Flashy cars are trendy, but in many cases subtlety is required. Often this means flying under the radar of overzealous authorities by masking modifications as factory items. By going the extra mile while building to keep the finished product clean and free of things that would give it away as changed from or higher performance than what the car came as. While keeping none the wiser as to what one’s car can do does keep prying eyes away, the other main reason people love sleepers is that dumbstruck look on an opponent's face as they are blown away by something that just shouldn’t be doing that.
The expression of disbelief and dismay that had been immediately preceded by confidence that there was no way some punk in a bone-stock appearing sedan, wagon, or even minivan could touch him. While cars modified into sleepers provide all of these wonders and more, some of the real unknown gems of the car world are vehicles that have much of this surprising performance from the factory. Sedans that can corner with sports cars, wagons that will outrun a classic Ferrari supercar on the drag strip, and minivans that will walk an old school muscle car on the freeway. And many of these come from manufacturers not exactly known for their performance cars.
You know something’s up when your grandad’s Buick wagon will destroy your sports car on track. That’s the charm of a factory sleeper. These are a few of the automotive industry’s underdog kings.
20 Buick Tour X
Part of “The New Buick,” this particular Buick is literally built to not be your grandad’s Buick, even though it likely still could be your grandad’s Buick. As their cache with the public fell, wagons largely disappeared from domestic dealerships because no one wanted to be seen in one.
But Buick believes they can revive the wagon by building a good one.
The Tour X is certainly that, and equipped with a torquey relatively high displacement turbo inline four and the same four wheel drive system as the vaunted Focus RS hot hatch, this is a wagon that will get to the corner grocer in record time.
19 Ford Taurus SHO (First Generation)
The 80s were a dark time for the domestic auto industry. Out of the mire, three great hopes arose, all from unexpected and strange places. One was the Buick Grand National. Then there were the GMC Syclone/Typhoon twins. But the one sometimes forgotten was among the most special, because it started as the most mundane. The Ford Taurus was never supposed to be exciting. But then a sports car deal gone south left Ford with a bunch of high performance engines with no car to put them in. Thus was created one of the domestic cars that began to bring the industry back- a Taurus that could outrun a Corvette from the factory.
18 Volvo S60R
The general public do not think Volvos are fast, something which a makes a particular subset of Volvo owners smirk smugly. The reason for this sometimes annoying expression is that this subset of owners is playing a nasty prank on the entire world. Their Volvos are very fast. The first generation S60R was so fast, in fact, that at least on paper it appears equal to an R32 Nissan GT-R. But it’s a Volvo. A slab-sided, square-headlighted, incredibly safe Volvo. But with a turbo hung off the inline five cylinder engine and a battery of computers managing an advanced four wheel drive system, it is not a slow Volvo.
17 Chevrolet SS
Many see pictures of the SS and believe it is a Malibu. It is not a Malibu.
LS-powered, rear wheel drive, Australian-derived, and ready to rumble, it’s a small miracle the SS manages to seem so benign.
An aluminum four hundred horsepower LS3 V8 paired with an optional six speed manual driving the rear wheels makes the SS not only a hoot to drive hard, whether at speed or at slide angle, but also an extreme rarity in the modern domestic market. Full size sedans largely stopped being manually shifted in the 2000’s, and stopped being rear drive even before then. So for a glorious moment we got a driver’s car comparable to the E39 M5, but with less weight and a little more power.
16 Volvo V70R
While the prank is bad enough when served up through a sedan, it only gets worse when it’s a wagon. Equipped with the same driveline as the sedan, but with a roof that just keeps on going until the tailgate, the V70R is a car that has hurt many feelings over the years, and has left even more surprised at how fast a Volvo wagon can be. This is a three hundred horsepower, all wheel drive, often manual equipped car that can haul all your friends and all your gear. And do all this while putting the beatdown on some lower end sports cars in a straight line.
15 Chrysler 200 V6 AWD
The glorious Pentastar V6 is shocking in a two plus ton minivan, but in a 3700 lbs sedan, it is magic. Especially since the 200 is far more aerodynamic than a minivan, it makes an imposing highway performance proposition. Equipped with all wheel drive, the 200 also would be a force to be reckoned with in stoplight drag races, brake boosting on the launch to humble even some late model muscle cars. Never underestimate the power of a modern, efficient, high displacement V6. Particularly when that V6 is paired with four wheel drive and weight that isn’t massive. This car will surprise many.
