of course, that wasn’t enough for the racing legend Carroll Shelby, who’d been involved with the go-fast version of the Omni from the beginning. The final run of turbo Omnis went to Shelby’s new facility in California, where they received a host of upgrades to become the GLHS (Goes Like Hell S’more). With Chrysler’s 175-horsepower 2.2-liter Turbo II engine and a five-speed manual tranny, the Omni GLHS blitzed to 60 in about 6 seconds and tripped the ¼-mile lights in the mid-to-high 14-second range. At the time, it outran pretty much everything else on the road, save for a few notable supercars from across the pond.
Unlike the most other rides on this list, the GLHS wasn’t just a stoplight-to-stoplight screamer. A spine-busting suspension destroyed the Omni’s ride quality but turned the GLHS into a cornering wizard. Adjustable Konis, big sway bars and fat 50-series rubber allowed this hot hatch to hang with some serious sports cars back in the day. Granted, its sleeper status could be questioned because it didn’t exactly blend in after Shelby was done with it. But lest we forget – the 1980’s were all about appearance package wannabes with racing stripes and body kits, backed with all the power of a flat beer. Not only did the little Omni GLHS shame every other small hatchback on the market, it shamed most of the big boys as well. And for us, that’s what being a sleeper is all about.
11. Volvo 850 R
It was a good day when Swedes decided to spice things up (which they should be doing more often if you ask me) after their limited 1995 850 T-5R achieved unexpected success. Unlike the 243-horsepower T-5R which was jointly built with Porsche, the 850 R delivered 240 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque with an automatic or 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque with a manual transmission.
They were only available in 1996 and 1997 when they also received the all-wheel drive system (only in Europe and Canada, though). At least it’s the proof that Volvo’s boxy wagons weren’t only about dull practicality and squeezing as many bags of vegetables, cereals, and house cleaning products in their boots. The 850 R had some major swagger about it. Plus, you could have always opted for a sedan.
Being overtaken by one while pushing your Porsche to the limit was humiliating but that’s another thing we love about sleeper cars. And this particular Volvo accelerated to 60 in around 7 seconds.
10. Mercury Marauder
It took the FoMoCo a while before they finally gave the long-retired Mercury Marauder renewed life and some much-needed bite but it’s better late than never. Sadly, the most powerful post-muscle car era Marauder (actually, the only one since the nameplate was brought back for the first time after 1970) didn’t survive for long. It was discontinued in 2004 – only a year after being resurrected and some 11,000 units sold.
The millennium Marauder was built upon the potential-oozing Panther platform which also underpinned the in-division Grand Marquis and stablemates such as Lincoln Town Car or Ford Crown Vic from which it borrowed suspension and brakes – the police interceptor, of course, not the conventional one. Powered by a 302-horsepower 4.6L V8 mill paired with a 4-speed auto, the last of the Marauders was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds. Not bad for a car that heavy.
However, there was a more secretive version of the Marauder tuned by the VT Competition which was capable of doing the same in as little as 5.1 seconds. It had a larger 5.0L engine and an optional Paxton blower but larger wheels, dual exhaust, and finally its sound gave it away. The stock Marauder’s sleeper status, however, can’t be disputed.
09. Chevrolet Impala SS (Seventh Generation)
1994-1996 Chevy Impala wasn’t the first to receive the bow-tie brand’s iconic SS badge, but it sure was the sleepiest, if I may say that. Although it was discontinued before managing to make a more meaningful impact on the market (alongside the entire B-body fleet), the Impala SS has secured its legacy as one of the best sleeper cars of the 90s regardless.
Available exclusively in black during its inaugural year, the unsuspecting Chevy truly worked undercover among the much more expressive crowd. In 1995, Dark Cherry Metallic and Dark Grey Green were added and these colors too seamlessly blended among the working class of family sedans of the day.
Yet, with 260 horsepower from the 5.7 small-block LT1 V8 that it shared with Camaro and Corvette, the Impala SS was anything but an ordinary car. The only difference between the sedan and its much more illustrious relatives is that it sported cast-iron cylinder head instead of aluminum one and a camshaft built for low-end torque. That and the fact it had fewer horses on tap, of course.
Still, the seventh-gen Chevrolet Impala SS’ 0 to 60 time of 7 seconds was commendable for the period. Moreover – like the Mercury Marauder – the Impala too had a hard-core tuned version called Callaway Supernatural SS which made 404 ponies and accelerated to 60 mph in under 6 seconds.
