We can all agree that it would be a dream come true to own a flaming red Ferrari, but sometimes it’s best not draw attention (jealousy, ire, the eyes of law enforcement) to your vehicle. Those who want the power and speed without the notoriety (OK, or the price) can look to “sleepers”. These are cars almost intentionally built to escape notice while still secretly packing heaping loads of both power and punch. Rarely, they’re souped-up versions of unassuming old Volvos, but more often they’re cleverly made production cars that slip right by the average driver but give car guys big saucer eyes. So hop in one of these soft-spoken beasts and dream of the day when a sleazy asshole in a sports car pulls up beside you at a red light.
MORE UNASSUMING BEAUTIES…AND A TANK: Test Driving Five Hot Hatches | Behind the Wheel of John Deere’s Balls-to-the-Wall Gator | Driving the Abbot FV433 Self-Propelled Gun
2003 Mercury Marauder
Though some law enforcement types might laugh at the Marauder for its Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor wanna-be status, the big Mercury sleeper also garners a healthy amount of respect. Similar in spirit to the somewhat legendary Chevy Impala SS, the Marauder, made from 2003 to 2004, was meant to be subtly menacing. It was powered by naturally aspirated 4.6-liter V8 engine producing 302 hp and 318 lb-ft of torque, plenty enough to warrant a visit from its law enforcement counterpart. The only things to give the Marauder away as not your run-of-the-mill Mercury Marquis were the 18-inch five-spoke wheels, tinted taillamp covers, unique bumpers and the Marauder badging on the outside.
2004 Subaru Forester 2.5 XT
Try to forget that the once-dumpy Forester seemed reserved especially for suburban hippie housewives and outdoor dudes who cared more about utility than reputation. The 2004 2.5 XT got the Forester’s head gaskets out of the mud with a turbocharged 2.50-liter engine with the same turbo as the lusty WRX. Other than the subtle hood scoop and some body cladding, it was virtually unrecognizable from the standard hemp hauler. It was also much faster than you (or anyone else) would expect. Want to get Indica-level sleepy? Swap out powertrain components with the WRX STI in your garage and proceed to froth the milk you just picked up from the grocery store.
1992-1995 Ford Taurus SHO
The second-generation Super High Output Taurus was the one to worship, not only for its power and its subtlety but because you could get it with a righteous stick shift. All subsequent generations foolishly ditched the manual transmission option, and the current one is as heavy as a bank safe. Other than slightly different exterior cues, the second SHO looked pretty sedate to the uneducated. Ford even saw fit to remove the small lip spoiler from the first-gen car.The 3-liter V6 engine was good for 220 hp and betrayed the image of the dowdy family sedan. The 0-60 time of under six and a half seconds made fathers everywhere rejoice. Fo’ SHO.
1986 Shelby GLHS
Jokingly but rightly called “Goes Like Hell S’More”, the Omni GLHS completely abandoned the intentions of the econobox Omni. A scant 500 were made and sold under the Shelby name by modifying the already quick Omni GLH and slapping on an elite Shelby badge. The GLHS was light (2,200 lbs) and fast (0-60 in 6.5 seconds); the Turbo II I-4 engine produced 175 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. Turbo boost was rated at 12 psi (a 2011 Porsche 911 has 11.6 psi), and both adjustable struts/shocks and stiffer springs were added for improved handling. Each one of the limited production cars came only in black, and the hatchback design kept its speedy intentions under the radar.
2005-2007 MazdaSpeed 6
Originally unveiled as a concept car at the 2002 Paris Motor Show, the MazdaSpeed 6 was meant to thrill drivers without giving away the game to anybody else. In fact, you really do have to do a double take to see the thicker front end that sets it apart from the lesser brother. The Speed6 housed a direct-inject 2.3-liter four cylinder good for 274 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, and 0-60 clocked in at a very fast 5.4 seconds. Even better, it had all-wheel-drive with an Active Torque split that could route 50 percent of power to the back end, and a six-speed manual transmission, making it quick, wet-weather capable and a hell of a lot of fun to drive.
2003 Volkswagen Passat W8 4Motion
It had the shortest lifespan of any Passat but received the most respect. Under the hood, two V4 cylinder banks joined to form a “W”, into which VW was able to cram eight cylinders to produce 270 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. At rest it was quiet, but mash the pedal to the rug and the lowly Passat rumbled like an American muscle car. Add the security of 4Motion all-wheel-drive, weightier steering and a sub-seven-second 0-60 time, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide Teutonic sleeper. If you were lucky enough to get the manual transmission option, you’re the object of envy for any diehard VW owner.
2007-2010 BMW M5 Touring
Back when they still did wagons, BMW delivered to the world one of the best sleepers ever made: the E61 M5 Touring. A true driver’s car, it could hit 60 mph in the mid-fours and handle twisty roads like a two-seater sports car. Power came from a big V10 engine delivering 500 hp (!) to the rear wheels, which made it perfect for scaring the shit out of your family. Too bad it was never sold in America.
1987 Buick Regal Grand National Experimental
The mother of all Grand Nationals was worshiped here in the states as one of Detroit’s last rear-wheel-drive hot rods. Priced at a whopping $30k, the GNX was made in the GN’s final production year. Buick partnered with McLaren Performance Technologies/ASC to pump even more gusto into the already quick Grand National. The car’s V6 produced 245 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque, with the addition of a Garrett T-3 turbocharger and a bigger intercooler. It also boasted a freer-flowing exhaust and a reprogrammed automatic transmission for more aggressive shifts. The result was a 0-60 time of 4.3 seconds. The GNX’s blocky two-door body aided its sleeper profile, but anyone who knew anything about cars would take one look at the sinister wheels and know that the GNX was meant to clean clocks.
1998-2000 Ford SVT Contour
Ford’s ovaloid design era was a cryin’ shame, but they got one gem out of it. Looking like a shrunken Taurus, the SVT Contour was tweaked by Ford’s Special Vehicles Team and benefitted from a potent 200 hp V6 and a much-improved handling dynamics. A late ’90s front-front-wheel drive sedan from the Blue Oval that’s fun to drive pretty much nails the profile of a sleeper. Even better, aside from its slightly enhanced ground effects, it was nearly indistinguishable from its tepid stock brother.
2007 Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG
This might just be the perfect suburban sleeper. It hauls kids; it grabs groceries; it roasts rubber. You can debate whether the R63 is an ugly minivan or an ugly SUV, but it’s most certainly a street-bound missile. Its naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 engine unleashes 507 horsepower, the kind of power that embarrasses capable sports cars. 0-60 comes in 4.6 seconds and the top speed is a wicked 155 mph. To do that in a Dodge Caravan you’d have to drive off a cliff. Sure, you feel a bit sorry for drivers of the regular R Class, but for the rare individual who owns the R63, there’s nothing but jealous respect.