14 Volvo 850 T-5R
Rounding out the times when Volvo went nuts, the T-5R was the car that largely sparked whatever performance credibility Volvo may have. A factory-backed racing operation actually ran the 850 wagon as a touring car, bouncing over the curbing as they clipped apexes and annoyed opponents.
Later they went back to the track with the sedan, and cleaned up, scoring a dozen pole positions on the way to winning six races in 1995 alone.
The street car, which came as either a sedan or wagon, was an unexpected hit for the pedestrian folks at Volvo, and insured at least for a time that a fast brick would continue to grace the world.
13 Chevrolet Impala SS
Domestic automakers have long been very good at making large, cushy land barges. Occasionally, they make them fast. GM’s Small Block derived V8 engines have always been magic, and the originally Corvette-mounted LT1 in the late B-Body Impala SS is largely what makes the land bound heavy cruiser such a gem. An excellent highway cruiser with classic FR handling attributes and huge tuning potential, the LT1 transforms what was analogous to a lumbering transport ship into a modestly overpowered smuggling vessel, with a massive trunk and plush interior perfect for long voyages. Those on the street know what this is, but even they often underestimate it.
12 Volvo 240 Turbo
There is a certain video on YouTube that stars a Volvo 240. In a somewhat non-descript parking lot the Swedish brick began a roasting burnout, billowing clouds of smoke left in its wake. Almost immediately after completing this gratuitous display of horsepower, the cops showed up. Shaking down the lot, the cops pass the Volvo without a thought, looking for a car actually capable of such hooliganry. The parties involved leave without incident. No one expects a Volvo. Utterly bulletproof, and normally just as utterly slow, the 240 got a dosage of speed with the Turbo model. They are rare, but even if you can’t find one, standard 240s are so cheap and modifiable you can make an even faster car for far less money.
11 2013 Chrysler Town And Country
Sometimes the stars align. The Town and Country was a minivan, never intended to be anything but a utility vehicle for upper middle class families. It was very good at this, equipped with a 3.6 Pentastar V6 capable of lugging a thousand or more pounds of kids and backpacks around without breaking a sweat, a high geared transmission for quiet highway cruising, and surprisingly slick aerodynamics for optimum fuel economy.
But that powerful engine, high geared transmission, and decent aero also happened to be magic for going far faster than a minivan should be capable of.
This is a van that will max out the speedometer in fifth gear, and then throw you back in the seat as it hits sixth.
10 Toyota Blade Master G
Hot hatches normally don’t have large V6 engines hanging off the front axle, but then again the Blade Master is not a normal hot hatch. A luxury compact specifically for the Japanese market, the awesomely named Blade Master G would likely be called a Lexus in the domestic market. As it is a luxury oriented vehicle, it dispenses with flashy aero work and wings, with the result looking quite mundane for a JDM-only specialty hatchback. But all the crazy is on the inside. Powering the Blade Master G is a 3.5 liter 2GR V6, an engine claimed to produce 276hp, but that has been tested well above 300. No turbo spool or spoiler required.
9 Ford Taurus SHO (Current Generation)
Ford was genuinely surprised that making their drab Taurus into an interesting car was a good idea. But sales figures are sales figures, and Ford realized years later when remaking the entire Taurus lineup they would need some spice in the line. Enter the SHO, a car that doesn’t make a boring car fun, but makes a good car awesome. The Super High Output Taurus is built with a twin turbocharged V6 making well over 350 horsepower, and all wheel drive to put that power to the ground in any situation. The all wheel drive is conservative and tends toward understeer, but with this much power not many other sedans will come close in the straights.
8 Audi RS2 Avant
In automotive naming conventions, the original is often one of the best of the breed. Audi’s “RS” badge is a good example of this. The First car to wear this now legendary emblem was a station wagon with a five cylinder turbocharged engine, and Audi’s brand-defining Quattro all wheel drive system.
