Home Cars 25 Super-Fast Cars Auto Fans Never Saw Coming

25 Super-Fast Cars Auto Fans Never Saw Coming

Vukasin Herbez June 16, 2020

Car enthusiasts can quickly spot performance cars on the street. But looks can be deceiving. The car can be nothing but a bunch of bolt-on modifications on a slow sedan. Real performance comes from the engine, transmission, brakes, and suspension.

Sometimes, sports car manufacturers choose to go a different route. They introduce cars as fast and powerful as performance models that are extremely restrained in their appearance. In fact, they’re almost stealthy. Those cars have become famous as “sleepers,” or “sleeper cars.” They may even fall in with some of the 25 most obscure American cars you can still find today.

Here are the best sleeper models from the past 25 years. These cars still demand respect from the car community for their speed and power, as well as for their elegance. But it’s their understatement that makes them even more interesting. Read on to learn about the sleeper cars auto fans never saw coming.

25. Lotus Omega/Omega Carlton

This menacing sedan is virtually unknown in the U.S. Lotus introduced it in 1990 and discontinued it just two years later, in 1992. The Omega Lotus was Opel’s rear-wheel-drive luxury model.

Lotus tuned it, adding a turbocharger to the powerful stock six-cylinder engine. The 3.6-liter six delivered 377 HP, massive by the standards of the day. It had a 0-to-60 mph time of just 5.2 seconds. The top speed was a record-breaking 177 mph. Lotus installed a body kit, spoiler and special details in England.

The car came in just one color, a dark green hue called “Imperial Green.” Unfortunately, production numbers were low. Consumers considered Opel and Vauxhall to be economy car manufacturers.

The problem was that the Omega Lotus and Lotus Carlton were expensive cars costing close to a fully-optioned Jaguar XJ. Also, the recession of the early ’90s hit the market hard. In the end, Opel and Lotus made only 950 cars. They are valuable classics today, and their prices are slowly rising.

24. Ford Taurus SHO

Back in the late ’80s, Ford caused a revolution with the introduction of the Taurus. This was the first truly modern American sedan that ditched the heavy ladder-type chassis and big engines. Instead, it went in a different direction with a sleek, aerodynamic body and front-wheel drive. The Taurus was a big seller; however, the most interesting is the famed SHO version. The Super High Output or SHO was the performance model in the Taurus lineup.

It featured a Yamaha-sourced 3.0-liter high revving V6 with 220 HP. This may not sound impressive, but for 1989, it was a lofty figure. Also, the performance was outstanding with just 6.7 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. But on the outside, the Taurus SHO looked like any other regular Taurus. Only the badge on the back revealed its true sports car nature.

That was more than 25 years ago, but even today, the modern Ford Taurus SHO is the champion of understatement. It is also one of the best sleepers you can buy. It has a powerful Ecoboost V6 engine displacing 3.5-liters and delivering 355 HP to all four wheels. The new Taurus SHO can outhandle and outperform many current sports cars. It must be frustrating to lose a race to a Ford sedan that looks like a rental car yet flies like an Audi S6.

23. Nissan Sentra SE-R

The Sentra SE-R was one of the most surprising economy cars from the early 2000s. It featured a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission. The engine delivered 175 HP to the front wheels. From the outside, the Sentra looked as ordinary as any other economy compact. But when the driver pressed the gas, this little sedan could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, embarrassing many pricier cars.

Since it was affordable when new, it’s inexpensive now. Be sure to look for cars in the 2004 to 2006 model years. Even new, the Nissan Sentra didn’t get much attention on the streets since it looked like other economy sedans. However, today, many people are amazed by its performance.

Since the Sentra is a front-wheel-drive car, it doesn’t provide great handling compared to some other cars on this list. However, the Sentra SE-R still handles well. It also has decent brakes and steering. The Sentra is a relatively modern, high-optioned compact, too. You can get power windows, air conditioning, ABS brakes, and a leather-trimmed interior. The Sentra SE-R has a growing fan base and is bound to be a classic someday, so purchasing one now could be a wise move.

22. Volvo 850R Wagon

Is there anything more boring in the automotive world than a Volvo station wagon? Probably not. The typical suburban mom car from the ’90s had loads of space for kids and their stuff. It was slow but dependable and boring to drive. Although that’s true for the regular Volvo 850 Wagon, the 1996 “R” version is something completely different.