08. Saab 9-2X Aero
What do you get when you cross a Japanese upstart performer with a Swedish sedan that epitomizes middle-class all over the world? You obviously get a great car and a sleeper at that. The Saab 9-2X Aero combined all the best from both automakers in a package that ultimately flew under the radar.
Available only during 2005 and 2006, the rebadged second-generation Impreza WRX STI hatchback managed to sell 8,514 units in its first and 1,832 units in its second year, putting the total at 10,346 cars. The end-product was much more upscale than the Subaru with special attention paid to interior materials and sound insulation. The Swedish company also reworked its suspension but their middle class customers still thought the car was beyond them.
Engines and mandatory all-wheel drive were, of course, provided by the Japanese. Although the base 9-2X Aero cars had the naturally aspirated 2.5L flat-four, the turbo models boasted much more horsepower in what was essentially the same visual package. In 2005, the car used a 2.0L turbo four with 227 hp, while in 2006 it switched to a 2.5L turbo four capable of producing 230 hp. Both accelerated to 60 mph from standstill in around 6 seconds.
07. Subaru Forester XT
As a whole, the Forester is pretty much an uninspiring crossover that simply gets the job done for families. However, there is one version of the Forester that stands out from the crowd in terms of performance. I am talking about the XT trim level.
This potent crossover was launched in 2004 as the Forester 2.5 XT, and it made use of a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produced 210 horsepower that subsequently increased to 224 ponies. This resulted in a reported 5.3-second gallop to 60 mph, making it as quick as the Porsche Cayenne Turbo that same year.
Today, the XT badge is pretty much gone although, for a while, it soldiered on as the Forester 2.0XT. While this newer model’s engine produces 40 more horses than the 2004 model, it was one second slower to 60 mph. However, 6.3 seconds to 60 mph wasn’t something to turn your nose up at. Only if the modern-day Subaru Forester was that peppy.
06. Dodge Caliber SRT4
The Dodge Caliber – the replacement for the popular Neon – was not a very popular car, mostly due to its funky design and iffy performance. In an attempt to boost interest, in 2006 Dodge released the SRT4 version of the funky hatchback that used a turbocharged 2.4L four-cylinder. This four-pot cranked out 285 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, which resulted in a 6.2-second 0 to 60 sprint.
In addition to the extra power, Dodge also retuned the Caliber’s suspension, giving it larger sway bars, ZF Sachs dampers, and 225/45R19 Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber to handle the corners. Unfortunately, the Caliber SRT4 never really caught on, and Dodge discontinued it following the 2009 model year. Around 5,500 units were apparently sold by the time Chrysler dropped the performance-oriented SUV – fewest of all SRT-4-badged cars.
05. Lotus Carlton
We don’t get the Opel/Vauxhall Omega here in the States, but the German automaker’s flagship sedan used to be pretty popular in Europe during the nineties. So, what does Lotus have to do with it? Well, they upgraded the original car and turned it into an ultimate sleeper in the process – a sleeper that maybe could have been distinguished by its yellow and green badge, but was otherwise completely unsuspecting on the outside.
Under the hood, however, it came with a 3.6L Opel’s twin-turbo straight-six engine capable of making no less than 377 horsepower and 419 lb-ft of torque which allowed it to top 177 mph and sprint from 0 to 60 in only 5.2 seconds. No small part was played by the 6-speed ZF manual transmission. The same tranny found in the C4 Corvette ZR-1 at the time. Not bad for a large saloon car.
A large 4-door sedan that was the fastest in its class back then and is all but forgotten now. The latter doesn’t come as much surprise considering only 320 examples were made between 1990 and 1992 due to economic recession at the time. The Germans themselves managed to sell additional 630 Omegas, but even that was still below their initial expectations of making 1,100 cars in total.
04. Mazdaspeed 6
In the early 2000s, Mazda impressed us with the likes of the Mazdaspeed Protégé and the Mazdaspeed Miata. Then, in 2006, it went a little mental and added the “Speed” tag to its mid-size 6 sedan.
This sedan was understated from the outside, but it was all business under its hood, as it made use of a 2.0L four-cylinder engine that injected 274 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. This power was routed through an all-wheel drive system that helped launch it to 60 mph in just 6.1 seconds.
Unfortunately, Mazda only offered the Mazdaspeed6 in 2006 and 2007. A bit over 10,000 were sold in the U.S. during that time. It’s interesting to note that a number of units never made it stateside due to the capsizing of the cargo ship “Cougar Ace” which was carrying them. The ship didn’t sink but the Japanese still decided to disassemble all 4,703 cars on board (not all of them were Mazdaspeed 6’s), considering them “compromised.”
