There’s a good chance some of us have been there. Think back to that sunny, warm day a few years ago when you were out in your first car. You had just cleaned it, filled it up at the gas station and were feeling pretty good about yourself and the world. You pulled up to a stoplight and beside you sits a soccer mom in her station wagon. You decide the way is clear and it’s time to show her and her groceries what four-cylinders of fury can do. The light turns green and before your little ride has even crossed the line she is on the other side of the intersection. What you just witnessed was a sleeper – or that car you bought had some serious issues.
In all seriousness, fast cars often look the part. For instance, take one look at a Lamborghini Aventador or a Bugatti Veyron and the vast majority of us would know it was a very quick and high performance car. There are however a number of cars on the streets which really don’t look like they could leave you red-faced off a stop. No spoilers, massive scoops, vents, stripes or overly-loud exhaust – nothing to give away the power which exists under the hood. These are termed as sleepers, or cars that have surprising performance hidden under a relatively bland exterior. These are wolves in sheeps’ clothing.
The following looks at 15 of the fastest sleeper cars in terms of 0-60 performance. There is a wide range in vehicle types and we think #1 may surprise more than a few people. Naturally, the car buffs among you will look at some of the following sleepers and huff and puff because a car brand is included that screams performance. Before getting too bent out of shape, take a breath. Car aficionados can (and should) spot a sleeper a mile away – to them, every car on this list should be easily recognizable. However, to the vast majority of people who don’t know a lot about cars (or care) the following vehicles aren’t very different from the other vehicles they see on a daily basis during the Saturday errands or weekday commutes. To most people, that boxy black coupe kind of looks like the car their grandfather drove. To those of us in the know, it’s a wolf on the prowl and we know better than to take it on.
15 2006 Volvo V70R AWD Estate – 5.6 sec.
For most of us, the words Volvo and performance don’t really go together. Despite there being a handful of pretty powerful vehicles produced over the brand’s history, Volvos remain the “family” car. They are known for being solid, safe and dependable vehicles but not necessarily track stars. It may not look it from the outside but this Scandinavian station wagon packs a punch for anyone who tries to test it. Hidden underneath the grocery-getter exterior is a five-cylinder turbocharged engine which produces 300 hp and 295 lbs ft of torque – all of which goes to the road thanks to the all-wheel-drive system.
14 T-12. 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD – 5.2 sec.
Acura has always been sold as the premium brand of Honda in North America. Their cars usually have more features and designs that make them stand out next to their counterparts. That said, this particular Acura sedan is anything but exciting looking. If critics are united in one thing it’s that they consider the TL a bland design. To most motorists, the TL wouldn’t stand out even if it was right in front of you. Perhaps that suits this vehicle. Underneath the rather vanilla body is a 305hp V6 engine which powers the car’s AWD system. That’ll get it from 0-60 in just 5.2 seconds which is the exact time put down by Acura’s legendary NSX sports car in 1994.
13 T-12. 1992 Lotus Carlton – 5.2 sec.
This particular vehicle saw most of its time in Europe but became available for import into North America several years ago. Lotus is synonymous with performance and handling but this particular model doesn’t quite look right. To the untrained eye, the Carlton (yes, we’re laughing at the name too) looks like a Mazda Protégé or Suzuki Esteem. Sure it has a spoiler and some hood vents but the car just doesn’t have the presence of a performer. Most people’s laughter quickly stops once they begin choking on the exhaust of this beast. The Carlton, as it turns out, is powered by a twin-turbocharged, inline-six engine which produces 377 hp and can get up to 89 km/h in first gear alone.
12 T-12. 2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT – 5.2 sec.
Car buffs will know that any Subaru with a hood-scoop is a potentially fast car. Nonetheless, the vast majority of this Japanese company’s cars have had rather bland and boring designs over the years. This has helped some of them attain true sleeper status. The WRX/STI Impreza may be Subaru’s trademark performer but that only helps the Forester XT fly under the radar. In all likelihood, many who even notice this vehicle have enough trouble trying to decide whether it’s a wagon or a small SUV. Under the relatively conservative exterior is a turbocharged motor which produces 210 hp and 235 lbs ft of torque. It’s enough to toss around the Labrador Retrievers and leave most people in the dust while they try and figure out what kind of vehicle it is.
11 2013 Ford Taurus SHO – 5.1 sec.
In 1989, Ford produced a special variation of the Taurus sedan, known as the SHO. With its Yamaha V6 engine, the SHO put down a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds, which was quick, and helped the car attain sleeper status. Over 20 years later, Ford reincarnated the Taurus SHO with even better performance. On the outside this looks like your typical business or “old man” car. Just watch out because this “old man” is packing a twin-turbocharged 3.5L V6 which puts down 365 hp. That’s a significant boost over the older SHO and enough to ensure that this Taurus maintains its cult status as a sleeper car.
10 1986 Buick Grand National – 4.8 sec.
If there was one single car to be used as the poster child of the sleeper cars it would be Buick’s Regal Grand National. There are more than a few car enthusiasts who would love to have one of these cars in their garage. With a turbocharged 3.8L V6, the Grand National ate Camaros for breakfast and had the performance to compete with Corvettes. For the unaware, the Grand National looked like the kind of car your grandfather had, with its long hood and boxy design. There was very little to indicate this Buick had considerable bite. That said, in black, the Grand National looks like the kind of car Darth Vader would prefer to drive, if he was trying to maintain a low profile but looking for something to match his personality.
