All too often, potential car buyers find themselves swept off their feet by useless accessories or expensive trim options. Most consumers—particularly in the US—tend to jump for the first car they see with a set of fancy rims and leather seats. There’s something about that shiny-looking luxury trim that many buyers just can’t walk away from.
However, this is exactly the mindset that keeps many car owners in debt after buying a vehicle that simply isn’t worth it. Money aside, these vehicles are usually missing one important ingredient: power. It may not be any more of a necessity than a touchscreen or seat heaters, but some beef under the hood will make your car exponentially more exciting.
How can anyone really afford to buy a supercar or luxury sports car, though? Well, you no longer have to face constant disappointment if you desire that horsepower but also happen to work a nine-to-five and have a small family. There are a number of compacts and SUVs that are quicker than the status quo. Sure, none will qualify as a supercar, but you can certainly get a good amount of horsepower out of many sleepers without the pretentious bells and whistles of a Lamborghini (or the excessive bills, for that matter).
While most sleeper cars aren’t the most gorgeous cars that you can purchase, they typically have a decent body—or at least a plain one that can be easily upgraded with aftermarket parts—so you’re sacrificing neither your wallet nor your dignity to get some real horsepower.
25 1992-1998 Rover 'Tomcat' 220 Coupe ($2-3,000)
If you’re into sleepers, then Rover is probably up there with Buick and other undesirable makes that don’t typically appeal to younger generations. Rover may not be ‘cool’ but the Tomcat is one of the best models to ever leave the assembly line. The interior may look like someone built a cheap Honda knockoff and attempted to use wood grain trim to spruce it up but if glam isn’t what you’re after then the 220 coupe could be one of the most pleasing investments you’ll make. Who can really hate 150 horsepower and zero-to-sixty to 6.5? It may not be a Lambo but it has a price tag that beats just about any other coupe, powerful or not.
24 1998-2006 Volvo S80 T6 ($2-4,000)
Some thrifty shoppers want to have their cake and eat it, too, and sheer power is simply not enough. The Volvo S80 is the answer to all of these aesthetic concerns that potential buyers may have; it has a spacious cabin with leather upholstery and a relatively nice style. On the more mechanical end of things, the S80 is far from disappointing. During its production, there were 12 varieties of engines to choose from, but the twin-turbo six-cylinder is what we’re really after. It has 268 horsepower, which isn’t record-breaking, but it’s hard to argue against when some sellers are only asking for $2,000.
23 2003-2004 Mercury Marauder ($5-9,000)
We couldn’t close off this list without at least mentioning the Marauder. It’s no secret that the Mercury Marauder is one of the best values among sleepers, particularly because it happens to have a comfortable interior that has plenty of space to spare in its huge interior. But what really draws attention to the Marauder are its specs; it has a generous engine creating 302 horsepower and 318 pound-feet of torque. It is, by no means, a sports car, but this sedan is the perfect balance between comfort and power. It’s a great sleeper that will loyally carry you wherever you’d like…in a faster fashion than most.
22 2008 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP ($1-6,000)
The ugly four-door cousin of the GTO, the Grand Prix GXP is another of the Pontiac models that has some unexpected power under the hood. Its 303 horsepower says a lot, but the 323 pound-feet of torque in this little car sound even more desirable. The Grand Prix GXP is a fun little ride that can carry a generous amount of cargo. Since the make was axed a few years back, the prices for these speedy sedans has become even more affordable for just about anyone. This isn’t all that surprising since so many of these old Pontiacs are spotted practically everywhere in the US, today.
21 2003-2005 Dodge Neon SRT4 ($6-8,000)
The Neon is one of the most notorious Dodge cars to have ever been made. While the general opinion of the Neon isn’t exactly flattering, it’s not all bad. There’s a little-known variant in the Neon lineup, though: the SRT4. In 2003, it was the hottest car that Dodge was producing and 215 horsepower allowed it to reach zero-to-sixty in 5.6 seconds. Despite having a reputation for being one of the less reliable sedans in the Dodge fleet, a well-maintained SRT4 can have some longevity nonetheless. Since it was discontinued after only two years of production, it can be a little challenging to find, which is why it sits above the $5,000 mark.
