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20 Sleeper Cars Drivers Never See Coming…Or Going

Cameron EittreimNovember 19, 2021

For many drivers, there is perhaps no better feeling than driving a “sleeper” car. These are cars with an unassuming exterior but still offer beyond exceptional performance. A sleeper car is the quintessential driver’s car that has the high performance a driver wants without all the fuss and attention. There are sleeper cars that come along with every generation. The Chevrolet Caprice of the 1990s is one such car, sharing many of its components with the Impala SS.

A sleeper car is also often excellent for the race track. Nothing is better than wiping the smile off the face of another driver who didn’t expect your car to perform like that. So we took a look at some of the most infamous sleeper cars that were ever released. These cars don’t sound like much, but they perform better than you remember. Many of the cars we looked at have become instant classics, so enjoy them in the list below.

Photo Credit: Hagerty

20: Honda Civic Si

Many car fans argue the 2000 Honda Civic Si is the quintessential sleeper car. With the electric blue paint job and body add-ons, the Civic Si was a notable exception to what a sports car should be. The high-revving engine coupled with bulletproof reliability made the car a popular option. The Civic SI was an instant success for Honda thanks to its performance and design (via Cars.com).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

The car was so popular that it was the most stolen car in America for a short period. The fact that the Civic Si shared many components with the Acura Integra made it stand out even more. Many of these cars have been heavily modified, but every once in a while you can find one for a good deal.

Mercury Marauder
Photo Credit: Ford

19: Mercury Marauder

The mid-2000s were a strange time for the Mercury division over at Ford. The brand was in the midst of a transformation. The brand was being positioned to appeal to female car buyers, but in the middle of that, the company released the Marauder. Based on the Crown Victoria, the Marauder was what the Chevy Impala SS was in the 1990s (via Hagerty).

Photo Credit: Ford

The Marauder wasn’t an extraordinary vehicle by any stretch of imagination. But what it did right was perform. The standard V8 engine was bulletproof, and the car looked just different enough to appeal to a new range of car shoppers. The Marauder is perhaps one of Mercury’s rarest from the early 2000s.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

18: Cadillac XTS V-Sport

The Cadillac XTS hasn’t been the most popular luxury sedan for General Motors. But if there’s one thing that the XTS does right, it’s performance. The XTS V-Sport was a surprising blend of performance and technology. The plain styling of the car made it the ultimate sleeper sedan because it appears almost like the base model (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

The V6 engine’s performance is powerful, pumping out over 400 horsepower as opposed to the previous V8 versions of the V-Series cars. Driving an XTS V-Sport is a satisfying experience, and the car is still comfortable.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

17: Taurus SHO Third Generation

The second generation of the Ford Taurus SHO was a distinct car. It was the only Ford Taurus in the entire lineage that utilized a V8 engine. The Yamaha derived V8 engine stood out from the crowd in terms of performance. The styling was disputable at the time, since Ford went overboard with the ovals (via AutoWeek).

Photo Credit: Parts Open

Today, the third generation Taurus SHO is one of the rarest SHO models. The fact that it has a V8 engine as standard equipment was an outstanding feature. Ford built quite a few sleepers during the 1990s, and this was one of them. The SHO is a rarity in the modern automotive market.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

16: Chevrolet SS

The Chevrolet SS was a limited production sport sedan released for a few years. It was based on the Pontiac G8, which was discontinued after the brand was disbanded. From the outward appearances, the Chevrolet SS looks like just another bland sedan. In fact, the styling was similar to the Malibu of the time period (via Car & Driver).

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

But when you take this car out on the track, you’ll feel the power it has. The SS is perhaps one of the best sports sedans GM has ever built. Sadly, the car didn’t last more than a few years before it was discontinued. Needless to say, the SS is one of the best sleeper cars ever.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

15: Chrysler 300C

Here we have the Chrysler 300C, a car that needs no introduction. The styling is the boldest statement about this car. In 2005, the Chrysler brand needed a shift in direction, and the 300C was that change. The car is both subdued and powerful at the same time and in SRT trim, this thing is a monster (via The AA).

