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In the past 20 years, emissions laws have tightened the strings a little on performance models. A single performance-oriented model in a company’s lineup is doing pretty well these days, but while many driver-focused models are designed with “look at me” aesthetics and loud exhaust, a select group of enthusiasts seek out more subtle performance cars. These are sleepers.
A sleeper is the car you drive when you don’t want the teen next to you at the light to rev their engine and stare you down. It might not be a wholehearted sports car, but it’s still engaging to drive. For those who love them, nothing but a sleeper will do. If you’re looking for an entertaining ride without the pretense, check out these ten selections.
Ford Taurus SHO
What could be humbler than the work-a-day Ford Taurus? Famous last words for many SHO victims at the stoplight grand prix. The letters stand for “super high output,” and with a V6 developed by Yamaha, the first-generation SHO was a precedent-setting car for America motorists. Now, the second-gen tribute car features all-wheel-drive and an Ecoboost V6 that take it from zero to 60 in just over five seconds.
Jaguar’s sporting lineage is often buried in their reputation for building leather-lined land-yachts. The new XJR, however, gets the British brand’s supercharged 550 horsepower V8. That’s more than enough grunt to propel you and your well-dressed pals to ticket-inducing speeds in style.
Subaru Legacy GT 2.5 Spec B
Here’s a rare selection from Subaru. Many enthusiasts favor the Forester 2.5XT with its turbo engine and wagon body, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the Legacy Spec B ditches the adolescent styling of the WRX and throws in the suspension from its STI cousin. That makes it even more potent, but still just as mature as the Forester.
Volkswagen Passat W8 4Motion
Sleeper fans love an obscure drivetrain — all the more conversation for cars and coffee. This car has that in spades, with a W8 configuration that shares its lineage with the freakish Bugatti Veyron and EB110 hypercars. Just don’t ask about maintenance costs.
The one series might not cast a very imposing shadow with its urban-friendly form factor, but the car’s small size also means its turbo power plant has less weight to move. The six-cylinder one gets the same engine used in much larger Bimmers, resulting in a 60 mph sprint in the low four-second range.
Volkswagen Golf R
The VW Golf has always enjoyed a healthy following from the enthusiast community, but even the GTI version skirts the borders of what one might consider a “true sports car.” With its unpretentious looks, the top-of-the-line R model gets a power bump to nearly 300 horsepower, which is significantly more than any GTI, and also features added traction from all-wheel-drive. It’s a great do-it-all solution for the weekend warrior.
Cadillac CTS-V Wagon
Cadillac isn’t a brand you typically associate with performance, but when the CTS line launched in the early 2000s, GM promised something different. Not only does the CTS-V wagon get the engine from a Corvette — and, in very rare guise, a six-speed manual transmission — it’s got more than enough room for your whole family, your dog and all your stuff. Can you say magic hoonicorn?
Honda Accord V6
The days when Honda was recognized as the last word in factory-fast front-drive salon cars might be over, but no one told the V6 Accord. It might be the best compromise on the market today for the driver who wants a low-profile traditional sedan, but would prefer it sprint to 60 in under six seconds. Hardcore types prefer the four-cylinder because it’s lighter and easier to get with a manual, but for brute force, the V6 is a must.
Is a sleeper still a sleeper if you design it to be a sleeper? The SS is a very limited production Chevy that uses the bones from their Australian brand Holden, which used to underpin the popular Commodore and Pontiac GTO. Any car that warrants being called a clone of the E39 BMW M5 deserves a place in sleeper Valhalla.
If the cost to service a three-pointed-star doesn’t scare you off, there’s no shortage of well-endowed Teutonic rocket-sleds waiting to be scooped up off the used car market. The E500, with its high-class looks, makes a great example. It might not appear angry, but dip into the 408 horsepower V8, and you’ll unleash the E’s inner fury — it’s more than the guy next to you planned on.
Of course, like any car, a sleeper is a matter of self-expression. There are a number of great picks out there that didn’t make this list, and even the paltriest of off-the-lot offerings can achieve greatness for the right price. So go forth, sleeper pilots, and take the streets by surprise — no one will see you coming!