20 2006 Pontiac GTO ($6-8,000)
Whenever someone hears word about the GTO, the mind often imagines the famed late-60s model that many of us know very well. Yet, this wasn’t necessarily the fastest car in the world. In fact, the 2006 model year had a little more pep in its step with a whopping 400 horsepower (for LS2 models). It’s not stylish or anything special on the outside; it actually resembles many of Chevrolet’s easy-going family sedans that never left much of an impression on anyone. Even if the exterior has severely downplayed this last-gen GTO, the engine isn’t a force to be reckoned with. The top speed ranges from 160-180 miles per hour (depending on whether or not there is a limiter) and it can reach 60 mph in 4.8 seconds.
19 Early-2000s Subaru WRX ($3-9,000)
The early years of the Impreza weren’t always pretty (for the exterior design, anyway), but the models were certainly performance-packed. No matter what the mainstream may claim, the STI model isn’t a massive step up from the basic WRX. The horsepower can range anywhere from 227 to 265, depending on the limiter and the country where the model was released. By contrast, the STI has 276 to 375 horsepower—obviously, this also depends on the model year. In other words, you can break the bank shoveling out cash for an STI or you can buy a used WRX that has minor flaws and upgrade the mechanicals to bring it up to speed with its big brother.
18 Volkswagen Golf GTI ($6-9,000)
The Volkswagen Golf GTI isn’t going to win any awards for its looks. In fact, at first glance, it seems like it would only serve the purpose of commuting to work. But that’s the beauty of the GTI; you can actually use it for practical purposes without having to completely sacrifice all of the horsepower that you desire (well, maybe not all of it). Since it’s a hot hatch, it has ample space for groceries or an obnoxious sub, but it can still pump out over 200 horsepower, which isn’t too shabby, but it leaves some room for improvement for those interested in a cheaper project car.
17 2006 Volvo S60 R ($2-7,000)
Unlike many of other unobtrusive models on this list, the Volvo S60 R runs on a five-cylinder engine. Yet it still manages to pump out 300 horsepower and it even has 295 pound-feet of torque. With a luxury feel that defines the Volvo name, it’s hard to beat a car that comes at such a low cost. There’s ample space for passengers, comfortable seats, and the accessories aren’t entirely obsolete. The only downside to the S60 R is its turbo lag, as it’s not exactly a race-ready car. But anyone who’s looking into investing a sleeper this cheap is likely in search of a low-cost car that doesn’t completely fall behind a Prius or is an amateur mechanic that wants to put their own work into it. Either route would make this a great selection.
16 2011 Honda Civic Si ($5-9,000)
Among the sea of bland compact cars, the Honda Civic is easy to overlook. It’s not particularly inviting but it’s also not the ugliest car on the lot, either. The Civic has maintained a sweet spot in the middle of the compact industry and one of its best-kept secrets has been the Si. If you’re not an avid enthusiast, then you may have no knowledge of the pumped-up Civic that contains an i-VTEC engine beneath that unassuming hood. It has 200 horsepower and an 8,000 rpm redline, which isn’t going to beat any records, but it will definitely beat the boring compacts on the road in your daily commute.
15 2004 Audi S4 ($6-10,000)
Generally, the older S4 is considered to be a little bland in its styling, but many Audi fanatics love the plain, boxy exterior. Many owners became converted to Audi once they realized that you don’t have the latest and greatest S4 to get 340 horsepower. Just search for a 2004 model! What’s nice about these aged iterations is the fact that many also have manual gearboxes and even a hatchback; there’s a flavor of S4 out there for just about anyone. The best part? It comes at a cost just below $10,000 and can even be found for less than $7,000 if you’re willing to spend the time and effort finding it and maybe even cleaning it up a bit. For many, the tradeoff is completely worth it.
14 2007 Volkswagen Jetta ($5-7,000)
If you can get over its ‘girl car’ reputation, the Volkswagen Jetta is actually a pretty peppy compact that has plenty of years of life ahead of it. Its lightweight body isn’t just a stylish design choice, it also plays an important role in the speed of the car. The turbocharged 2.5-liter engine packs a punch and offers 200 horses of pure joy. Driving around in a car with a renowned emblem and an unimaginable aftermarket selection is just a couple of the benefits of going team Jetta. There’s also that standard VW comfort and the designers even squeezed in a liberal amount of trunk space.
