High performance cars these days come in two distinct flavours. The first one being the obvious type – aggressive stance, big spoilers, hood scoops and loud exhausts. However, there is a second flavour which is sometimes even more appealing and comes with almost no external cues but surprising power and performance. Those cars are commonly known as “sleepers” for their unassuming, even boring appearance, but they might actually surprise you when you hit the gas pedal. Here are 7 of the most interesting sleepers straight from the factory.
Volvo 850 R Wagon
Volvo wagons are one of the biggest symbols of a quiet suburban lifestyle and are often one of the least interesting cars around. In most cases, this is true, but when we are talking about the 850 R Wagon, we are talking about a real sports car disguised as an estate with room for five adults and a whole bunch of luggage.
Introduced in 1996, the 850 R looked like any other Volvo wagon of the time, which meant it was boxy, practical and pretty unassuming from the outside. Underneath the body there was a 2.3-liter turbocharged five cylinder which pumped out 250 horsepower. Although it isn’t much by today`s standards, it was a lofty number for mid `90s and gave the 850 R pretty respectable 0 to 60 mph time of 6.5 seconds.
Lotus Omega/Omega Carlton
This early `90s saloon may look pretty dull now but back in the day, this was the world`s fastest four door car. Based on the standard Opel Omega, the Carlton was a tuned-by-Lotus special edition version with a massive 3.6-liter turbocharged engine with 377 horsepower. This was put through a 6-speed manual gearbox lifted from the Corvette ZR-1 going to the rear wheels.
To those not in the know, the Lotus Omega looked very subtle with just a few performance badges and a modest rear spoiler. 0 – 60 happened in just 5.2 seconds which was outstanding for the time it topped out at 170 mph. 28 years on, its very collectable and could still beat most performance cars on the road.
From the outside, this 10-year old Mazda looks like a rental car, something you would choose as your transportation for a family holiday. Even the interior doesn’t reveal much. When you step on the gas however, there is no doubt that the Mazdaspeed 6 is a genuine performance car with a pretty capable drive train. The 2.3-liter turbocharged four pot is good for 270 horsepower and all that power is sent to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system. With a 6-speed manual transmission and 5.4 seconds 0 to 60 mph time, the Mazdaspeed 6 is an extremely capable, practical and very discrete performance sedan.
Mercedes R 63 AMG
In a world of crazy AMG cars which demand attention wherever they show up, the R 63 is a totally forgotten model. Firstly, this is a minivan which is the least desirable body style in the performance car world and secondly, it totally still looks like one despite subtle AMG modifications. That being said, let`s just look at the specifications which will reveal the true nature of this car.
Under the hood is a hand-built and high revving 6.2-liter V8 engine with 503 horsepower propelling this 5300 lbs (2.4 ton) minivan to 60 in an astonishing 4.7 seconds! The top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph and if you remove the limiter you can take this R Class to over 170 mph. Just as a reminder, R 63 can seat up to 7 people, carry loads of luggage and still be a stop light monster. Remove the AMG badges and it will look totally ordinary!
Imagine buying a brand new Ferrari 348 in 1991, proudly driving it around and then get obliterated in a stoplight drag race by a pickup truck. Yes, this was the case if the guy next to you was driving the GMC Syclone. Introduced in the early `90s, the Syclone was one of the first true performance pickups. It was a turbocharged all-wheel drive beast disguised as a compact truck with just a few external modifications and signature black paint.
With a 4.3-liter turbocharged V6 under the hood and 280 horsepower, the Syclone was capable of 0 to 60 mph times in 4.6 seconds. At the time, anything under 5 seconds was considered supercar territory. From the outside it looked like any other GMC Sonoma truck which added the appeal as a true sleeper performance vehicle with tremendous potential. Even today, the Syclone is still remembered as one of the best sleepers ever made.
Ford Taurus SHO
In 1989, the Taurus SHO made history as the first modern American performance sedan with a high revving Yamaha-derived 3.0-liter V6 and stealth looks. Fast forward almost 30 years and we still have the Taurus SHO with the same credentials but with much more power and performance. The modern SHO features a 3.5-liter EcoBoost turbocharged V6 with 365 horsepower, advanced all-wheel drive system and extremely restrained design.
In fact, you will have a hard time distinguishing it from the regular Taurus since the SHO is different in only a few small details. However, when you step on the gas you will see that the SHO is much more than a family sedan. With a 5.7 seconds 0 to 60 mph time and over 160 mph top speed, the Taurus SHO is a performance sedan with serious real life usability.
Volkswagen Golf R
In the hot hatch world there are just a few simple rules. One of those is that the car is better if it is equipped with outlandish spoilers, wild paint jobs or obnoxiously loud exhausts. For the Golf R however, Volkswagen decided to bend the rules and introduce a proper hot hatch wolf in sheep`s clothing. It was an interesting concept and we must say it works like a charm.
The current generation is the best one yet with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder, 306 horsepower and all-wheel drive train. Apart from sub 5 seconds 0 to 60 mph times, quality materials and effortless performance, the thing which impresses the most is how understated the Golf R looks and how it blends in with the traffic. This is one of the prime examples of a sleeper car and definitive proof that you don’t need insane add-ons and gigantic spoilers to create a fantastic performance machine.
So there you are. Which factory sleepers did I miss out? Let me know in the comments below.