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

But performance isn’t all the 300C has going for it. The interior is luxurious, and it offers many features for the price. The 300C ride is also adequate and suitable for long rides and commutes. The 300C is a sleeper car by every ounce of the definition and provides excellent performance.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

14: Ford Contour SVT

Remember the lowly Ford sedan sold during the 1990s? Probably not, because the Contour was a flop sales-wise for the company. But there was an important edition of the car called the Contour SVT. The 200 HP V6 engine was a secret weapon the car had under its hood (via Blue Springs Parts).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Coupled with the lightweight design and superb handling, the Contour SVT was a surprisingly brisk car to drive. The styling of the car was also updated, with ground effects and a spoiler. Overall, the Contour SVT is probably one of the most underrated cars of the 1990s, but because of the poor reputation of the standard models.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

13 Chevrolet Cobalt SS

The Cobalt was the next generation compact car that GM was selling in the mid-2000s to replace the Cavalier. The standard Cobalt was not much to look at, but the special edition SS actually was. The Cobalt SS had a supercharged four cylinder engine, and at the time it was one of the best four cylinders that GM produced (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

Likewise, the styling of the Cobalt SS was also vastly improved, offering a ground effects kit and a spoiler. This car was released around the time when Dodge offered their own turbocharged compact in the SRT-4. The market for these cars continued to grow with new advances.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

12: Chevrolet Malibu SS

Another surprising sleeper car to come out of GM in the mid-2000s was the Malibu SS. The Malibu was not the first car that comes to mind when you think of performance. But GM figured an SS variation would garner new customers.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

The 3.9L V6 engine boasted 240 horsepower, and the styling was vastly improved over the standard model (via Net Car Show). Aftermarket wheels and a stylish ground effects kit made the car look completely different. Although this generation of the Malibu wasn’t the most desirable, it has stood the test of time as an a sleeper car.

Ford Fusion SE
Photo Credit: Ford

11: Ford Fusion Sport

The Ford Fusion was a surprise success for Ford, released on the heels of the Taurus being discontinued. The final generation for the Fusion introduced the Fusion sport, which had a turbocharged Eco Boost engine. The Ford Fusion Sport is a stellar sleeper car because it has an immense amount of performance with a discreet amount of performance (via CNET).

Ford Fusion SE
Photo Credit: Ford

Although the Fusion is slowly being phased out in favor of crossover SUVs, this car is still an excellent sleeper car. The resale value on these cars has remained steady while interest has waned. You can generally still find the Fusion Sport for a great deal and have an enjoyable driving experience.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

10: Lexus LS400

Although the early Lexus SC400 sports car gets all the credit for being incredibly fast, it’s the early LS400 models that are true sleepers. With a V8 packed under the hood, these sedans had amazingly fast performance for their curb weight. Likewise, there is a steady aftermarket community that has all kinds of knowledge of these cars (via Motor Biscuit).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

On top of the blisteringly fast performance, the LS400 was also a subtle and delightful car. There was immense engineering that went into the technology and comfort of this car at the time.

Photo Credit: Find Me Cars

9: Chevrolet Caprice PPV

A rarity that you don’t encounter often is the Chevrolet Caprice PPV. The car was released for a few years in the late 2000s and featured many unique aspects. The first of which was the powerful and modern LS series engine under the hood. Coupled with that is the fact that the car looks like nothing else on the road (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: Find Me Cars

Other drivers might believe you’re in a run-of-the-mill Impala or Malibu, but instead, you’re driving a muscle car. If the Chevrolet Caprice PPV looks familiar, it’s because the car shares a substantial portion of its underpinnings with the Pontiac G8. So, drivers got the performance of a Pontiac in the skin of a standard car.

Photo Credit: Car and Driver

8: Ford F-150 Harley Davidson

While the Ford Lightning gets all the fame as a performance truck, there was also another version of the F-150 that could more than hold its own. The F-150 Harley Davidson is a blazingly fast truck that offers many notable performance enhancements. The supercharged engine is almost identical to the one found in the Lightning (via Edmunds).

Photo Credit: Car and Driver

Coupled with the four-door design of the truck and the luxurious interior, you can’t go wrong. Early examples of the Harley Davidson F-150 have become much more affordable in recent years. If you want a truck that can hang with the sports cars but don’t want to pay for a Lightning, this is the next best thing.