Capable of breathtaking performance for the time, this first RS was able to hit sixty miles an hour from rest in under five seconds, a figure only the fastest supercars of the era could challenge.
This was a pretty normal looking station wagon that would outrun a contemporary F1 car to 30 miles per hour, and you could buy it from the showroom floor.
7 2017 Ford Fusion Sport
This car is almost the definition of a sleeper. Part of a line of cars so common they fade into the background, yet fast enough to leave many full on enthusiast cars for dead on the highway. This average looking sedan is propelled by a 325 horsepower 2.7 liter turbo boosted V6, providing ludicrous power for how mundane of a car it’s in. The front wheel drive layout, automatic transmission, and all season tires originally equipped on the Fusion make getting all this power to the ground no small challenge, but once this sleeper gets going, a lot of sportier looking cars will not be able to keep up.
6 2017 Lincoln Continental
Modern engines are truly a thing of beauty. Efficient, environmentally friendly, reliable, and most importantly, almost comically powerful. The 2.7 liter Ecoboost fitted to the new Continental and Fusion Sport exemplifies this. While the Continental is heavier than the Fusion, and less mundane looking, not many would expect a big Lincoln to haul social security checks quite as fast as this one. The Continental is the continuation of a proud tradition in the domestic auto industry, the large plush sedans perfect for devouring highway miles. This car is no different, and will get you to your destination just as or even more rested than its predecessors. This one just does it faster.
5 2018 Buick Regal GS
Of the Big Three’s semi-luxury brands, Buick has always tended to have the most bite. When Lincoln built a fast car, it was an accident. When Chrysler built a fast car, it wasn’t normally for the sake of going fast. When Buick built a fast car, it was with a knowing smile.
Those who knew, knew.
If you didn’t, that's fine. But if you did, you understood to revere that Grand National badge on that normal looking 80’s coupe. But is no longer the 80’s, although Buick was recently struggling again. Trying to find new clientele, younger clientele. That’s what this Regal is for. And a 310hp V6 doesn’t hurt.
4 Acura TL (Third Generation)
Good looking, yet nondescript and composed, the best generation of TL is a product of Honda at what could be considered one of their recent high points. For it’s luxury class it was somewhat lightweight at under 3500lbs, aiding its available 286 horsepower V6 in providing some really surprising speed, especially high in the rev range. Built to provide an alternative to the 3-Series and C-Class at less cost, in the used market the TL has become a strange luxury bargain that does without rear wheel drive but does make use of a wonderful Honda V6. Not a bad ride at all.
3 2012 Honda Accord
Some of the cars in this list seem like background cars. Something you would see puttering by your neighbourhood and not even glance at. They do fade into the noise, but not like the Honda Accord. Even when redesigned and updated, the Accord is and will likely always be the standard everyman’s car. A shoulder-shrugging sedan that only non-car people would ever feel good about owning, just because they optioned up. But in that options list lies the J35Y V6 engine, a burbling power plant likely making more power than the 278 advertised. Even if Accords optioned with the J35Y look boring, they don’t go boring.
2 BMW M5 E39
Built in an era when James Bond drove BMWs, the E39 M5 is an understated, gentlemanly lethal weapon.
With very little to mark it as different from the other 5-Series executive sedans made by BMW at the time, the M5 tends to blend well with traffic.
Until it becomes a blur, of course. Equipped with the same 4.9 liter V8 as the Z8 bond car, the E39 is capable of shredding tires at moments notice, but with a stately six speed manual holding the reins, the power is always applied only through permission of a polished wooden gear lever. Class is not flashy, class is fast.
1 BMW M5 E60
The M5 has had some interesting changes, upgrades, and switchups in its life. Almost throughout it could be considered a sleeper, with little in the way of special bodywork or markings to give away that it was effectively a four door front engined supercar. Right on the precipice of when the M5 started be become flashy, it not only had supercar performance numbers, but a supercar cylinder count. The E60 M5 came with a screaming five liter V10, belching flames and howling its way up the rev counter to over eight thousand RPM. Perhaps only a sleeper visually, but absolutely a legend.
Sources: CarAndDriver.com, MotorTrend.com, AutomobileMag.com