After Volvo’s success with the T5 version in the 850 series featuring a turbocharged engine, they decided to introduce an all-out sleeper machine: the 850R. Under the hood was a 2.3-liter five-cylinder engine with a bigger turbo and an updated intake system and electronics. With a 250-HP output, the 850R Wagon could go from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds with a top speed of almost 160 mph.

That was sports car territory for the mid-90s. There must have been many confused Porsche owners when those boring-looking Volvo wagons passed them on the highway. After the 850R, many manufacturers like Audi started offering powerful, fast wagons. However, Volvo was the first with the 850R.

Today, those performance numbers still demand respect. Fortunately, the 850R is quite affordable on the used car market. Also, you can find various power upgrades for this model, so consider buying this ultimate wagon.

21. Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG

If you’re not familiar with the R-Class, it’s a big minivan based on the S-Class sedan. It comes with all the conceivable luxuries. It’s perfect for crossing continents traveling at 100 mph. However, AMG, Mercedes’s performance division had something to say about that. So, they introduced the R63 with a fantastic 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8 delivering 503 HP.

With a stiffer suspension, tons of power, and impressive performance numbers, the R63 was no ordinary minivan. Instead, it was more like a sports car with room for seven people. Unfortunately, the car was expensive when new. Also, it didn’t have a market since the combination of minivan comfort and sports car performance was strange. However, the R63 AMG was a glorious sleeper machine with a 4.8-second 0 to 60 mph time and unassuming appearance.

Nobody expected a 5,000-pound crossover to beat a new BMW M3 in a stoplight drag race. Today, most car fans have forgotten the R63. It doesn’t help that they produced it in limited numbers due to poor consumer response. However, it was totally different from other AMG products. This means the prices on the used car market are relatively inexpensive. The R63 is a tempting proposition if you’re looking for an ordinary-looking yet powerful vehicle.

20. GMC Syclone

In the 1980s, GM experimented with turbocharged engines. The most famous of them all was the Buick Grand National or Buick GNX. It featured a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine with under five-second 0 to 60 mph times. With that kind of firepower, those black Buicks were terrorizing the drag strips and stoplights. However, by the early 1990s, all the Buicks were gone, so GM engineers needed a car for their turbo hardware.

They decided to make a crazy sports truck out of the S10, a compact pickup with diminutive four-cylinder power. That vision is how the GMC Syclone was born. GM took an ordinary S10 bodyshell and installed a 4.3-liter V6 with a turbocharger producing 280 HP. GM also used a special four-speed automatic sourced from a Corvette and performance-based all-wheel drive.

Although the power figures may not be impressive these days, the Syclone was able to sprint to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. This made it faster than contemporary Ferraris. The key was its low weight, small dimensions, and torque from the turbocharged engine. Because the price was significantly higher than the regular model, GMC built less than 3,000 of them.

Also, most of them came in the signature black color. From the outside, the GMC Syclone looked like any other compact GMC truck, only with the blackout grille and discrete body modifications. Today, the GMC Syclone is a collector vehicle and a famous car model. It’s still quite fast and can hold its own against much younger and more powerful cars too.

19. Mazdaspeed6

If you think behind this funny name is an ordinary Mazda 6 family sedan from 10 years ago, think again. Emerging in 2006, the Mazdaspeed6 is an affordable performance car they disguised as an economy family four-door. However, Mazda designed this car to be the perfect driver’s machine in sheep’s clothing. Under the hood is a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 270 HP.

The motor sends its power to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system and six-speed manual transmission. Mazda cleverly hid the Mazdaspeed6’s advanced hardware under their regular body style. The only difference is the grille and a few subtle modifications. That means even the most experienced car aficionados have trouble telling the regular Mazda 6 from the crazy Mazdaspeed6.

The performance numbers of the Madzaspeed6 are outstanding, even by today’s standards. The Mazdaspeed6 is capable of going from 0 to 60 in just 5.5 seconds with top speeds of 150 mph. Thanks to the all-wheel drive, it’s surefooted even in difficult driving conditions. Despite being over 10 years old, the Mazdaspeed6 can still surprise many current performance cars. It delivers real-life usability at an affordable price.

18. Mercury Marauder

Back in the ’60s, Mercury produced the Marauder, a high-performance version of their regular performance sedan. The model was popular but today, people have largely forgotten it. In fact, the more popular muscle cars from the same era have overshadowed it. But 40 years later, in 2003, Mercury introduced its final Marauder model based on Ford’s Panther platform cars.