03. Audi RS 6 Avant
The RS 6 is the most hard-cove variant of the A6 and is an unsuspecting member of the sleeper club in its own right. The Avant or wagon version if you will, has even greater chance of leaving you in a cloud of dust should you meet with one.
As far as wagons go, the Audi RS6 Avant is one of the insane ones. And with wagons giving way to crossovers just like they yielded to minivans a while back, there’s nothing to compare it with at the moment. Its twin-turbo V8 (4.2L between 2002 and 2004, and 4.0L between 2013 and 2018) or a 5.0L V10 shared with the Lamborghini Gallardo between 2008 and 2011, Quattro all-wheel drive, fantastically subtle RS body kit, and a “stealth finish” clearly make it a wagon of every enthusiast’s dream.
597 hp in the Performance version launch it almost into supercar territory. The Audi RS6 Avant will tackle anything off the line and probably beat it. Germans might have discontinued it fro the moment but it’ll come back. It always did before, anyway.
02. Volvo V60 Polestar
The Volvo V60 is a sort of a station wagon, but something altogether different in reality. The cargo area increased by that much as compared to the sedan version, but it’s not its carry capacity that’s of concern to us. This is Volvo’s performance contribution to the mid-sized vehicle category.
Motivating power used to come from a turbocharged 3.0L six-cylinder engine good enough for 350 horses. And just importantly, the Polestar modifications are more abundant in the interior hence the exterior differences might not be apparent on the road. The Volvo V60 Polestar registers a 0-60 time of 4.9, which most definitely earns its place on our list.
The car also had extensive upgrades to suspension ( Öhlins dampers) and brakes (Brembo pistons), and had special sway bars. Introduced in 2014, the performance wagon is still available for purchase even though the Polestar division has since become an automaker of their own. The new models, however, will boast 415 ponies as of 2020 thanks to a turbocharged and supercharged 2.0L 4-cylinder engine and dual electric motors, Volvo likes to call T8.
01. Cadillac CTS-V
The 15-year old veteran is singing its swan song in 2019 but we’ll never forget it. Mostly due to its performance “V” model which shared an engine with the most powerful Corvettes (Z06) and Camaros (ZL1) at the time.
The engine in question is (at the moment) a 640-horsepower 6.2L LT4 supercharged V8, but previous generations used similar LSA, LS2, and LS6 mills from the present to the past respectively. In spite of all its power, the CTS-V doesn’t really differ from the regular models but commands a $35,000 premium. Grab one while you still can in spite of its hefty $87,000 price tag is all the advice I can give you.
The latest-generation models are capable of sprinting to 60 mph from a standing start in 3.6 seconds and maxing out at 200 mph in spite of their 4,150 curb weight. And they’re naturally stacked with luxury gear, being Cadillacs and all. What else do you need?
10 Cars That Weren’t as Fast as They Looked
10. DeLorean DMC-12
Not only did the DMC-12 look like something straight from the future (back in 1981 at least), it was also the automotive star of the “Back to the Future” trilogy. This futuristic look also made it look a hell of a lot faster than it really was.
Under its hood was a 2.7-liter V6 engine that mustered up pathetic 130 horsepower. This low power output made the DMC-12 far slower than it looked, as it took 10.5 seconds to hit 60 mph and topped out at 109 mph. That explains why Marty always needed so much road to reach that magic 88 mph barrier…
09. Mitsuoka Orochi
The Mitsuoka Orochi was likely one of the most polarizing cars in the world, as its insane looks were either loved or hated – nothing in between. There was, however, no denying that its looks oozed supercar, but looks are often very deceiving.
The Mitsuoka Orochi’s 3.3L V6, which it shared with notorious performance models like the Toyota Camry and Toyota Highlander Hybrid, produced just 230-ish horsepower. To make matters worse, the Orochi tipped the scales at a flabby 3,400 pounds, giving it a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of the Toyota Solara and a 0 to 60 acceleration of 6 seconds which most sedans from above would beat with ease. It still achieved a respectable life cycle which spanned between 2006 and 2014.
08. Pontiac Fiero
The Pontiac Fiero was one of many potentially quick cars that GM built in the 1980s but never realized its full potential. Sure its V6-powered GT trim was decent, but the majority of the Fieros still on the road have the 2.5L four-cylinder that produced as little as 98 horsepower.
This horrifically low output resulted in 0 to 60 sprints (more like limps) that took more than 10 seconds. The fiery Fiero does have a legacy of its own nowadays, but it has nothing to do with its fiery speed.
07. Honda CR-Z
The CR-Z launched in 2011 with a marketing campaign talking about how sporty this hybrid was. As with many ad campaigns, this was nothing but a hyperbole, as its 1.5L engine and electric motor combined to produce just 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque.
