The Special Editions, performance versions, or top-spec trim packages of many car models are given more powerful engines to gift customers the opportunity to add a little spice to their rides. Often, this comes with extra letters added to the badging on the rear of the car, such as RS, GT, Type R, AMG, or a simple M. To the performance enthusiast, these unassuming characters signify a bump in horsepower along with other upgrades that set that trim level apart from the lowly base models they are built on.
The allure of these insignia is so strong that some drivers have been known to add the badges from performance models to lower-trim cars in an attempt to fool onlookers into thinking they have upgraded powerplants underhood. The manufacturers are even guilty of it, labeling lower-spec models as “S-Line” or “M Performance” in order to cash in on the appeal of these coveted symbols of speed.
While some performance models feature only modest power increases over their lesser trims by way of either simple bolt-ons or computer re-programming, others add increased displacement, forced induction, entirely new engines with more cylinders, or all of the above to more than double the horsepower output of the lowest spec motor. Stronger transmissions, axles, suspension, and chassis elements are necessary to keep these cars on the road and running for the duration of the warranty, helping to justify the price premiums placed on these special editions.
20 Kia Stinger GT
The Stinger burst onto the sport sedan scene offering aggressive looks and decent performance at a fraction of the price of its competitors from Europe. The Stinger comes with two engine choices: a 2.0-liter turbo-four putting out 255 horsepower and a 3.3-liter, twin-turbo six pumping out 365 ponies. The result is a not-so-insignificant 43% increase from two extra cylinders, double the number of turbos, and an increase in displacement equal to the total engine size of a 1980 Honda Civic. Even though the four-cylinder Stinger is lighter, the six still tromps it from zero to 60 mph about 1.5 seconds faster, making the upgrade worth it for any performance enthusiast with the extra cash to spare.
19 Porsche 911 GT2 RS
This may be an unpopular opinion but the Porsche 911 is an outdated design with an archaic chassis layout that should have been replaced by an upgraded Cayman-based design decades ago. At the same time, the 911 is an icon, hugely capable, desirable, and very versatile, with a platform that currently sports everything from the base flat-six rated at 350 horses up to the bonkers GT2 RS, exploding with 700 horses from a twin-turbo flat-six. With the engine hanging way out back behind the rear wheels, 700 ponies should really have the GT3 RS backward and in the bushes at every corner but years of refinement have produced a car with sublime handling, despite the underpinnings.
18 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
The Dodge Challenger is a retro-styled pony car that debuted for a new era in 2009, utilizing a platform loosely based on certain Mercedes-Benz designs acquired during the Daimler-Chrysler era of 1998 to 2007. The entry-level model sports a class-competitive V6 with 305 horsepower, while the R/T trim has a V8 with either 372 or 485 hp, depending on spec. The real show starts with the Hellcat, pumping out 707 horses, but the true kicker is the insane SRT Demon, with 840 horsepower and a zero-to-sixty time of 2.3 seconds, a world best. When you absolutely, positively must get there fast, accept no substitutes.
17 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
With 300 ponies coming from a 3.7-liter V6, the base Ford Mustang is no slouch compared to your average compact car, minivan, or conventional SUV. By comparison, the 2010 Mustang GT’s V8 made 315 horses from 4.7 liters. But for those that crave a spicier meatball, the Shelby GT500 may be the ticket to happiness. Packing a mere 700 horsepower flowing lazily from a supercharged, 5.2-liter V8, the GT500 will stroll to 100 km/h in less than three seconds, which is the type of acceleration any sane human being expects from their daily driven commuter. The dual-clutch transmission and adaptive dampers are just icing on the Shelby cake.
16 Mercedes-Benz SLC
In any discussion about roadsters, the Mercedes-Benz SLC may not be the first convertible sports car that comes to mind; names such as Boxster or Miata are more likely candidates for analysis. With the base model’s 241-horsepower turbo-four, this might be forgiven, but M-B injects some of its AMG magic when producing the SLC 43, in the form of a twin-turbo V6 with 385 raging stallions at the barn door. The SLC AMG might not be the nimble backroad razors that the Mazda or Porsche are but it packs enough of a punch to be an entertaining Autobahn stormer.
