What Is a Sleeper Car?

Erin Riches-Wong | Dec 04, 2020

A sleeper car is a master of understatement in the automotive world. It's a car that offers considerable performance yet is bereft of indecent bodywork, garish paint, oversized aerodynamic elements, or anything else that might invite unwanted attention. To call a car a sleeper is to pay it a big compliment. Usually, anyway.

What is a Sleeper Car Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Not everyone wants to drive a sleeper car, of course, because sometimes it's fun to show off. Likewise, it would be senseless for some cars to play down their capabilities because outward personality is such a huge part of their appeal. A Chevrolet Corvette could never be a sleeper car. Nor could a Tesla Model S, a Subaru WRX STI, or any Dodge, especially one with Hellcat in its name.

But for drivers who favor stealth over showboating, there are plenty of cars that pack in more performance than initially meets the eye.

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The classic example of an attainable sleeper car is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It's a simple formula that Volkswagen has perfected over the years. You take a practical, upright hatchback body style and give it a little extra power, a sport-tuned suspension, and a nicer set of wheels. That's the GTI in a nutshell. Even as the car has gotten quicker, more refined and, yes, more expensive over the years, it remains a bargain compared with similarly capable vehicles.

Alternatively, you could have most of the Golf GTI's goodness in the even more conservative-looking Volkswagen Jetta GLI. It is pictured above in its natural state – at speed.

For a premium-brand sleeper, look up Audi, which builds an S performance version of nearly every model in its lineup. The Audi S4 is the tuned version of the A4 sedan that most people buy. The two cars look almost the same, though the S4 has a racier front grille and larger standard wheels. But instead of a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, the S4 has a turbocharged V-6 and is much quicker as a result. On a good road, this sleeper is a driving enthusiast's dream. 

Audi has applied the same formula to the SQ5, which is based on the Q5 compact crossover SUV. Here again, you get some cosmetic upgrades and a V-6 instead of a turbo 4-cylinder. But the real surprise about the Audi SQ5 is the way it handles. It's far more capable around corners than most people would ever imagine an SUV could be.

Near the top of Audi's lineup, there's the S8 sedan, the high-performance version of the A8. It looks like an enormous A4, and critics have often decried it as too plain for an expensive executive sedan. But this invisibility cloak, combined with 563 horsepower, makes it a great sleeper car.

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There are also sleeper cars hiding in the ranks of everyday vehicles. The Ford Fusion Sport trim sold from 2017-2019 is a perfect example. Ford equipped that particular Fusion with a superb, turbocharged, 2.7-liter V-6 engine. It was a fast car that was fun to hustle down a back road. 

Another serious sleeper is the Buick Regal GS. Buick discontinued it for 2021, so you'll need to act fast to buy a new one. This car is notable for its strong V-6 engine and balanced ride and handling.

The Honda Accord might seem far too mainstream to be a sleeper performance car, but it was the last remaining midsize sedan to offer a manual transmission. Offered only on the Accord Sport trim, that option is gone for the 2021 model year. Still, even when equipped with the available turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and 10-speed automatic transmission, this is an entertaining sedan with a light, responsive feel.

Over in the compact car class, anyone wanting a sleeper car would be remiss not to consider the Mazda Mazda3 2.5 Turbo, available as both a sedan and hatchback. This version of the Mazda3 lacks the rawness (and the mandatory manual gearbox) of the old Mazdaspeed3 hatchback, but if you're wanting to keep a low profile, that's a good thing. Instead, this car is just plain quick. It also delivers a near-perfect compromise of ride quality and handling.

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