The Ford Panther platform is one of the longest-serving platforms in the car industry. Ford used it from 1978 to 2011, underpinning many famous models. They include the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Lincoln Town Car. This chassis was so sturdy and durable in extreme conditions, even police and taxi drivers used it. Today, six years after Ford discontinued it, millions of Panther-based models are still on the roads.

Even though Ford never intended the Grand Marquis to be a performance car, Mercury decided to turn it into one. They installed a highly tuned 4.6-liter V8 with 302 HP as well as a revised suspension, gearbox and brakes. All those changes turned this sleepy, comfy sedan into a sharp muscle car.

Although it came in three colors, the black Marauder had menacing looks and an aggressive stance, differentiating it from its sedate cousins. The performance was impressive for a big, heavy sedan because it could go from 0 to 60 mph in approximately seven seconds. However, the biggest asset was its appearance. Just the sight of this big, black sedan in the rearview mirror could make drivers want to pull over to the side of the road to let it pass.

17. Chevrolet SS

Unfortunately, the Chevrolet SS is out of production. The SS is one of the best affordable performance sedans on the market today. With a 6.2-liter V8, 412 HP, precise steering and neutral handling, this car rivals Europe’s finest sports sedans. Interestingly, Holden from Australia produced the SS, but they rebadged it as a Chevrolet.

The performance numbers are respectable. A 0-to-60-mph sprint is possible in just 4.7 seconds, while the top speeds are over 150 mph. The Chevrolet SS is a valuable proposition for people who need a practical sedan but also want a sports car. The styling is elegant and unassuming, so this car can surprise many regular sports models with its performance.

This is one of the best sleepers on the market because it blends in with traffic seamlessly. Nobody can tell that you have 400 HP under your right foot. The Chevrolet SS is going to be a future classic, so grab yours today while they are still affordable.

16. Buick Regal GS

For years, Buick produced pale, boring cars, especially during the ’60s and ’70s. In fact, people considered the company to be just a shadow of its former self. However, in the last decade or so, Buick has experienced a renaissance with its new lineup. They use innovative designs to make interesting cars, turning the market focus on this forgotten brand.

One of the cars that helped Buick re-emerge is the Regal. It’s a family sedan Opel in Europe designed. They sold it as the Opel Insignia. However, for the American market, they turned the Insignia into a Regal by adding a few design items, a different grille, and some new interior appointments.

Aside from the regular Regals with front-wheel drive, Buick produced the Regal GS. It’s one of the best affordable performance sedans on the market. The GS comes with unassuming looks and compact dimensions but has a highly-capable powertrain. The Regal GS was the first true performance car in the Buick lineup since the GNX of the mid-’80s.

The secret of the Regal GS is its engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers 270 HP. The power goes to all four wheels over an advanced AWD system. But it’s the six-speed manual transmission that makes driving fun and engaging. Due to its compact dimensions and relatively low weight, the Regal GS can reach 60 mph in around six seconds. Since this is Buick, you can be sure the interior is luxurious.

15. Volkswagen Golf R

If you thought the Golf GTI is the most powerful Volkswagen hot hatch, think again. The Golf R is the top-of-the-line Golf with a powerful four-cylinder turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive. It delivers a brutal performance for a family hatchback. The R version is the derivate of the mighty R32 Golfs from the early 2000s with 3.2-liter naturally aspirated V6 engines.

However, the latest versions feature a smaller, more powerful 2.0-liter turbo-four that delivers 292 HP. As you can expect, the performance is brutal for a family compact. Going from 0 to 60 mph takes 4.5 seconds and this car can top 155 mph. Even though hot hatches usually come with flamboyant designs, the Golf R is restrained and discrete.

The Golf R is perfect for people who want performance and compact dimensions but don’t want attention. The Golf R is perfect for sneaking up on drivers of those expensive sports cars to frustrate them at the traffic lights.

14. Mercedes 500E

Back in the early ’90s, Mercedes produced the successful-yet-docile W124 E-Class. The elegant sedan was famous for comfort and refinement rather than performance and speed. A team of innovative German engineers would soon change that though. In 1991, they presented the mighty 500E model, a high-performance version of their main sedan with a different drivetrain, suspension, brakes, and engine.

But unfortunately, the 500E was highly demanding during production, so Mercedes asked Porsche to assemble it. The main feature of the 500E is the 5.0-liter V8 engine that delivers 326 HP. Although not an impressive number by today’s standards, this was an impressive figure for the early ’90s, especially in a formal sedan. The 500E can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just six seconds, almost as fast as a Ferrari 348.

