A favorite genre of many auto fiends is the “sleeper” – a car that looks like grandma’s Mercury but goes like stink. In this day and age of flashy, showy performance – with all the standard body kits, huge spoilers and obnoxious red badging automakers seem to believe belong on performance cars, the sleeper is a dying breed. The streets used to be littered with them, too. Buick Regal T-Types with Grand National running gear and a freaking landau roof, Galant VR-4’s with turbocharged 4G63’s and 4WD stuffed into an innocuous Galant body, heck – even the Fox-body Mustang LX 5.0 was a sleeper, with the thundering fuel-injected 302ci “5.0” (actually a 4.9L) V8 but none of the GT’s plastic trashy bodywork.
Still, for those that would rather not have any show with their go, there are still sleepers left to pick from – if you know where to look. Sometimes you have to look in the strangest of places, but you can find burly horsepower under the hood of some unassuming cars these days. Let’s take a look at the top ten.
“A Camry? Really?” I know, I know. The Camry is the equivalent of the Antichrist to anyone that actually likes cars. But that makes it the perfect sleeper, at least in SE V6 trim. You see, under the hood is a very modern 3.5L 24v V6, which makes a rather considerable 268 horsepower coupled with a 6-speed auto.
Without a doubt, the rest of the car is mind-numbingly boring – but if you’re after velvety-smooth horsepower and strong mid-range in an utterly unassuming wrapper, the Camry SE V6 has got you covered. Just remember to take a No-Doz on long trips… the Camry might’ve misunderstood what “sleeper” means, and when you’re not smoking tires with your torquey V6, it’s likely to put you to sleep. Fast enough to embarrass a V6 Mustang, and good enough for 10th place.
Audi’s smallest model in the US, the Golf-based A3, is an attractive small hatchback made with premium materials which exudes a luxury feel. What it doesn’t really exude is a performance vibe, unlike the (mechanically identical) VW Golf GTI. The base A3, with the 2.0L DI Turbo I4, is a respectable performer. But if you really want to surprise some people off of the stoplights, give the A3 3.2 Quattro a try.
Powered by VW’s highly regarded 3.2L VR6, the A3 3.2 Quattro is basically a VW R32 in less exciting attire. With a 250bhp V6 and Quattro 4WD, along with Audi’s trick S-Tronic twin-clutch gearbox, the A3 3.2 Quattro is a hot performer in an inconspicuous wrapper. What’s not to love? Besides that price tag…
The Hyundai Genesis is a likable enough car, but it looks a bit like those fake “anycar USA” illustrations you might see on the front of an auto-shop pamphlet. Still, it’s pretty attractive – looking like a mixture of 5-series BMW and new Mercedes S-class, (or rather, the S-Class looks like the Hyundai) the Genesis is the Korean brand’s first foray into the luxury car realm.
And what a good first try. The rear-wheel-drive Genesis sedan can be had with a perfectly adequate 290bhp V6, but for maximum shock factor, go for the V8. Designated “Tau,” this state-of-the-art powerplant cranks out 375 silky-smooth horsepower, channeled through a ZF 6-speed automatic. It’ll get the sleepy looking Genesis moving in a righteous hurry, too. And at under $40k, it’s quite a bargain. This is why I love Hyundai these days – what’s not to love, if they continue making powerful RWD sedans and coupes that look good and have attractive price tags?
Pontiac’s G8 is a “captive import” from GM Australia’s Holden division, basically a Holden Commodore with a Pontiac kidney grille. It’s the kind of car that enthusiasts have been saying GM needs to be building for years – an attractive, full-size RWD sedan with good suspension and a powerful motor. It’s also selling like ice to eskimos, unfortunately – just like the GTO that proceeded it.
