Drag racing is ingrained into American car culture, right alongside big egos that hate to give credit where credit is due.
There are three things you need to know to fully appreciate this article:
One: People have different definitions when it comes to fast cars. Those of us with daily drivers generally understand a 14-second quarter-mile time is pretty respectable and grin-inducing. Dedicated drag racers with purpose-built missiles find anything over 11 seconds to be rather boring. And then you have the bench racers that trash talk anyone not driving an 8-second Supra. For our purposes, let’s focus on that daily driver category.
Two: When it comes to classifying something as fast, context matters. These days it’s not tough to find fairly inexpensive, factory stock performance cars that can run a 13-second quarter-mile. Step back just a decade, however, and you’ll find such performance was a bit more exclusive.
Three: I don’t care how fast your car is. Unless you have an 8000bhp top fuel dragster, you will eventually match up with a car that’s faster. And because karma has such a wonderful sense of humour, your ego will probably be shattered by something you aren’t particularly fond of.
That brings me to this list of six cars that many people don’t like to admit are actually rather fast. I’m not talking about sleepers per se – I suspect enthusiasts are familiar with most of these cars. I’m talking about cars that, for varying reasons, just don’t get much respect despite having some legitimate performance cred.
1. Honda Civic
Mention Civic to virtually any muscle car guy and the requisite response usually involves laughing, a few choice expletives, and zero respect. Yes, there are plenty of wannabe Civics that reinforce the ricer stereotype, but Type R versions have been tearing up race tracks for years. Even the modest Si versions we’ve had in the States pack enough power to surprise the V8 crowd every now and then. But you’ll never hear them admit it – even when they get spanked by one.
2. Dodge Neon SRT-4
It didn’t take long for the Dodge Neon to become the epitome of American throw-away cars. In reality, the Neon was a properly good track car, and when Dodge bolted a turbo to its 2.4-litre engine in 2003, it became properly quick as well. Initially offered with 215bhp, power rose to 230bhp for 2004 and 2005 – enough to shuffle this throw away car to a 13.9 second quarter-mile time. For the record, that’s B6 Audi S4 territory, and enough to dog an E46 M3 well past 100mph.
3. Chevrolet Cobalt SS
The Cobalt has the distinction of inheriting the Chevy Cavalier’s stellar reputation for being a craptastic compact car. This was, after all, the period of sharp decline at General Motors that led to its bankruptcy. But while the money was haemorrhaging through every GM orifice, someone decided to endow the Cobalt with a supercharger that in 2008 became a turbo. It sent 260bhp to the front wheels, which sent droves of butthurt Mustang, Charger, and WRX drivers home to rethink their life choices. It may have been crap, but it was fast crap.
4. Chrysler PT Cruiser GT
Remember the Neon SRT-4? Yeah, that same engine and five-speed manual found its way into the loved-then-shunned PT Cruiser. The quirky hatchback became a pimple on Chrysler’s backside thanks to terrible quality control and dated styling, but for a few years those flashy chrome rims could deliver smoky burnouts and respectable thrust. The PT’s additional mass slowed it down compared to the SRT-4, but it was still among the quickest front-wheel drive performance cars of the early-mid 2000s.
5. Toyota Camry
Did you know a new V6-powered Toyota Camry can rip to 60 in about six seconds and clip a mid-14 second quarter mile? That’s about the same as a showroom-fresh Ford Focus ST, and unless you boot your new WRX from a standstill with a death-defying clutch drop, don’t expect to escape the Camry’s grasp.
I’m not suggesting the Camry is the world’s new sport sedan, and it’s certainly no drag racing hero. But it’s been the epitome of boring transportation for 20 odd years, not to mention a punching bag for auto journalists and enthusiasts around the world. Very few will admit to smiling behind the Camry’s wheel during a full-throttle run; fewer still will admit it’s respectably fast.
6. Ford Taurus
The Taurus started out strong but quickly gained a reputation for being a boring rental car queen. Many people didn’t know there was a performance edition called SHO, which is why I ultimately owned a dozen of these cars over the years. In the late 1990s I watched a colleague rip a 14.5 quarter-mile in a bone stock 1994 SHO with a five-speed manual, which was quick enough back then to hang with just about anything. Today’s twin-turbo SHOs dip into the 13s despite their size, but the level of disbelief among unsuspecting enthusiasts is as amusing as ever. A Taurus . . . I can’t believe I lost to a ** Taurus.*
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that, well, I could buy another Taurus. Heck, I just might anyway.