13 2016 Ford Fiesta ST ($9,000)
If there’s any car that has a laughable reputation to overcome, it’s the Fiesta. After several years of cringe-evoking body styles, Ford eventually got it right (somewhat) by the time the the latest models rolled around. The ST model is the high-performance edition of the Fiesta lineup. This front-wheel-drive compact may not be the most intimidating sleeper, but it has about 200 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque so it packs a pretty sweet punch for a hot hatch. And with specs like those, you’re getting a near-new car that you can get your hands on for under $10,000, which is not a bad deal.
12 2009-2010 Subaru Forester 2.5XT ($6-9,000)
Among all of the sleepers that we’re going to mention, the Forester is one of the least expected. It’s not exactly common to find a turbocharged family SUV that doesn’t look half-bad, either. The engine in the Forester is similar to the one found in the WRX STI, except it’s an all-wheel-drive family hauler with 224 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque. Considering that it’s got a lot going for itself, the Forester 2.5XT is inexpensive, especially if you can spot one on the lower end of the price spectrum (around $6,000). Having the ability to move quickly without compromising your storage capabilities is a major plus and between the roof racks and rear cargo space, the Forester has plenty for the average driver.
11 2010 Suzuki SX4 ($5-7,000)
The SX4 follows the same standard as many of Suzuki’s creations; bulletproof reliability and absolutely zero style. Everything about the SX4 is so outdated that you could easily be misled into believing that it’s a decade older than its actual age. It contains 150 horsepower under the hood when left in a stock format. Considering the fact that it’s under a decade old and can be acquired for $5,000, upgrading with aftermarket parts is definitely an option to look into. There aren’t many deals out there like this one; it offers a clean slate for the modification-fanatic and the SX4 Hill Climb Special could be the perfect motivator.
10 2001-2007 Saab 9-5 Aero ($3-8,000)
The Saab 9-5 Aero wears the sleeper title well. Of course, the power capabilities are meant to be slightly unexpected. The 9-5 Aero looks almost identical to the basic model, disguising its performance engine. It may look like your average commuter, but the 9-5 Aero has a turbocharged motor that produces 230 horsepower and even comes equipped with sport suspension, giving it the ultimate ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ appeal. It’s not much to look at and probably won’t draw too much attention, but the Saab 9-5 Aero will keep your wallet happy and satisfy those cheap thrills that sleeper enthusiasts are really after in the first place.
9 2000 Jaguar XJ8 Vanden Plas Supercharged ($3-8,000)
Jaguar’s dilemma with sales has been an ongoing rollercoaster ride for quite some time. While it may be bad for the manufacturer, it provides an attractive opportunity for the used car buyer. Cars like the supercharged XJ8 Vanden Plas wouldn’t normally be within grasp of a $10,000 price tag but due to Jag’s hiccups, they cost practically nothing. If you can get past the ugly exterior, then you could get your hands on a 370-horsepower car for a little more than $3,000. It’s also quite torquey for a mid-sized sedan since it produces with 387 pound-feet. The plush and comfortable interior is another major advantage of going for this ‘retro’ sleeper. What more could you want for under $8,000?
8 2002 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 ($4-8,000)
The early-2000s Camaro didn’t catch on quite as much as Chevy may have hoped, which partially explains why it disappeared for a number of years before its recent return. However, even if it is an outdated Z28, this is still a respectable muscle car that happens to have quite a bit of power that some don’t necessarily expect based on its shabby appearance. Equipped with a great 5.7-liter V8, the age-old Camaro puts out 310 horsepower and 340 pound-feet of torque. Though you can truly attain just about any Camaro of this generation for under $10,000, the LS-1 engine is a lot more bang for the buck.
7 2003 Cadillac Seville STS ($3-5,000)
Another of the senior citizen cars gone bad, the Cadillac Seville STS is not exactly the first car that comes to mind when you think about vehicles with 300 horsepower. However, this ride has a lot to offer, particularly for the price. The Seville STS is a luxury car, so you’re going to get all of the comfort of a Cadillac—including that cushy suspension—but with an engine that can tear up those other cars on the road. It also has quite a bit of torque for such a cruising vehicle: 295 pound-feet to be precise. You may not be in love with its outward appearance or even the outdated electronics, but there’s nothing on this car that can’t be upgraded and who could pass it up for the cost?