15 Subaru WRX STI
This one might be cheating, as Subaru has dropped the “Impreza” nameplate from the WRX STI since the latest generation, but up until then, the STI was an upgraded Impreza, and it remains on the same architecture as the previous generation. Subaru, along with close competitor Mitsubishi, were ahead of their time in putting turbocharged four-cylinder power in their compact cars to produce performance pocket-rockets. Pumping out 310 horsepower, the current STI trounces the base Impreza’s 157 leisurely ponies by almost double, and adds bigger wheels and tires, upgraded brakes and suspension, and a beefed up transmission to handle the extra power.
14 Audi RS5
For a while, Audi’s “S” models were direct competitors to BMW’s “M” versions, but more recently, their RS designated cars are the pinnacle of four-ring performance. While the base model A5 makes due with a 248-horsepower, turbocharged inline-four, the RS5 drops in a 444-horsepower V6 with twin-turbochargers to up the fun factor. Dynamic Ride Control and electronically adjustable dampers keep the RS5 glued to the road and available ceramic brakes haul the car back down from the stratospheric speeds it is capable of. Audi’s signature Quattro all-wheel-drive system puts the power down to all four corners, making launches off the line a face-stretching affair.
13 Lexus RC F
Lexus is attempting to do with the “F” models what BMW has done with their “M” division, creating a sub-brand that acts as a performance halo for the entire lineup. Starting with the 2007 IS F, a souped-up version of their IS sedan, then the LFA supercar, F has now expanded to the current RC F, which is a pumped-up RC coupe, featuring a 5.0-liter V8 churning out 467 horses. Expect to pay an almost $30,000 premium for the F compared to the base RC and its 260-horsepower V6. More of a grand tourer than a sharp sports car, the RC F comes with all the amenities one would expect in a luxury Lexus.
12 Honda Civic Type R
Just as with the Subaru WRX, the Nissan Skyline GT-R, and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Honda fans have been dreaming of the Civic Type R coming to these shores for decades, and the time has finally come. Honda traditionally relied on high-revving, naturally aspirated power for their performance models but recently turned to turbochargers to meet stringent fuel-economy and emissions regulations. The latest Civic Type R, like the previous generation sold elsewhere since 2015, is turbocharged to the tune of 306 horsepower, making power with forced induction rather than sky-high revs. For performance enthusiasts, the base model’s 158 ponies simply won’t do.
11 Volkswagen Golf R
The Golf GTI virtually created the hot hatch segment when it was released in 1976, spinning its front tires to the tune of 110 horsepower from 1.6 liters of four-cylinder displacement, a significant upgrade from the base model’s 74 horses. Fast forward to 2019, and the hot-rod Golf R has all four tires clawing at the pavement to the tune of 288 horses, up from 147 in the base Golf. With an available six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, the Golf R outweighs the original GTI by 702 kg (1550 pounds) but still trounces it to 100 km/h by about four seconds.
10 Ford Focus RS
For years, the Ford Focus offered in the US was a generation behind the versions sold in Europe at the same time. Only recently did Ford decide to build a single version for all markets, with possibly the biggest benefit of this being the arrival of the Focus RS on our shores. Much like the Civic Type R and Golf R, the RS is a powerhouse in an economy car wrapper, placing Ford in the middle of the hot-hatch dogfight. With 350 horses coming from a turbo-four and routed through all four wheels, the RS makes mincemeat of the Focus’ base engine, a fuel-efficient three-cylinder turbo that manages only 123 ponies.
9 Mercedes-AMG E 63
When it comes to performance in a roomy sedan wrapper, the Mercedes-AMG E 63 produces 603 horses in a luxury four-door package that can scoot to 100 km/h in about three seconds. A 4.0-liter V8 with twin-turbos routes power through M-B’s 4MATIC+ AWD system that features a drift mode for tail-out fun, in deference to previous AMGs that were rear-wheel drive only. Compare this to the base E-Class motor, with half the displacement, half the number of cylinders, and half the number of turbos, that produces less than 40% of the horsepower than its big brother and the $50,000 price difference between the two starts to make sense. Maybe.
8 Alfa Romeo Giulia
Sergio Marchionne will be remembered as the man who brought Alfa Romeo back to the US, and one of the fruits of that return is the Giulia sport sedan. First offered in hot-rod Quadrifoglio (“four-leaf clover”) spec, with a twin-turbo V6 producing 505 horsepower under the hood, the lesser models were released later with a 280-horsepower turbo-four. In any trim level, the Giulia is as beautiful as one would expect a luxury sports sedan from Italy to be, but the Quadrifoglio adds the necessary power to the equation, along with handling and brake upgrades to match the pumped-up engine.
