Sleeper cars may look normal, even boring, but under the hood they hide a secret, performance car underpinnings.  

The Ultimate Dad Car

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com
2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com

The Lamborghini Urus looks fast. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk does not. And yet the Trackhawk has over 700 horsepower, a 0-60 time of just 3.6 seconds, and can actually best the Urus in a drag race. And yet, aside from the badging (that looks nearly identical to the Trialhawk badge) and a slightly lower ride height, you might have a hard time believing your eyes as the Trackhawk leaves your Mustang in the dust. The Trackhawk is a modern example of a long-running automotive phenomena, the sleeper car.

Sleeper cars are the ultimate automotive bait and switch. They have two key demographics. Dads who desperately don’t want to sacrifice performance in the face of domesticity and teenagers who want to fool their parents into buying them a “safe and reliable” that’s actually got a monster engine under the hood. “Gee ma, I don’t even know what V8 even means, honest.” If you’re either of these kinds of people, we’ve got the list for you, the top 10 best sleeper cars of all time.

Buick Regal GS (2019-2020)

2019 Buick Regal GS - media.buick.com
2019 Buick Regal GS - media.buick.com

Buick, as a brand, couldn’t be better suited to producing a sleeper car. Their cars are known mostly for quiet rides, high-quality interiors, and congregating in Perkins parking lots for Sunday bunch. And yet, for those who remember the Buick Grand National, the grand hasn’t always hewed to the humdrum. If you want a Buick that offers killer performance in a buttoned-up cardigan, consider the Buick Regal GS.

Not since the days of the Grand National has Buick offered the kind of performance we find in the Regal GS. In addition to the 3.6L V6 with 310 horsepower, the Regal GS offered Brembo brakes and standard all-wheel drive. Sneakiest off all, it’s got a hatch back for maximum cargo capacity.

Volvo 850 T-R5 (1995-1996) 

1995 Volvo 850 T-R5 - volvoclub.org.uk
1995 Volvo 850 T-R5 - volvoclub.org.uk

One step stealthier than a sleeper sedan is a sleeper station wagon, and it doesn’t get more unassuming than a Volvo. The mid-1990s Volvo 850 turbo got a special high-performance edition, the T-R5 in 1995. It took the turbo’s 2.5L inline-five and gave it to Porsche for some tuning, along with the rest of the powertrain. This increased output from 222 horsepower to 237 hp and 221 lb.-ft. of torque. Though referred to as “the Flying Brick,” the 850 T-R5 netted a zero to sixty time of 6.9 seconds. We in the US had to settle for a four-speed automatic while those in Europe were given the option of a five-speed manual as well.

As subtle as a Volvo wagon might be, the T-R5 did have a few telltale signs that it was no ordinary 850. A rear spoiler and side skirts along with graphite leather and Alcantara upholstery were dead giveaways that this was a special wagon. The T-R5 was succeeded by the 850 R for the 1996 model year.

Chevrolet SS (2017)

2017 Chevrolet SS - media.assets.sincrod.com
2017 Chevrolet SS - media.assets.sincrod.com

Gearheads might recognize the badge and know not to mess with the Chevrolet SS, but for the uninitiated this unassuming sedan appears to be nothing remarkable. In reality this Impala lookalike packs a serious punch with the same LS3 6.2L V8 as the Camaro and Corvette. With 415 horsepower and a 0-60 run in just 4.5 seconds, the Chevrolet SS is a would-be classic sleeper car.

Ford SVT Contour (1998-2000)

2000 Ford SVT Contour - performance.ford.com
2000 Ford SVT Contour - performance.ford.com

The bad boys from down the hall, Ford’s SVT (Special Vehicles Team) division bent their performance know-how to perhaps its most unlikely of recipients, the Ford Contour. Successor to the Tempo, the Contour (a.k.a. the Mondeo outside North America) was a very, very run-of-the-mill car. Heck, the Mondeo was intended to be Ford’s “world car,” aggressively inoffensive to appeal to the widest number of markets possible.

The SVT Contour, however, had a specific market in mind, those looking for all the practicality and comfort of a small sedan and still be able to squawk the tires. The SVT Contour featured a 2.5L V6 making between 195 and 200 horsepower (depending on the model year) and came exclusively with a sporty five-speed manual transmission.

Mazdaspeed6 (2006)

2006 Mazdaspeed6 - news.mazdausa.com
2006 Mazdaspeed6 - news.mazdausa.com

There’s a reason Mazda fans miss the Mazdaspeed name, It meant performance. The MazdaSpeed6 may look like a regular Mazda6 on the outside, which is to say, painfully ordinary, but under the hood it had the makings of a true sleeper car champion.

The Madzdaspeed6 featured a 2.3L turbo four-cylinder tuned all the way to 274 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. A six-speed manual was the only transmission and sent power to all four wheels. The Mazdaspeed6 could jolt from zero to sixty mph in 5.5 seconds.

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 (2012-2013) 

2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com

From Chrysler to Fiat-Chrysler to Stellantis, whatever the name, one consistency over the last two decades for this company of many guises has been putting silly amounts of power into just about anything they can cram a Hemi V8 into. Case in point, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. Without that little alphanumeric tacked on the end, you might miss the fact that this seeming grocery-getter of an SUV has well over 400 horsepower.

