Real performance without shouting about it.
When the timid, unassuming Peter Parker - played by Tobey Maguire - first unleashed his superhero speed and strength to effortlessly knock out a high-school bully in the first installment of the Spider-Man movie trilogy, his classmates were left in shock. How could this awkward science geek possibly pull off such a feat?
Much like the young Peter Parker, the sleeper car doesn't bowl you over with an intimidating appearance, but it's capable of so much more than it's initially given credit for. These are the vehicles that blend an unassuming appearance with surprisingly potent performance. If you like a high-performance car but aren't a fan of the attention-grabbing, brash styling that comes as standard with a yellow BMW M3 or purple Dodge Challenger, these are the perfect vehicles for the job.
There are now multiple tiers of M-lite or bona-fide M cars to choose from. In terms of the 5 Series, the M550i xDrive is the starting point before moving up to the M5, M5 Competition, and the hardcore M5 CS. Difficult to tell apart from a humble 530i with the M Sport pack, the M550i does without the flamboyant visual trimmings found on other M cars. Despite this, it produces 523 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque from its 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine, and will hit 60 mph in an astonishing 3.6 seconds. The M5 is only 0.4 seconds quicker up to 60 mph. Within BMW's lineup, the M550i is the ultimate sleeper.
What better contender for a sleeper car is there than a vehicle that barely makes a sound, yet is the quickest-accelerating sedan on the planet? Gearheads will know exactly what they're dealing with when they see the Plaid badge, but most others will simply see a car that looks like any other Tesla sedan. That aforementioned subtle badge and some bigger wheels are among the very few signs that this car obliterates everything else in a straight line.
Its three motors combine for 1,020 hp, enough for a 0-60 mph time of 1.99 seconds and a top speed of 200 mph. Independent testing has also seen it dip into the 8s across the quarter-mile, which is breathtaking for a four-door sedan that can seat five.
Although Audi has several bravely styled vehicles in its lineup like the e-tron GT, its conventional sedans have always played it safe. The S6 is a prime example of this. From a distance, it can easily be mistaken for an A4 or A8. It's anything but slow, though. The combination of the quattro all-wheel-drive system and a 2.9-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine will see the S6 hit 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. The engine generates 444 hp and 442 lb-ft, but its cultured growl in everyday use only adds to the S6's ability to surprise those who aren't aware of its performance potential.
Getting behind the wheel of a classy but rapid sedan doesn't have to cost the earth. Mazda didn't launch the 3 lineup with a turbocharged engine at first but we're thankful that this engine was added later. Starting at just over $30,000, the 2.5 Turbo has a 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv-G power plant that produces 227 hp and 310 lb-ft with regular unleaded, or 250 hp/320 lb-ft when running on premium unleaded.
With standard AWD, the Mazda can reach 60 mph in the mid-five-second range, and the 3's agile chassis makes exploiting this performance a joy. Besides a small 'TURBO' badge and black alloy wheels, Mazda retains the attractive, minimalist design of other 3 sedans for the turbocharged models. Unlike the aggressive Hyundai Elantra N, the turbocharged 3 has no need to shout about its performance despite being nearly as fast as the Korean.
An economical plug-in hybrid crossover as a sleeper car? Allow us a few seconds to justify the RAV4 Prime's place on this list. Not only does it look a lot like one of the thousands of RAV4s on the road right now, but this is the second-fastest vehicle Toyota currently makes after the GR Supra. It makes a combined 302 hp, and that grunt is directed to all four corners to allow the RAV4 Prime to reach 60 in a mere 5.7 seconds. That's quicker than a base Porsche Macan. Despite this, it is as practical as any other RAV4 and will even do 42 miles on electric power alone. If you own a Volkswagen Golf 7 GTI, don't challenge this Toyota crossover at the traffic lights.
The Polestar 2 has been criticized by some for its neat but unadventurous styling, especially after the lovely Polestar 1. But it's exactly this Swedish restraint that qualifies the Polestar 2 Dual Motor as a sleeper car. Well, that and its 408-hp electric powertrain. That's enough to see off the 0-60 mph sprint in a quick 4.5 seconds. Further adding to the 2's sleeper car appeal is the fact that many people aren't yet familiar with the brand, so eyebrows are bound to be raised when this anonymous-looking sedan leaves an in-your-face, non-M BMW i4 eating its dust.
This list wouldn't be complete without a stately Mercedes-Benz. However, we've skipped the AMG versions of the E-Class as they have enough visual muscle to remind you of how powerful they are. Like the BMW M550i, the E450 isn't as brash as its more powerful siblings. Without the Panamericana grille and obnoxiously large tailpipes, it's a stylish, elegant, and subtle sedan. However, its 3.0-liter inline-six turbocharged engine packs quite a punch with 362 hp and 369 lb-ft. As a result, it'll whisk you to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, just half a second behind the much pricier E53.
Volvo is the king of understatement and it's what we've always appreciated about the brand. This noble automaker often spends a disproportionate amount of time perfecting the aspects of a car that you can't see, such as its advanced safety systems. In the case of the S60 Recharge Polestar Engineered, its discreet styling conceals a real performer. The 2.0-liter engine is supplemented by turbocharging, supercharging, and electrification to produce a strong 415 hp. Without any drama whatsoever, this S60 will require just over four seconds for the benchmark sprint.
The second Toyota on this list is another hot seller. While the Camry is traditionally associated with trouble-free motoring and a spacious cabin for the family, the 3.5-liter V6 on upper models endows the familiar sedan with surprising performance. Producing 301 hp - nearly an identical output to the vastly different RAV4 Prime, incidentally - the Camry TRD will hit 60 mph in under six seconds according to independent testing. There are more subtle non-TRD models with the same engine that are similarly rapid.
Despite its name, this Subaru will never be the stuff of legends simply because of its bland, nondescript design. In 2022, it would benefit hugely from a bolder appearance. But for the 2020 model year, Subaru gave the Legacy a much-needed boost with the addition of a 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer-four delivering 260 hp and 277 lb-ft. Those aren't astonishing numbers but they're enough for this sedan to virtually match the more powerful Camry V6 to 60 mph, with the Legacy requiring just over six seconds. If you're in a base Dodge Challenger V6, prepare to be embarrassed by this boring Scooby.