Its sporty, CRX-like look added fuel to the fire that this would be a quick little hybrid rig. Well, that was a lie too, as it took more than 8 seconds to hit 60 mph. The addition of an optional supercharger towards the end of production spiced things up a bit, but the base model was still far slower than it looked.
06. Porsche Cayenne
In its debut year, the Porsche Cayenne came with two V8 engine options, keeping its performance in check with the badge on its nose. In its second year, however, Porsche added a 3.2L V6 to the mix. This engine produced just 247 horsepower, putting the Cayenne on the crap list of many Porsche fans.
This terrible (in terms of performance) V6 engine resulted in an un-Porsche-like 9-second 0 to 60 time. The 3.6L V6 that replaced it wasn’t much better at 8 seconds to 60 mph. In recent years, the base Cayenne and the Cayenne Diesel both have performance numbers that don’t quite match Porsche’s performance history, but they aren’t nearly as bad as these early models.
05. Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler
The Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler will continue to turn heads for many years as it looks like it would be one of the fastest cars of its era. Under its hood, however, is a completely different story, as it originally came with a 3.5L V6 that produced just 214 horsepower. In 1999, the Prowler gained a new 3.5L V6 that turned the juice up to 253 horsepower, but even that still didn’t match its outrageous open-wheel looks.
With the higher-output V6 in tow, the Prowler could hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, but it looked a hell of a lot faster than that.
04. Porsche 914
If there is one black-eye on Porsche’s record, other than the original Cayenne V6 that I mentioned earlier, it is the 914. This two-seat targa model saw life between 1969 and 1976, and it looked like a good performer. Its powertrain, however, told a different story, as it maxed out at 107 horsepower.
This most-powerful version of the 914 resulted in an 8.7-second cruise to 62 mph. The slowest version of the 914 was the 1,679 cc model that strolled to 62 mph in a lethargic 13.3 seconds. Things were improved when the flat-six-powered Porsche 914/6 entered the fray in 1970, but the now-collectible model only stuck around for years, hence a vast majority of sold 914’s were the 914/4’s.
03. Ferrari Mondial 8
Ah, the prancing horse. A logo that exudes sportiness and outrageous performance. Well, the 1980 to 1982 Mondial 8 was an exception to this rule, as it was the more “practical” Ferrari – that with a 3.0L V8 engine that produced just 214 horsepower and four seats.
This V8 engine could muster up just enough oomph to get the Modial 8 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds. Even Ferrari couldn’t avoid the power drain that the 1980s put on the automotive industry. To this date, the Mondial is remembered as one of the worst Ferrari cars ever – some would even say “the worst”.
02. Hofstetter Turbo
The Hofstetter Turbo was a car that seemingly had all the prerequisites for being one of world’s fastest cars. Wedge looks, gullwing doors, and even the “turbo” bit in its nameplate were there. The only lacking bit was the actual performance.
The Hofstetter was a Brazilian wannabe supercar inspired by the fabled Alfa Romeo Carabo, produced between 1986 and 1991. Only 18 examples were ever made and maybe that’s for the best. It was conceived through a necessity as taxes for imported cars in Brazil amounted to nearly 50 percent. That move by the Brazilian government yielded an influx of domestic car manufacturers but they overlooked one thing. Nobody could guarantee the newly established car makers would be worth their salt.
Beating under the Hofstetter’s midsection was initially a Volkswagen-sourced 1.8L 4-cylinder backed by a Garrett turbocharger. The setup was good enough for 140 ponies and a 0 to 62 time of 9.3 seconds despite the car tipping the scales at only 2,470 pounds. Things were improved in 1988 thanks to a 2.0L turbo four mill which bumped the ratings to 210 ponies but that was still too low for a car that looked as mean as the Hofstetter.
01. Opel GT
The iconic Opel GT lacked in performance what it had in abundance in its looks. A beautifully designed 2-seater remained in production between 1968 and 1973 but failed to take advantage of the muscle car scene that was in full swing in earlier part of that time span, for instance.
The small sports car was initially powered by a 67-horsepower 1.1L inline-four engine which gave it a lackluster 0 to 60 time of 15.6 seconds. Only 3,573 cars equipped with this engine were made and, interestingly enough, they’re highly sought-after collectibles nowadays.
An optional 102-horsepower 1.9L 4-cylinder engine (rated at 83 hp in the U.S. due to reduced compression) was a much more popular option resulting in production of 100,000 units. 10.6 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph was still too slow for a car that looked like and, more importantly, was advertised as a sports car.