7 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The most powerful Camaros have always had one problem: the Corvette. Throughout its history, the Camaro has never been allowed to outshine its bigger brother, much like the constraints put on Porsche’s Boxster and Cayman to keep them in line below the 911. However, in order to keep up with Ford’s latest powerhouse Mustangs, Chevrolet has had to up the Camaro's ante, so they created the Camaro ZL1, essentially stuffing a Corvette-sourced 6.2-liter V8 under the hood. If you like your Camaro with more show than go, the base turbo-four puts out 275 horsepower but if you want to turn tires to dust, the ZL1 pumps out 650 ponies.
6 BMW M2 Competition
The comparison between the current BMW M2 and the revered E46-generation M3 has been played out time and time again but the fact remains that the contemporary M3 is not the sports sedan scalpel it once was. With a stiff, communicative chassis and 405 turbocharged horsepower on tap, the M2 scoots to 100 km/h in about four seconds, but would much rather play on the back roads or race track, where its finely honed reflexes can shine, much like the E46 M3. The base 2 Series shares some of the M2’s playfulness, but with “only” 248 horses on tap, it can’t match the alacrity of its big brother.
5 Dodge Charger Hellcat
If you’re looking for a decent-sized sedan with something north of 600 horsepower, expect to pay over $100,000 for an E 63 AMG or M5—or, on the other hand, you could spend about $20,000 less and get the Dodge Charger Hellcat. Unleashing 707 raging ponies on the unsuspecting rear tires, the Hellcat Charger makes the base V6 model with its 292 horses seem simply pedestrian. The Hellcat’s power comes from a whopping 6.2 liters of supercharged V8, which, yes, means fuel economy will be slightly worse than a Prius. Slightly. Brembo brakes and adaptive dampers help keep this monster in line and a line-lock makes burnouts a smoky breeze.
4 Audi RS7
Four-door coupes and fastbacks are all the rage these days, combining the elegant and aerodynamic sloping rear roofline of coupes with the versatility of wagons and hatchbacks. The Audi A7, released in 2010, follows this formula and essentially takes the place of the A6 Avant (wagon) in the US. The base A7 makes do with a turbocharged V6 with direct injection and 333 horsepower but for those wanting a little more oomph, the S7 puts out 450 horses. However, for those who feel the need for speed on their daily commute, the RS7 goes all-in with 605 horses and accelerates quicker than the original R8.
3 Infiniti Q50
The Q50 replaced Infiniti’s venerable G sedan, Asia's alternative to the BMW 3 Series that was the benchmark for small sport sedans for decades. In 2014, Infiniti stuffed a Nissan GT-R’s twin-turbo V6 into a Q50 to create the Q50 Eau Rouge concept, named after the famed corner at the Belgian race track, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The concept was successful enough that Infiniti released the production Q50 Red Sport model shortly thereafter, featuring a twin-turbo V6 producing 400 horsepower, or 100 ponies more than next most powerful trim. It might not have the 560 horses of the Eau Rouge, but it also doesn’t have the $100,000-plus price tag of the GT-R that it got its engine from, either.
2 Hyundai Veloster
Hyundai’s quirky Veloster hit some of the right buttons when it was released in 2011, then slapped a few more when a turbo model was released a year later. But it never had real oomph and the suspension was too soft for spirited driving. Enter the 2019 Veloster N, equipped with a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder packing 275 horsepower in “Performance package” trim, an 87% increase over the base model’s 147 horsepower naturally-aspirated four. Simply trouncing the base model in power would not be enough, so the N also gets a six-speed manual, upgraded suspension and brakes, and big wheels and tires. If you want a performance Veloster, the N is what you need.
1 Toyota Camry
For decades, Toyota’s main calling card was that it was one of, if not the, most reliable brands of automobiles. One of the biggest gripes against them was that they were achingly boring. Toyota is trying to change that image and the latest Camry is a testament to a new vision. Released in 2017, the latest generation of the United States’ best-selling sedan has far more aggressive styling compared to its milquetoast predecessor and it sports big numbers under the hood in its highest trim levels. A 3.5-liter V6 pumping out 301 horsepower puts out almost 100 ponies more than the base four. For performance enthusiasts with families, the V6 is a refreshing choice when the competition has ditched their sixes for turbocharged fours.
Sources: Carbuzz, Wikipedia, Car and Driver, and Road and Track.