‘Sleeper’ cars: Stealthy performance cars no one will see coming



During the World Wars, Allied navies equipped seemingly harmless merchant ships with guns and torpedoes to ward off prowling German U-Boats. Called Q-Ships, they were all about the element of surprise. These cars are automotive Q-Ships.

Often called “Sleepers,” these are performance cars in unexpected forms. There’s no rule that says a performance car has to have two doors or the low-slung body of a sports car. Disguised as sensible sedans and wagons, sleepers keep a lower profile.

Sleepers are cars for serious performance junkies: without the flash of traditional performance cars, they can’t be used to show off, and they put automotive performance in practical packages. They also provide the satisfaction of knowing that no one else has any idea what kind of fury lies under the hood.

Audi RS2 Avant

Audi RS2 Avant

This Audi may look like a station wagon, but it’s actually a Porsche. It was co-developed by the two Volkswagen family members and built at Porsche’s Rossle-Bau plant in Zuffenhausen, Germany; the same plant that built the 959 supercar.

More importantly, Porsche also did some work on the RS2’s engine. It’s the 2.2-liter turbocharged inline-five from the Audi 80 Avant (on which the RS2 is based) but Zuffenhausen was able to extract 315 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque.

That was enough to get the RS2 to 62 mph (100 kph) in 4.8 seconds, and to a top speed of 163 mph, although production cars were electronically limited 155 mph. All of this performance came in the body of a lowly station wagon.

The RS2 may have seemed like an unlikely performance icon, but began Audi’s tradition of hardcore RS performance models, a tradition that continues today with cars like the RS6 Avant and RS5. Pray you don’t meet up with one at a stoplight.

2013 BMW Alpina B7 front three quarter motion

BMW Alpina B7

A BMW 7 Series looks better suit to duty shuttling executives around at city speeds in comfort than carving corners, but the tuning wizards at Alpina think differently. The company built a hot rod 7 Series from 2007 to 2008, then brought it back when BMW redesigned the 7 Series for 2011.

For 2013, the B7’s turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 produces 540 hp and 538 lb-ft of torque; 40 hp and 88 lb-ft more than last year, and that’s quite a lot however you look at it.

Equipped with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive is also available), the B7 will sprint to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, and reach an astronomical top speed of 193 mph. That’s right: this is a full-size sedan that can go nearly 200 mph.

With visual modifications limited to some subtle tweaks and classy 20-spoke wheels, no Ferrari or Porsche driver will have the faintest idea of what’s going on when a B7 flies past.

Cadillac CTS-V wagon on track

Cadillac CTS-V wagon

Cadillac’s CTS wagon is one of the best looking wagons around; in fact, it’s one of the best looking cars around. It’s still a wagon though, which means it wouldn’t be most people’s first choice for a performance car.

That’s what makes the CTS-V wagon the sweetest of the three CTS-Vs (there’s also a coupe and sedan). It’s got the same 6.2-liter supercharged V8, based on the engine in the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and other go-fast goodies as the other two. It can also haul plywood or your family and all their gear for a weekend at the lake.

The Corvette-based V8 produces 556 hp and 551 lb-ft of torque, getting the wagon to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds (assuming the tires aren’t vaporized in the process) and onto a top speed of 185 mph.

Cadillac is launching a redesigned CTS for 2014. Hopefully a redesigned CTS-V wagon is in the cards.

2013 Ford Taurus SHO

Ford Taurus SHO

Whether as an import-fighting midsize sedan or a cushy full-size near-luxury car, the Taurus has been a big success for Ford. However, it’s also one of the most boring cars on the road.

There are fewer cases of automotive schizophrenia as severe as the Ford Taurus SHO. SHO, by the way, stands for Super High Output.

Each version of the SHO has been a little different. The car launched in 1989 with a Yamaha-designed 3.0-liter V6, a five-speed manual transmission, and a restyled body made of parts taken from the Mercury Sable. The V6 produced 220 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. It got displacement and torque boosts to 3.2 liters and 215 lb-ft, respectively, with a 1992 facelift.

In 1996, The SHO got a 3.4-liter Yamaha V8, with 235 hp and 230 lb-ft. For some reason, not many people were in the market for a V8-engined Taurus, so it didn’t last very long.

For the 2010 model year, Ford turned the Taurus into a full-size sedan, and introduced a new SHO built around a turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 and all-wheel drive. The EcoBoost engine produces a stout 365 hp and 350 lb-ft although, unlike the original SHO, a six-speed automatic is the only available transmission. Even so, count on surprising passengers and other drivers with this ultimate sleeper car.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG front three quarter motion

Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG 4Matic

When Mercedes unveiled its redesigned S-Class flagship earlier this year, features like the luxurious interior (with perfume spritzer!) and high tech driver aids took center stage. However, there’s another side to this big Merc.

Mercedes builds an AMG performance version of each of its models, and the S-Class is no exception. The latest version has a 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V8 with 577 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque. It’s coupled to a seven-speed automatic transmission and Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive.

That means the S63 AMG 4Matic can blitz to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, the same as a 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera S. It’s top speed is electronically limited to 186 mph – so it could go even faster. The S-Class is known as the car of choice for heads of state, but short of a terrorist attack, it’s hard to think of why a country’s leader would need to get anywhere that fast. You can probably think of some reasons and places to go, though.

2003 Volvo V70 R front three quarter motion

Volvo V70 R

There are boring car models, and cars that are cool but normally associated with performance. Then there’s Volvo. Sweden’s most enduring car company is known for safety and reliability; it’s an entire brand built around reasonableness.

Once in awhile, though, Volvo’s engineers go a little crazy. Beginning with the 1996 850, Volvo built a series of hot rod station wagons (and a few sedans), bestowing them with the R badge.

Launched in 2003, the V70 R (and S60 R sedan) were the most refined of the breed. A turbocharged inline-five produced 300 hp and 295 lb-ft, and was connected to a performance-tuned Haldex all-wheel drive system.

The V70 R also featured Volvo’s “Four-C” (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) adjustable suspension system. One of the first of its kind, it allowed drivers to adjust the firmness of the suspension on the fly, with just a push of a button.

Despite looking like it belonged in an elementary school parking lot, the V70 R was able to do 0 to 60 mph in 6.0 seconds, and reach an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. They even race the V60 version so you know it’s a no-foolin’ sleeper machine.

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