14 July 2014

Faster Than They Look: Top 10 Factory Sleepers

Hidden in the hustle and bustle of ordinary daily drivers lies the sleeper car, well-concealed in ordinary car camouflage but with enough power to take you by surprise.  Only someone “in the know” about a particular model will be aware of just what it can do because the vehicle’s appearance says otherwise. Here we call out our favorite 10 sleepers:

1986 Shelby GLH-S: Modeled after the Dodge Omni GLH (aka, "Goes Like Hell"), this boxy little  number looks anything but fast at first glance. It holds a top speed of 130 mph, producing a total of 175 horsepower. Weighted at approximately 2,200 lb., the car’s performance is unquestionably impressive, achieving speeds from 0 to 60 in just 6.5 seconds.

1989 Ford Taurus SHO: The SHO looks like a standard, rather bland four-door sedan on the outside, but it has a Yamaha V-6 offering 220 horsepower. The telltale signs that hint at its speed include the 8,000 rpm tachometer, sport seats and manual transmission. The Taurus SHO ("Super High Output") has the ability to go from 0-60 mph in 6.6 seconds, with a top speed of 143 mph— not too shabby for a Taurus.

1995-99 Buick Rivera: Buick has produced several sleeper-like vehicles over the years, such as the 1994 Roadmaster and the not-so-sleeper GNX, but we had to narrow our choices. The Rivera‘s discreet looks successfully hide its impressive power, which is provided by a supercharged V-6 that dishes out 225 horsepower and 275 ft.-lb. torque. It was possibly intended for hip granddads with a need for speed, or the car enthusiast who doesn’t want to attract unwanted attention.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Wagon: This is where the family wagon meets performance. The supercharged intercooled 24-valve V-8 fuels up to 469 horsepower and 516 ft.-lbs. torque. The mind-blowing results on the track, accelerating from 0 to 60 in 4.1 seconds, make this a wagon that daddy won’t be embarrassed to drive — perhaps he will even be enticed to race a Ferrari.

1994 Chevrolet Caprice:  The LT1 350 engine was standard in the wagons and tow-package sedans, and optional in the rest of the sedans as well as the police-package. With this engine, the Caprice maintained a surprising amount of power and was one of the fastest police cars of its time. It utilized a detuned version of the Corvette’s LT1, but still produced up to 260 horsepower and 330 ft.-lb. of torque.

2002-05 Subaru Forester 2.5 XT Limited: Beat by a soccer mom? Don’t feel too bad; the Forester 2.5 XT’s turbocharged boxter motor pumps out 230 brake horsepower and 235 ft.-lb. of torque from the factory. As a nod to car enthusiasts, it comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission and has the ability to run from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, making this five-passenger, five-door wagon the ultimate sleeper. 

1989 MG Maestro Turbo: This is perhaps a lesser-known car with only 500 produced, but it’s very sleeper-like nonetheless, minus the standard rather large “TURBO” graphics along the side, which could be removed if you prefer. The Maestro turbo has an inline-four engine generating 150 brake horsepower, giving the car the ability to run from 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds.

1993 Cadillac Allanté: For this particular year, the model’s last, the Allanté received the 4.6-liter Northstar DOHC V-8 engine. With performance in mind, Cadillac upped the original engine’s horsepower from 290 to 295 before it hit production lines. With a torque output of 290 ft.-lb. at 4400 rpm, teamed with a road-hugging suspension, this car packs a wallop that onlookers wouldn’t expect.

1960-61 Ford Galaxie Starliner: To the uneducated, the Galaxie Starliner doesn’t look like a typical sports car, even by 1960s standards—it lacked the curves common to that era, instead going for a futuristic, sleek look. In fact, this two-door hardtop was Ford’s choice for NASCAR racing, and understandably so. The OHV V-8 352 cid packed a punch of 360 brake horsepower, and the 1961’s enlarged 390 big-block offered up to 401 brake horsepower. Why is this second-to-last on our list? At first sight, an educated classic car enthusiast will more than likely know what this car can do.

1989-1990 Dodge Caravan Turbo: Ok, so perhaps this caravan isn’t exactly fast compared to most factory sleeper cars, offering 150 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.5-liter Turbo II, with the option of a four- or five-speed manual transmission. But with some easy modifications it does have the potential to burn rubber— just imagine the dejection of someone who has to surrender to a wood-paneled, seven-passenger loser cruiser.