6 2005 Ford Mustang GT ($4-9,000)
Like the Camaro, the Mustang seems like an obvious powerhouse of a car. How is it really a sleeper? In truth, many ‘muscle cars’ are actually overhyped commuters—hence why many of the newer models are so affordable. However, the 2005 Mustang GT, when the Mustang was attempting to make its comeback, is actually a fairly well-equipped little coupe. It has 300 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, which may not seem like a lot until you realize that earlier versions never met those specs unless they were a Cobra or had been upgraded with aftermarket parts.
5 2005 Chrysler 300C ($4-6,000)
It may be a gas-guzzling sedan, but what else do you expect from a Chrysler that’s built like a tank? This also happens to explain why it has 390 pound-feet of torque; it takes a lot to push this lug around. However, there’s a flip side to that heavy car; it has over 340 horsepower pumping out of its 5.7-liter V8. Those serious specs come with a roomy interior; it’s even large enough to tote around an entire family, albeit a small one. The best part? There is no shortage of 300Cs roaming around the used car market, making them dirt-cheap.
4 1998-2000 Ford SVT Contour ($3-8,000)
The Contour is the result of an end to the Mondeo, but don’t be fooled because it’s not another of the plain ‘Mondeo Man’ cars like it seems. The Ford SVT Contour has 2.5-liter V6 that has even more to offer than its ancestor did. Even if its engine isn’t a V8, it still manages to push out 200 horsepower and can even be found with a manual gearbox, which exemplifies its ‘fun car’ portrayal. The suspension has been noted as very strong and has even been compared to the likes of the BMW M3. Like many other sedans, the SVT Contour fades into the background but there’s much more to this car than meets the eye.
3 1997-2001 Nissan R'Nessa GT Turbo N30 ($3-5,000)
The unpretentious exterior of an R’Nessa may even lead some to mistakenly believe that they’re looking at a basic Civic hatchback, but this Nissan has slightly more weight and a lot more power. Similar to the engine you would find in a Nissan Silvia, Avenirs, and GTI-R Pulsars, the R’Nessa has thrilling power but is even more vigorous with its SR20DET monster that produces 197 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque. This car isn’t going to win any races with a supercar but it’s certainly quick on its feet. The N30 R’Nessa also has a relatively generous host of aftermarket parts to choose from, so upgrading this lightweight sleeper wouldn’t be too challenging, nor too pricey, for the handy enthusiast. With such a small price tag, it should be no big deal to acquire a few upgrades.
2 1995-2005 Audi Allroad 2.7T C5 ($5,000)
If you’re not aware of the Audi DNA, then you probably have no idea that the manufacturer has been creating turbocharged cars for decades. As time went on, they eventually let the wagons in on all of that high-powered fun. The Allroad 2.7T is one of the best bangs for your buck; with a watchful eye, you can scoop up a twin-turbo V6 for under $5,000. With 241 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, the Allroad is a pretty impressive mom car. It’s a better option for those who can’t do a coupe but would like to have that same power of the more renowned, Audi S4, then you’re in luck; the Allroad has the same Biturbo engine as its sibling sedan. The suspension is soft and fluffy, and the Quattro AWD is capable of keeping the tires where they need to be. It’s an all-around great car, but it’s also a sweet sleeper as well.
1 1991-1997 Mitsubishi RVR Hyper Sports Gear R ($3-5,000)
Though it’s easily passed up by unknowing used-car shoppers because of its boxy appearance, this mini-SUV isn’t your typical grocery-getter. It has a wealth of power under that tiny hood; close to 250 horsepower that launches it from zero-to-sixty in 6.5 seconds. With some background knowledge on engine management and boost, you could easily upgrade this setup and have an even better sleeper that could swiftly hit the quarter-mile in the about 13.5 seconds. If mechanicals aren’t your thing, the standard 4G63T engine that comes equipped in the RVR should still provide plenty of thrills on its own.
Sources: Motor1, Top Speed, and Wikipedia