Still, the G8 stands up on its own merits pretty well. The G8 GT comes with a torque-rich pushrod 6.0L V8 cranking out a healthy 362 horsepower, enabling it to deliver the kind of performance for $30k that BMW offers for $60k. And it’s rear-wheel-drive just like God intended. Sure, it doesn’t have the most aggressive styling – but combine that with the low number that’ve been sold, and you have a hot rod that no one even recognizes. For the power-crazed, there’s a G8 GXP with a 6.2L LS3 with 415 horsepower and an available six speed manual, but it’s a bit showier and the price is pushing $40,000. The regular G8 GT serves up 7/10ths the performance without all the show. It’s perfect.
Don’t laugh… yes, it’s a Buick. The Super is the slow-selling top of the line variant of Buick’s sleepy midsize LaCrosse sedan. While the vast majority of LaCrosses pop out of the factory with underwhelming V6 powerplants (including the venerable 231ci Buick Six), the LaCrosse super is equipped with a 5.3L small-block Chevy V8, shared with the Impala SS and the now-defunct Pontiac Grand Prix GXP. With an even 300bhp going to the front wheels through an archaic 4-speed automatic, the drivetrain layout is less than ideal – especially compared to the cheaper, larger, more powerful G8 GT.
Still, it’s a V8 powered 300bhp Buick. No one’s going to see that coming, are they?
Specs: Buick LaCrosse Super
Layout: Transverse front engine front wheel drive 4 door 5 passenger sedan
Engine: 5.3L pushrod 16v V8
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
0-60 mph: 5.7 seconds
5) Saab 9-5
Saab’s 9-5 sedan and wagon are admittedly getting a little long in the tooth. After all, it’s been in production with minor updates unchanged since 1997. Still, there are positive attributes to the 9-5 that can’t be ignored. For one thing, it’s the last real Saab left, and it’s the last one still using a real Saab engine.
And in this sleepy looking midsize luxury sedan, it’s the engine that no one’s really expecting. Displacing only 2.3L, the I4 uses massive amounts of turbocharging and intercooling to generate a healthy 260bhp – as well as 258lb-ft of torque at an ultra-low 1900rpm. This means the 9-5 posts a respectable 6.7 second 0-60 time, but what’s really impressive is the mid-range passing power of the turbo four. Just downshift to fourth and show that G35 who’s boss! Plus, the Saab 2.3L turbo has been out for going on 2 decades, so although you might not suspect it there is considerable aftermarket support for those that want some more juice.
Specs: Saab 9-5
Layout: Transverse front engine front wheel drive 4 door 5 passenger sedan
Engine: 2.3L DOHC 16v I4, turbocharged and intercooled
Transmission: 5 speed manual
4) Lexus GS450h
Lexus’s GS450h introduced a unique concept when it hit the market – a Gas/Electric Hybrid with performance, rather than economy intentions. And the GS450h has performance in spades. For starters, the engine is Toyota’s unique 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6, featuring direct AND port fuel injection. This generates a respectable 292bhp. In combination with the powerful electric motor that’s also riding along, Lexus estimates the GS450h makes about 340 horsepower – just shy of the 342bhp offered by its V8 powered GS460 sibling.
With all the instant on-demand torque offered by the electric engine plus this considerable power of the 3.5L V6, the GS450h will rocket to sixty in five and a half seconds, while returning relatively impressive mileage numbers for the performance – 22 city and 25 highway is roughly comparable to competitor’s less powerful V6 models, while delivering V8 performance. And let’s be honest, the current Lexus GS is hardly the most interesting looking car out there – and with Lexus’s “I’d rather not be driving” clientele, no one’s going to expect your GS450h to rocket off the line. Downsides? Well, it’s 56 thousand dollars, and all those batteries make it rather heavy, checking in above 4100lbs kerb weight. Still, alarming performance and good mileage is an appealing combination.
