Much like the Spanish Inquisition, a sleeper car is one that nobody expects. It’s ruthlessly fast, powerful, and efficient, with all the mechanical capabilities of a hardcore sports car — and none of the persona. Sleepers occupy the sidelines, hiding their high performance under unremarkable exteriors, content to let garish sports cars attract all the police attention. For as long as drivers have souped up their cars, the sleeper has been the unassuming badass in the background; naturally, manufacturers caught on, and every so often, some pretty amazing ones take to the streets straight from the dealership floor.
1. Audi RS6
Sure, it’s an Audi sedan, and while some RS badging and bodywork is a dead giveaway to the cognoscenti, the layman walking past the second-generation Audi RS6 in a parking lot would have no idea that underneath the hood lurks a 570 hp V10 originally designed for the Lamborghini Gallardo.
2. Taurus SHO
Close your eyes and picture a sedan with a high revving Yamaha motorcycle engine and a bunch of other go-fast bits. Then open them and take a second look at the Taurus SHO, a car which many consider the ultimate sleeper car. Just as amazing, the third generation SHO had a V8 under the hood built as a collaborative effort between Yamaha and the legend that is Cosworth.
3. COPO Camaro
It’s kinda hard to get more sleeper than the original COPO (Central Office Production Order) Camaro from 1969. Very few people knew it at the time, but Chevrolet had a super-secret option: you could get a stripped down Camaro, with absolutely zero options, save for the now legendary 427 cubic inch V8 that Chevy campaigned in Can-Am racing. The cars didn’t even come with badges or other unique identifiers, so unless you were a Camaro expert standing right next to it you’d have no idea what it was…until someone turned the ignition key.
4. Lotus Carlton
Yes, there was once a Lotus sedan. Sorta. To look at an Opel Omega (aka Vauxhall Carlton) from the early 1990s is to look at a boring, perfectly average sedan designed by GM of Europe. And then the lovable lunatics at Lotus got a hold of it. After some minor tweaks to the exterior, Lotus engineers tore the standard Vauxhall straight six apart, rebuilt it with much more robust performance goodies, and threw on a pair of turbochargers. When all was said and done, the 377 hp, nearly 180 mph-capable Lotus was the fastest sedan in the world, and a favorite getaway car amongst brazen bandits looking to outrun cops.
5. Mercedes 500E
In the days before Mercedes bought AMG as its in-house performance division, the guys in charge of the E-Class turned to cross-town rival Porsche to beef up the 500E. The result was a V8-powered Autobahn killer capable of 170mph, but if you weren’t into cars, you’d never realize it was anything other than a nicely finished off E Class.
6. Omni GLHS
In its basic form, the Dodge Omni was a very light car, but still an inexpensive hatchback without much historical relevance. The GLH version (shown) upped the ante and earned the initials — Goes Like Hell — that Carroll Shelby gave it. His version, the GLHS (S’more. Really.) came with a tuneable suspension and a 177 hp turbocharged four cylinder. That might not sound like much, but in a car that light, it’s plenty, especially for mid-1980s standards.
Common sense would dictate that a 270 hp, all wheel drive sedan with a manual transmission sounds either German or Subaru-esque by nature. Instead, the Mazdaspeed6 was one of the more subtle-yet-fast sport sedans produced a decade ago.
8. Ford SVT Contour
Ford’s skunkworks-like SVT operation worked its magic on the otherwise benign Contour and turned it into a proper European sports sedan. Though passers-by rarely gave them a second look, the SVT Contour boasted Recaro seats to keep drivers firmly in place, and the cornering prowess was greatly enhanced.
9. Volvo 850 T-5R and 850 R
Here’s a little secret that Europeans have known for ages but only enthusiasts — such as Paul Newman — know in America: Volvo has been making damn quick station wagons for decades. The subtle Swedes took things up a notch in 1995, after consulting with Porsche and producing the 300 hp 850 T-5R. It was a success, so Volvo created the 850 R based largely on the T-5R for 1996 and 1997 before retiring it in favor of a new generation of sleeper wagons.
10. Mercury Marauder
In the 1960s, Mercury produced the first Marauder, a high performance version of the Galaxie. Flash forward 40 years, and the Marauder’s 3rd iteration — built from the sister car of the Crown Victoria, a.k.a. the prototypical cop car — instantly became one of the all time great sleeper cars. Mercury’s engineers went shopping in Ford’s parts bin, using the 300 hp V8 from a Mustang Mach 1, along with some mechanical goodies from the police interceptor package, and wound up with a sleek package that was more than ready for the challenge when the light turned green.