The best thing is the design because the 500E looks identical to a regular W124 sedan. But if you look carefully, you may notice bigger wheel arches and brakes. However, nothing else reveals the monster lurking under the hood. Mercedes offered a special badge as a no-cost option for its customers. So if you choose black or silver color, you’ll get a stealth sedan that eats Corvettes for breakfast.

13. GMC Typhoon

Out of all the SUVs produced in the early ’90s, the most interesting and fastest was the GMC Typhoon. It was a limited production small SUV with a higher price tag than most other cars of the day. It had an unbelievable performance that set it apart from all the rest. More than 25 years since the first Typhoons saw the light of day, this vehicle is still a benchmark of performance. The GMC Typhoon is the perfect sleeper model since it looks extremely ordinary and slow.

GMC equipped its Typhoon with a 4.3-liter V6 engine with a turbocharger and intercooler. The power output was 280 HP, which is not that impressive today. But back in 1991, it was a nice number. The automatic transmission, performance-oriented all-wheel-drive system, and updated suspension allow the Typhoon to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds.

The rest of the package included special wheel choices, colors, and trim as well as many luxury interior options. The company limited the Typhoon’s production. The performance figures were not that unique in 2017, but the Typhoon could outrun a Ferrari 348 back in its day. Today, it can still surprise many performance cars at the traffic light. Due to the limited number of them, it would be wise to snap one up.

12. Audi RS2 Avant

Despite the looks of the old, early ’90s Audi station wagon, the RS2 Avant is a serious performance machine. In fact, it could destroy almost anything, not only in a boulevard drag race but also on the racetrack. Under the dull and unassuming body lies some serious rally technology delivering exceptional performance. The RS2 was the first in a long line of Audi performance station wagons that brought consumers those supercars with long roofs like the RS6.

However, the RS2 is where it all started. The engineers at Audi took the famous, inline five-cylinder turbo engine with 2.2-liters and 315 HP and put it in the most uninspiring body style they could find — the station wagon. On top of all that, they sprinkled it with Quattro all-wheel-drive magic and added a manual transmission.

Finally, they sent all that over to Porsche for a precision final assembly. The result was the RS2, with a 4.8 second time to go from 0 to 60 mph. It had divine road holding in its early ’90s form. Unfortunately, Audi limited its production, so if you see one of those cars at the stoplight, you know you’ll get left in the dust.

11. Volkswagen Passat W8

Volkswagen isn’t a company that likes to experiment or introduce overly-advanced models with unique features. They are famous for “middle of the road” cars with regular engines and decent driving characteristics. That’s why their introduction of the Passat W8 in 2001 surprised the car industry. They restyled the current B5 generation of the mid-size sedan, introducing a special edition with top-of-the-line technology.

It had an advanced 4.0-liter W8 gasoline engine and a four-motion all-wheel-drive system. Customers could select either a manual or automatic transmission. This top-of-the-line model had all the luxury features and creature comforts standard too.

The result was the perfect sleeper performance car in an unassuming Passat body. The compact-yet-powerful W8 engine delivered 270 HP and 270 lb-ft of torque. This was enough to propel the somewhat heavy Passat to just over six-second 0-to-60 mph acceleration times. Volkswagen ceased production in 2004.

10. Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 4×4

After the crazy RS Cosworth three-door hatchback of the mid-80s, Ford UK presented the RS Cosworth 4×4 in 1989 as a regular four-door sedan with stealth looks, but a stellar performance. Even though the power was the same, under the hood was a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine providing 220 HP mated to a manual transmission and a highly capable AWD system.

The car looked like any other family sedan on the market but had the performance and acceleration of a Porsche 911. Many owners decided to tune the 2.0-liter engine, enabling this reliable powerplant to deliver up to 500 HP.

9. Chevrolet Impala SS 1994

Chevrolet resurrected the Impala SS nameplate in 1994 as an option on the seventh generation of this legendary model. Since the early ’90s marked the return to performance for most American manufacturers, Chevrolet installed the famous 5.7-liter LT1 V8 engine in the full-size rear-wheel-drive sedan. Then they equipped it with a heavy-duty suspension and components, creating a modern muscle legend.

For two years, Chevrolet produced almost 70,000 Impala SS models in several colors, with dark purple being the most popular and sought-after. The engine delivered 260 HP, propelling the big sedan from 0 to 60 mph in just seven seconds. Those aren’t exactly spectacular numbers, but for the mid-90s, they were great results.