Specs: Lexus GS450h
Layout: Longitudinal front engine rear wheel drive 4 door 5 passenger sedan
Engine: 3.5L DOHC DI 24v V6 + electric motor
Power: 292bhp@6400rpm gasoline engine, 340bhp combined
Transmission: electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission
0-60 mph: 5.5 seconds
3) Chevrolet HHR SS
Chevrolet’s HHR people carrier is a shameless ripoff of Chrysler’s genre-bending PT Cruiser, but let’s ignore that obvious fact for a minute. In fact, let’s ignore that the HHR SS comes with gigantic shiny chrome wheels and a bottom-feeder front fascia for greater air intake volume. On the outside, the HHR SS is a dorky high-roof 5-door hatchback, like what’s driven by countless boring 45 year olds everywhere.
Only under the hood… well, there’s some serious firepower. Power comes from GM’s high-tech LNF 2.0L turbocharged inline four, making a surprising 260bhp as well as 260ft-lbs of torque. So while the HHR gives the impression that you’re delivering flowers, the HHR SS can deliver the mail: thanks to a low 3280lb curb weight, the SS will shoot to sixty in the low sixes. It’s also got a no-lift-shift program with the 5-speed manual, which means you can keep your right foot flat to the floor while you slam gears. Hardcore. Then there’s the Nurburgring-developed chassis, the huge brakes, the sport seats, and all that good stuff. The price of entry is attractive, and GM Performance offers staged upgrade kits for the LNF to boost power even further.
Specs: Chevrolet HHR SS
Layout: Transverse front engine front wheel drive 5 door 5 passenger hatchback
Engine: 2.0L DOHC DI I4, Turbocharged and Intercooled
Transmission: 5 speed manual with no-lift-shift feature
0-60 mph: 6.2 seconds
2) Volvo S80 V8 AWD
Volvo’s S80 has always been the choice for luxury buyers who’d prefer to play it safe. It’s got a gazillion airbags, every stability control program under the sun, and even a feature for the ultra-paranoid – a heartbeat monitor that warns the driver of someone hiding in their car.
However, when Volvo redesigned the S80 in 2006, they decided the top of the line model needed a bit more firepower. Rather than upping the power on the aging twin-turbo T6 motor, they co-designed a 4.4L V8 with Yamaha. The block has an especially narrow angle – Volvo wanted to maintain a sizable crumble zone, always thinking about safety – and the compact powerplant makes 311 silky-smooth horsepower. Coupled with Haldex four-wheel-drive, the S80 V8 delivers the kind of performance you wouldn’t see coming with its tenured-professor image. It’ll out-accelerate a base Porsche Boxster – you really can have your cake and eat it too.
Specs: Volvo S80 V6 AWD
Layout: Transverse front engine four wheel drive 4 door 5 passenger sedan
Engine: 4.4L DOHC 32v V8
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
0-60mph: 6.7 seconds
1) Lincoln MKS EcoBoost
In my mind, there’s no more clear winner of the title of “current production sleeper” than the recently introduced Lincoln MKS EcoBoost. It’s the epitome of the “hot-rod Lincoln” that up till now has never really been fulfilled. Sure, there’ve been some notably hot Lincolns in years past – the LS V8 was a reasonably rapid car, as was the MkVIII LSC with its 32v 4.6L V8.
But we’re talking about a Lincoln sedan that runs a 13.8 second quarter mile at 104mph out of the box. A 4,200lb Lincoln sedan! Power comes from Ford’s ballyhooed EcoBoost V6, a 3.5L twin-cam V6 with direct injection and twin turbochargers. Then there’s the electronic 4WD, enabling rocket-ship acceleration from the stoplights. To me, it’s the modern Grand National – a very powerful blown V6 nestled in a sleepy old man’s car. I would rock it, and I’m not the greatest fan of Lincolns. And next year, there’s the Taurus SHO – with the same drivetrain – which’ll come in with a more palatable pricetag and more dynamic looks. It’s a great time to be a fan of the sleeper, that’s for sure.
Specs: Lincoln MKS EcoBoost
Layout: Transverse front engine four wheel drive four door five passenger sedan
Engine: 3.5L DOHC 24v V6, twin turbocharged and intercooled
Transmission: 6 speed automatic
0-60 mph: 6.0 seconds