9 1995 Audi RS2 Avant – 4.7 sec.
This very '90s-looking European station wagon was only built for a little over one year. At the time, not a lot of people would have known the potential of this family car. Today, next to the more modern Audi designs, most people wouldn’t even give it a second look. Don’t let the looks deceive you, however, The Audi RS2 Avant was designed by Audi and Porsche. Its 2.2L turbocharged engine produces 311 hp which gets it up to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. Its overall performance and acceleration is superior to many Porsche 911 and Corvette models making this one potent sleeper.
8 2014 Chevrolet SS – 4.5 sec.
Rising from the ashes of the Australian-built Pontiac G8 is the Chevrolet SS. Fans of Chevrolet and, indeed, Australian Commodore V8 racers, will know the potential of this car. Those unaware of what lies under the hood will approach the SS in the same way Buddy the Elf approached a hissing raccoon in the classic holiday movie. Untrained eyes may think this is some sort of Malibu-type vehicle. It may have a rather tame exterior but the SS quickly reminds you it’s what’s inside that counts. Under the hood is the 6.2L V8 found in the Corvette. Enough said.
7 2013 BMW 760Li V-12 – 4.4 sec.
There’s absolutely no indication anywhere on this car that a massive V12 engine sits under the hood. Those familiar with BMW’s will know enough to stay clear. The rest of us will probably look at the 760Li and think that it’s a nice, but big, luxury car meant more for VIPs than performance. Odds are, the 760Li you are looking at is a V8 model which is no slouch. There is the chance that under the elegant and classic BMW exterior lies a twin-turbocharged 6.0L V12 which produces 535 hp and a blistering 553 lbs ft of torque. With a look that says Bruce Wayne and performance that screams Batmobile this car would be at home in Gotham City.
6 1991 GMC Syclone – 4.3 sec.
Odds are that you have seen more than a few GMC Sonoma pickup trucks around. With just under 3,000 built in one production year, it is a bit less likely you have crossed paths with a GMC Syclone. Other than the badging, the Syclone looked identical to the Sonoma – but don’t be fooled. This small pickup packed a massive punch. Under the hood was a 280 hp turbocharged V6 engine which got the vehicle up to 60 mph in just 4.3 seconds. With very little to indicate its performance and a slew of reviews often comparing it with Porsches, Corvettes and Ferraris, the GMC Syclone deservedly has a place on any list of the fastest sleepers.
5 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon – 4.2 sec.
Cadillac has worked really hard over the last several years to shake off the “old man” image it had developed and reinvent itself as a sporty and fashionable car for the younger generations. To some degree this has worked but the brand is still largely associated with wealthy or retired owners. Throw a station wagon into the mix and you have one of the most potent Saturday morning antique-hunting sleepers around. Yes, the CTS-V Wagon has a number of strikes against it because it’s a wagon, it’s generally considered ugly and it’s a Cadillac. Nonetheless, under the hood is a 556 hp supercharged V8 engine which will leave most challengers well and truly eating its dust.
4 T-3. 2011 Audi RS3 Sportback – 4.1 sec.
To those in the know, the RS badge is a major warning sign that this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. To everyone else, the RS3 Sportback looks like a typical small station wagon, or a bloated Volkswagen Golf if you really don’t know cars that well. Under its hood is a 340 hp, 332 lb. ft torque producing turbocharged inline-five engine. To emphasize its sleeper status we’ll ask you this one question. Pulling up to a stop with a Lamborghini Diablo on one side and an RS3 Sportback on the other, which one do you stand the better chance of beating? Hint: We’re feeling like Italian tonight.
3 T-3. 2005 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Wagon – 4.1 sec.
The last wagon to feature on this list comes to us from Mercedes-Benz. Yes, it has an AMG badge but most people have no clue what that means. Looking at the E55 AMG Wagon you’d find very little to indicate this car can embarrass many Porsche and Corvette owners. After all, the E55 is a wagon that can carry seven passengers and has the cargo capacity of most small and mid-sized SUVs. It also has faster acceleration than a Ferrari F355 and is only 0.4 seconds slower than an F40 – not bad for a full-sized family car. This is all thanks to its 470 hp supercharged V8 which also produces 516 lbs ft of torque.
2 2013 BMW M5 – 3.6 sec.
What, the BMW M5? Surely we’re kidding? After all, the M5 is the powerhouse of the BMW lineup. Then again, if you know what an M5 looks like and you know what an M5 is capable of then you are not like most people. To the majority of drivers, a M5 just looks like a big BMW with all the classic design features you’d expect from the German manufacturer. To be fair, from the outside there is very little to suggest this particular BMW has a twin turbocharged V8 under the hood. The engine’s 560 hp and 502 lbs ft of torque are impressive as the 0-60 time suggests. If it wasn’t for the M5 badges, the vast majority of drivers would have no clue this was sitting next to them at the stop light.
1 2013 Tesla Model S P85D – 3.2 sec.
The only indication that this car is a performer might be its modern and sleek lines and painted brake calipers. That said, it’s four-door, a Tesla and electric. For most people, those three factors would probably write this electric car off as far as sleeper status goes. After all, electric cars are all about the environment, conservation and efficiency, right? Approach this wolf with that thinking and you will get bitten. The P85D is a 691 hp, AWD monster which gets up to 60 mph in a ridiculous 3.2 seconds. There’s no roar or grumble as this car pulls away – just the sound of your jaw dropping.