The Grand Cherokee SRT8 already had a massive 6.1L V8 under the hood, but when the next gen version arrived in 2012, Jeep gave it an even larger 6.4L Hemi V8 making 470 horsepower and 465 lb.-ft. of torque. That meant the Grand Cherokee SRT8 could rip from zero to sixty in 4.4 seconds. That was faster than the Charger SRT8 at 4.6 seconds. Power was bumped slightly upward to 475 horse in 2015 and the Grand Cherokee SRT8 continued through 2021 (the even crazier abovementioned SRT Trackhawk with its 707 hp-Hellcat V8 having been introduced in 2018).

Mercury Marauder (2003)

2003 Mercury Marauder - netcarshow.com
2003 Mercury Marauder - netcarshow.com

The Panther platform cousin of another classic sleeper, the Ford Crown Victoria, the Mercury Marauder makes our list simply for being the rarer, more obscure of the pair. The Marauder had all the ingredients for a sleeper. First is the 4.6L DOHC V8 making 302hp and 318lb.-ft. of torque. Then there’s the rear-wheel drive, the limited-slip differential, and the aluminum drive shaft. Unlike most of the sleepers on this list, this car has a name to match its performance: Mercury, the fleet-footed god of messengers, and Marauder, which right up there with Raptor and Hellcat for heck-raising attitude.

Volkswagen Golf R32 (2004) 

2004 Volkswagen Golf R32 - media.vw.com
2004 Volkswagen Golf R32 - media.vw.com

The Volkswagen Golf has always been a bit of a sleeper with its R and GTI hot-hatch variants, but our favorite sleeper version is the Golf R32 Mk. 4. The R32 debuted in Europe in 2003 and was so popular VW expanded its run to the US and other markets for the 2004 model year. What makes the R32 so special is its engine, the 3.2L VR6 DOHC from the Audi TT. This engine was the largest displacement of any engine offered in Golf for that generation and made 238 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft. fed to an on-demand all-wheel drive system. That translated to a zero to sixty-two (100km) sprint of 6.6 seconds. The R32 also offered a larger set of brakes than standard and sport seats.

Ford Taurus SHO (1989-1999)

1989 Ford Taurus SHO - media.ford.com
1989 Ford Taurus SHO - media.ford.com

They don’t get much more non-descript than the Ford Taurus. The car was a smash hit for Ford in the 1980s and as a result, the streets were filled with them. And almost all of them were thoroughly ordinary, but not the SHO. Like Lexus’s LS 400, the Taurus SHO (Super High Output) was Ford’s attempt at making a true sports sedan. The Taurus SHO featured a Yamaha-built 3.0L V6 paired with a five-speed manual. The original Taurus SHO took just 6.6 seconds to reach 60 mph. The second generation SHO added items like fog lamps, flashy “slicer” wheels, and a rear spoiler. After a 10-year hiatus, the Taurus SHO returned in 2010 and was every bit the sleeper its predecessor was, this time sporting a twin-turbo V6 making 365 horsepower.

GMC Syclone (1991-1992)

1991 GMC Syclone - media.gmc.com
1991 GMC Syclone - media.gmc.com

No, that’s not a typo, GMC felt that their dragster sleeper truck needed that extra bit of panache that only a tastefully intentional misspelling could provide (trust me, this made sense in the ‘90s). The Syclone lived up to its rad name by smoking Ferrari’s at the drag strip while looking nearly identical to your stepdad’s Sonoma work truck. Under its black hood (as black was the only color offered) was a turbocharged 4.3L V6 producing 280 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. for torque. The Syclone was produced in conjunction with the GMC Typhoon, an identically equipped version of the GMC Jimmy SUV. Though production numbers were low and the Syclone was only produced for two years, this sleeper gained some notable fans including Jay Leno and Clint Eastwood.

Cadillac CTS-V (2009-2014) 

2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe - netcarshow.com
2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe - netcarshow.com

One of the greatest automotive traditions is the passing down of cars from grandparents to teenage grand kids with newly minted licenses. And while many of those cars are going to be low mileage Ford Tempos, every so often grandma and grandpa had overspent on the “zippier” version of their favorite luxury sedan like the Cadillac CTS-V, making you, dear grandkid, the lucky inheritor of a serious sleeper car. The Cadillac CTS-V might look like your ordinary luxury sedan form the mid-aughts, but under the hood is a surprise, a Corvette’s V8. The first gen of the CTS-V got an LS6 and later and LS2, both great. But it’s the second-gen CTS-V (starting with the 2009 model year) that’s really smoking with its supercharged LSA, based on the Vette’s LS9 motor. This V8 gave the CTS-V 556 horsepower and 551 lb.-ft. of torque and came paired with your choice of a Tremec six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. Zero to sixty for this beast was just 3.9 seconds (automatic equipped), and body styles also included both a coupe and, for maximum sleeper points, a wagon version (2011-2014 models).

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2021 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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