Sleeper cars may look normal, even boring, but under the hood they hide a secret. They’re actually performance machines ready to rip up the pavement.
The Lamborghini Urus looks fast. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk doesn’t. 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” sedan that’s actually got a monster 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, as a brand, couldn’t be better suited to producing a sleeper car. Their cars are known for quiet rides, high-quality interiors, and congregating in Perkins parking lots for Sunday brunch. The last thing you expect from a Buick is ripping a burn out and smoking your WRX at a stoplight. But the Buick Regal GS can do just that.
Not since the days of the Grand National has Buick offer the kind of performance we find in the Regal GS. In addition to the 2.0L turbo-4, the Regal GS offered Brembo brakes, Pirelli P-Zero tires, and an optional 6-speed manual.
Before the Mercedes-AMG E63 or the Audi RS6 Avant, there was the original power-wagon, the Audi RS2 Avant. Built in partnership with Porsche, the Audi RS2 Avant was a major pivot into performance for Audi and the first in there now infamous line of RS models. Not only did Porsche help with the design and tuning of the car they also manufactured the car and even gave it Porsche parts, including wheels, brakes, and even the side mirrors from the 911.
The Audi RS2 Avant featured a turbocharged 2.2L DOHC inline five-cylinder making 315 horsepower (in 1994!). It sprinted from zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds, making it faster than supercar contemporaries like the V12 Ferrari 456.
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 look-alike 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.
The bad boys from down the hall, Ford’s SVT (Special Vehicles Team) division bent their performance knowhow 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 so as to appeal to the widest number of markets possible.
The SVT Contour, however, had a very specific market in mind, those looking for all the practicality and comfort of a sedan and still 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 five-speed manual transmission.
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 for 274 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. The six-speed manual was the only transmission and sent power to all four wheels. The Mazdaspeed6 leapt from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds.
Lexus was born of the desire to compete with the best German luxury car makers could offer. Another milestone along that path was the Lexus IS, a performance-oriented sport sedan built for the Autobahn. The second generation of the IS was where Lexus really upped their game, making the IS even more luxurious and increasing its performance. The IS 350 ran a naturally aspirated 3.5L V6 making 306 horsepower. It came in rear-wheel drive and was capable of a 0-60 run in 4.9 seconds.
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 of 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. And in the true sleeper fashion of diametrically opposed elements comingling, there’s the name: Mercury, not the most performance-oriented badge, and Marauder, which right up there with Raptor and Hellcat for heck-raising attitude.
What does the Audi RS2 Avant and the Mercedes-Benz 500E have in common, aside from being killer sleeper cars? They were both built with help from Porsche. Back in the 1980s, before Mercedes bought out and incorporated AMG, they still needed a little help in tuning their sedans. So, when they wanted to borrow the SL’s 5.0L V8 for their new power sedan they turned to Porsche for help. Like the RS2, the 500E was actually assembled by Porsche, in the same factory no less. Even so, the 500E featured plenty of Mercedes’s signature luxury elements combined with impressive power (322 horsepower). At the time of its release, the Mercedes-Benz 500E was a sensation, hitting 60 miles per hour in just 5.5 seconds and doing it in impeccable style and comfort.
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, all but the SHO. Like Lexus’s LS 400, the Taurus SHO (Super High Output) was Ford’s attempt at 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 sleep its predecessor had been with a twin-turbo V6 making 365 horsepower.
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 actually 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) 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.