The top ‘sleeper’ cars of all time

For some people, part of the excitement of driving a fast car is how fast it looks, not just how fast it goes. And in many cases, this makes perfect sense. After all, the world’s favorite sports- and super-cars wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if not for their bulging fenders, vented body work, and sculpted designs.

However, not all fast cars showcase their performance acumen so brazenly. In fact, there’s an entire subset of car enthusiasts who actually prefer cars that look slower than they actually are. These types of cars, the ones that don’t look as fast as they go, are called sleeper cars, and in this article, we’ll be going over some of the very best of them. 

What is a sleeper car?

Before we cover the cars that we think make the best sleepers, it’s important that we all first agree on what a sleeper car actually is. On the surface, any vehicle that doesn’t look fast, but is, is fair game to be considered a sleeper. However, while that statement seems simple, it actually leaves quite a bit of room for disagreement. Many people won’t agree on what it means for a car to “look fast.” Similarly, it’s hard to find consensus on what it means for a car to be fast.

This dissonance isn’t easily expunged, but to clear things up a bit, I’d recommend looking at it like this: sleeper cars are all about how fast the car looks, relative to how fast it actually is. For example, knowing that a car runs a 13 second ¼ mile isn’t enough to determine whether it’s a sleeper. You have to compare that ¼ mile time to how it looks. If it looks like it could be that quick or quicker (e.g. if it has aggressive body work, carbon fiber accents, quad exhausts etc.), it’s not a sleeper. If it looks like a minivan, then it is a sleeper, even though 13 seconds in the ¼ mile isn’t all that fast in the world of performance cars. So, it’s not about the car’s raw performance ability as much as it’s about the car’s looks in comparison to its raw performance ability. Now that we have that cleared up, onto the best sleeper cars!

Volvo XC40 Recharge

Volvo has always been in the business of making sleeper cars. Even their most aggressive, performance-oriented offerings have always looked deceptively similar to the mundane, base-model variants upon which they are based. However, despite their sleeper-making reputation, Volvo has outdone even themselves with the XC40 Recharge. The XC40 is a small crossover designed to compete with the BMW X1 and X2, Mercedes GLA and Audi Q3. However, the Recharge version of the XC40 catapults it into the pantheon of sleeper legends.

The Recharge looks almost identical to the normal XC40, save for the blocked-off front grille and some other very minor details. That is to say that it’s a rather inoffensive, cute, and fun-looking little family car. However, the Recharge trim more than doubles the horsepower output of the base XC40. This is due to its all-electric powertrain, the motors within which generate a whopping 402hp, enough to get the XC40 Recharge to 60mph in 4.3 seconds, which is almost twice as fast as the base model.

These numbers in tandem with the XC40 Recharge’s very unassuming looks makes it a wonderful embodiment of what a true sleeper car should be. 

Chevy SS

The Chevy SS, despite it generally being considered a failure due to slow sales, is a truly special and interesting car. It was the spiritual successor to the Pontiac G8 GXP, and while it was still on sale, it was a rather compelling car. However, it didn’t sell well, and many people attribute its lackluster sales performance to its tremendously understated look. This was a problem because, under the surface, the SS was a truly potent performance sedan. It made 415 horsepower from an LS3 V8, and was able to be had with GM’s fantastic Mag-ride suspension. However, most people that want those performance features, generally want a car that looks the part too. That’s where the Chevy SS failed to deliver, as it looked, to most people, like a Malibu with SS badges. However, while it was a failure for GM, it was a massive win for fans of sleeper cars, as the SS is one of the best sleepers out there. 

GMC Typhoon/Syclone

The GMC Typhoon and Syclone, while sleepers at heart, have almost transcended sleeper status on account of being so well-known for being sleepers! That doesn’t constitute grounds for omission in my book though, so let’s talk about perhaps the most well-known sleepers of them all.

The Typhoon was launched in 1991 alongside it’s sibling, the Syclone. The two cars are high-performance versions of the GMC Jimmy and Sonoma, respectively. Both share the same 4.3L turbo V6, which makes 280hp and 350lb-ft of torque. These numbers aren’t likely to wow anyone today, but 30 years ago, those were seriously impressive figures, especially considering boths car’s looks.

While they both got some upgraded body work compared to the Jimmy and Sonoma, most people wouldn’t be able to tell either apart from their base-model counterparts. And in today’s world especially, anything from the 90’s with a GMC badge looks like the epitome of slow. However, the Typhoon and Syclone were anything but, both achieving low 5-second 0-60mph times, all while looking like something that couldn’t even safely reach 60mph, let alone getting there faster than most modern cars. 

Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG 

While most sleepers are a bit silly inherently, on account of their quickness being disguised by a slow-looking body, the R63 AMG is just downright hilarious. It’s a minivan by all accounts; it has the shape, the look, and everything else but sliding doors. However, it also has a 507hp V8 plucked straight out of AMG’s other sports cars of the time. To add to its charm, the R63 is also very subtly styled.

Besides its quad-exhaust tips and AMG-specific wheels, it looks just about the same as the regular R300, which makes about 300 less horsepower. That means that unless you really know what to look for, that Mercedes van parked next to you at a stoplight could have a measly 200hp, or it could have 507hp, you’ll just have to wait until it takes off to find out! 

Audi RS2 Avant 

Audi has amassed quite a glowing reputation for building fast wagons, one that still lives on today in the form of the new RS6 Avant. However, it all started with the RS2, Audi’s first ever car to wear the now esteemed and well-respected RS badge.

The RS2 Avant was based on the Audi 80 platform, and in vintage Audi fashion, it was perfectly subtle. Besides a few minor styling cues, most people would think it’s just a regular old Audi wagon from a by-gone era, but it’s truly anything but. To start, it’s hardly even an Audi. The RS2 was co-designed by Porsche and Audi, but it was built by Porsche. That’s why, if you’re ever lucky enough to see one up close, you’ll notice that the brakes say Porsche on them, and under the hood the engine reads “powered by Porsche.”

This partnership between Audi and Porsche took place long before the two companies lived together under the VW group umbrella too, making the pairing a fun bit of foreshadowing of things to come. Anyway, the RS2 generated 311 horsepower from a turbocharged, 2.2L 5 cylinder, which, with the help of Quattro all-wheel drive, was enough to launch the car to 60mph in under 5 seconds.

For a car that looks like an old-school family-hauling station wagon, that’s plenty fast to qualify for sleeper status. 

Final Thoughts

From all-electric modern crossovers to old-school GMC pickups, sleeper status can be bestowed upon just about anything, as long as it goes faster than it looks. And that’s what makes sleepers so fun. It’s not a class of cars that only the upper-echelon of performance cars can belong to; any brand can make a sleeper if they want, but only a few are cool enough to actually do it. 

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