8. Audi RS3

From the outside, you could mistake the new RS3 Sedan for a regular A3 four-door since this model retains the elegance and the same proportions as a standard sedan. You might think it’s another boring compact sedan with nothing to show. But, as soon as you press the gas pedal, you’ll understand how wrong you were.

The 2.5-liter unit delivers 400 HP and 354 lb-ft of torque, making it the most powerful car in its class. The power goes to all four wheels over a signature electronically-controlled Quattro AWD system. That ensures you get the perfect traction and grip in all kinds of driving conditions. All of this translates to incredible performance numbers. The RS3 Sedan is capable of reaching 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds, topping 174 mph.

7. Dodge Coronet Sedan 426 Hemi

The 1966 Coronet Sedan looks like it has a slant six-cylinder or modest 318 V8 at best. With its taxi hubcaps and plain appearance, the Coronet 426 looks like your typical grocery-getter. However, looks can be deceiving, because once you peek under the hood and notice the Hemi engine, you’ll understand just how fast this car really is.

With 425 HP under your right foot, the Coronet Hemi four-door was arguably the fastest production sedan in America at the time it debuted. This diminutive sedan is the ultimate muscle car in four-door disguise.

6. Buick Roadmaster LT1

The legendary Roadmaster nameplate returned to the Buick lineup in 1991 after a 33-year long hiatus. The car was basically the same as other offerings from General Motors in the same class. However, the Roadmaster had some luxury options and one interesting engine that turned this comfy cruiser into a muscle car.

The engineers at Buick found a way to install a Corvette LT1 5.7-liter V8 engine into the Roadmaster’s engine bay. The LT1 produced 300 HP in the Corvette. But the Buick delivered 260 HP, which was more than enough.

5. Chrysler 300C SRT 8

The Chrysler 300C is an interesting car because it is one of the last, if not the last, true American box sedans. It comes with big V8 power and a chrome grille. To some people, it looks like your typical rental car and is nothing to be excited about. But then there’s the 300C SRT-8.

The SRT-8 comes with a 6.1-liter V8 Hemi engine that pumps out 425 HP, sending a glorious soundtrack through its twin tailpipes. The SRT-8 is fast, as getting from 0 to 60 mph takes around 4.9 seconds. The top speed was over 170 mph.

4. Toyota Camry V6

For most people, the Camry was never a performance car. It has always been a boring sedan for family-oriented car buyers. However, just take a look at the stats of the 2018 model.

The Toyota V6 comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine that delivers 301 HP. It sends all that power to the front wheels over an intelligent eight-speed automatic. In fact, the new Camry can achieve a 0-to-60 mph acceleration time in just 5.7 seconds. That is significantly faster than some of the most renowned muscle cars.

3. Dodge Spirit R/T

The Spirit was a Dodge economy model they presented in the late ’80s. But when Dodge presented the R/T version, things got interesting. The base 2.2-liter four-cylinder that developed only 90 HP got a turbo upgrade, producing an impressive 224 HP and 218 lb-ft of torque. For the 1991 model year, that was a hefty power level coming from an economy car.

The newfound power raised the performance to a whole new level. The Spirit R/T could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, and that was Corvette territory back in 1991.

2. 2005 Subaru Forester 2.5 XT

Nobody would consider the 2005 Forester XT a performance machine. After all, it’s a mid-size family SUV concentrating on comfort, but with a twist. The Forester 2.5 XT has a 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four engine that delivers 207 HP.

It has an extremely capable all-wheel drive that adds up to a surprising acceleration time from 0 to 60 mph of 5.7 seconds. Those performance numbers make it a Porsche Cayenne Turbo rival.

1. Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited

Today, fast SUVs are nothing special, but in the ’90s, they were extremely rare and obscure. However, Jeep produced one that will be a collector’s item in the near future. It is the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited, a one-year, top-of-the-line model equipped with every luxury item possible, as well as a 5.9-liter Magnum V8 producing 245 HP.

Although 245 HP doesn’t sound impressive today, it was a lofty number for late ’90s SUVs. The Grand Cherokee 5.9 could be considered a Jeep hot rod long before the modern SRT versions with their powerful Hemi engines. Although they only built about 15,000 of them, the 5.9 Limited is a definite future classic.

These are 25 of the most convincing sleepers ever made. They may look ordinary, but they pack a punch under the hood. Drive one of these down the road and you’ll own the stoplight.

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