2006 Chevrolet Impala SS
Photo Credit: GM

7: Chevrolet Impala SS

Perhaps the most underrated generation of the Impala SS was the final generation. The car didn’t exhibit any outward appearance of being a fast car, but under the hood was an LS V8 engine. Coupled with the dual exhaust pipes, this is perhaps the most notable generation of the Impala SS. Prices for these cars have stayed fairly reasonable (via Motor Trend).

2006 Chevrolet Impala SS
Photo Credit: GM

The thing that makes it special, aside from that, is that it was one of the last Chevy’s pre-bankrupt GM. There are all kinds of amusing quirks and features around this car. Even the silver GM badges on the side of the vehicle are notable.

The Legacy 2.5GT spec.B Was Subaru's Grown-Up Alternative to the STI

6: Subaru Legacy spec.B

When you think of Subaru and performance, you often think of the WRX or the STI. But the Legacy is also the performance sedan. The spec.B hit the market in 2006, and it had a 250 horsepower engine. The subtle effects of the car were attractive and varied from the off-road appeal of the regular Subaru models (via Autocar).

Photo Credit: Edmunds

The thing that made the car unique was that 250 horsepower was a lot back in 2006. Subaru crafted a sedan geared toward young professionals instead of the average Subaru buyers. The results were favorable, and the Legacy spec.B was revered in the eyes of buyers.

Photo Credit: GM

5: Chevrolet HHR SS

The HHR was released too little too late, as the popularity of a similar car the PT Cruiser had already waned. The retro-inspired appearance of the HHR was captivating to Chevy enthusiasts, but to everyone else it was a gimmick. The car did have an interesting panel van version, which was unusual (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: GM

With the turbocharged engine, the HHR SS was surprisingly brisk, and enthusiasts were quick to point out the cargo hauling capabilities of the cars. The HHR SS has become the collector’s item. The performance of the car wasn’t terrible and you’ll still encounter them on the road from time to time.

Photo Credit: Ford Motor

4: Lincoln Aviator

The Lincoln Aviator SUV was a failure in terms of sales numbers, but it has a unique feature under the hood. The Aviator had the same engine as the Mustang Mach-1 at the time, and the performance was more than adequate. The styling of the SUV isn’t exactly what you’d call sporty, so this car was definitely a sleeper (via Edmunds).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

As time goes on, these are becoming harder to find in clean condition. But if you can get your hands on one, the Aviator provides a lot of driving fun for the price. The SUV was versatile and based on the Ford Explorer of the same time.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

3: Buick Regal GS

The 1990s had many different sport sedans, but one that often gets overlooked is the Buick Regal GS. It had the supercharged engine that was popular from GM at the time, and the styling was subtle. The performance was far better than you’d expect from a Buick from this time period, and the car proved popular (via Edmunds).

Photo Credit: Edmunds

It also helped that Tiger Woods, who was quite popular at the time, signed on to be the spokesperson for Buick. The Regal GS had a two-tone interior and many nice features. But from the outside, the car was your average Regal from this generation. Needless to say, the Regal GS is one of the most sought after 1990s sport sedans.

Photo Credit: Lincoln

2: Lincoln MKS

The Lincoln MKS is a sleeper for many reasons, with the most notable being that it shared its underpinnings and engine with Taurus SHO. The final generation of the Taurus SHO didn’t gain considerable traction, but the Lincoln counterpart did. The MKS had excellent performance and especially if you can get one used (via Consumer Reports).

Photo Credit: Lincoln

The interior is fairly luxurious, and Ford has come a long way with interior quality in the last decade. If you want blazingly-fast performance with an Eco Boost engine under the hood, the MKS will get you there. Lincoln also added a high degree of technology to this automobile, so it makes an excellent vehicle for commuting and trips.

2018 Volkswagen Golf R - 2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
Photo Credit: VW

1: Volkswagen GTI

The Volkswagen GTI has always been a special car. In fact, it was the first hot hatch. Because the styling is exactly the same as the Golf, the car is quiet. But when you take it out on the road, you get the same driving experience as much more expensive German cars. The interior comfort and quality score high marks (via Car and Driver).

Volkswagen GTI
Photo Credit: Volkswagen

The GTI is much faster than a lot of cars in this same price range. For the features and the price, you can’t go wrong with it. With the German styling and the standard features, the Volkswagen GTI is a stellar choice. The GTI is a legend in the automotive world and for good reason.

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