29 Reader Comments

  • 1
    jake MI July 16, 2014 at 15:16
    i like the XT!!
  • 2
    Paul Eberle Dayton, OH July 16, 2014 at 15:24
    How about 2007 to 2011 GMC Canyons' Sport pkg.? 5.3 litre V8 w/lowered factory suspension and a very small V8 on the fender as the only clues.
  • 3
    Jim Hacienda Heights July 16, 2014 at 16:13
    Uhhh . . . ya goofed. The 1960-61 Ford you want to discuss is the STARliner. (2 door HT fastback) the SUNliner is the convertible. . . . Also the HiPo 352 (390 in 1961) is NOT the regular production 352/390 and is so rare that few people have ever even seen one. Certainly not something that an average person could find or buy.
  • 4
    Mike E V San Diego July 16, 2014 at 16:45
    I remember the Starliner of 1960. It was a big hit in No. Cal growing up. Why do I remember a 390, tri-power-4 speed motor? Taurus offered a 5 speed in the lowly 4 cylinder version of the car. In actuality that engine/trans combo was quite a good driver.
  • 5
    Rollie DeMay Newark, ny 14513 July 16, 2014 at 16:57
    My uncle bought a '60 Sunliner new in the day. It was black with a white top, with the 360 hp option. What a car! He fishtailed into a power pole one nite, and totaled it. I was 13 and about cried. Today I still take a good look at any '60 I see.
  • 6
    BARRY Arizona July 16, 2014 at 17:17
    A fun discussion topic. I have fond memories of the SHO, bought 3 new ones off the lot, including the first-year 1989 ending with the last handsome one in 1995. Extremely fast sedan for the time. The first year model came with a clutch that wouldn't hold up too well, and was recalled an upgraded by the dealer. A very sturdy car as long as you didn't mind buying tires and clutches. A small clarification or comment... There was a time when the Taurus was offered as a manual transmission before the SHO, called an MT5. It was a 4 cylinder with a 5 speed stick. It seemed to draw some interest, but not enough to keep selling them.
  • 7
    Barry PA July 16, 2014 at 18:43
    Photo of the '86 Shelby GLHS is actually an '87. The '86 was a modified Dodge Omni whereas the '87a Dodge Charger.
  • 8
    Oddimotive Cason United States July 16, 2014 at 19:06
    I would have gone with the higher horsepower, four-door, supercharged Buick, but I do like your list! http://www.oddimotive.com/2014/05/late-model-buick-sleeper.html
  • 9
    Paul Sergeant Central MO July 16, 2014 at 19:34
    What about the 1980-1981(?) Dodge colt tubo? It had a decal on the back window that said "Don't step on the gas unless you really mean it". It was a blast to drive
  • 10
    Dave United States July 16, 2014 at 19:45
    The other Taurus that had a manual transmission was call MT5 and was fitted with a four cylinder engine.
  • 11
    craig nicol United States July 16, 2014 at 19:47
    Good choices but wouldn't the 406 Starliner outshine (sorry) the 352? Also, there's the Mercedes 68-72 300SEL 6.3 (Twin OHC V8 from 600 limo put into a standard light sedan) Rocket ship!
  • 12
    ira weiner hudson valley ny July 16, 2014 at 21:24
    I had a 94 Caprice LT1 car would do 145 had 4 wheel discs massive sway bars and got 24 mpg at 85 on the inter states. Minor mods got her over 330 hp put over 170,000 on it. Really miss that car! Know where I can find one?
  • 13
    craig Coeur d'Alene, Idaho July 16, 2014 at 22:07
    And then there's the 68-72 Mercedes 300SEL 6.3. (motor from 8000lb limo put into light sedan) As I recall, it was the world's fastest sedan (155 mph?) for more than a few years. Great fun to drive!
  • 14
    mad ky July 16, 2014 at 22:34
    As usual you missed the "BEST" 1984-85 Ford LTD LX & even more rare Mercury Marquis LTS. 3220 produced, 215 hp 5.0 at 3200 lbs. Never found out what top speed was cause NO ONE could keep up with it. Not a GN nor a Vette, much quicker than an SHO. and much more rare.
  • 15
    bobm NC July 16, 2014 at 23:25
    I agree 100% with Jim about the Starliner & the rarity of the 360hp engine. I have never seen one in 50+ yrs. Also, the 94 Caprice did not come standard with the LT1 engine. Only wagons & tow package speced sedans. All other sedans were standard with the 200hp L99.
  • 16
    Charles Lutz United States July 17, 2014 at 13:15
    I owned a 93 Allante and loved the car for the power and the pleasure of top down cruising, the only draw back was when the electronics started to go it was impossible to find someone who could correct the problems.
  • 17
    Johnny Oregon July 17, 2014 at 01:42
    You are showing the sportier 1987 GLHS. The 86 was the four door omni looking car.
  • 18
    Adam Nebraska July 17, 2014 at 02:02
    Two other goofs: The GLHS pictured is the 1987 model. Mechanically identical to the four-door 1986 (Omni), but wrapped in the sportier two-door Shelby Charger body. Also, the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager Turbos were not available with the 4-speed manual. Only the 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic. And technically, the engine was classified as the Turbo I; Turbo II was the 2.2 intercooled version only available in the Daytona Shelby, Lancer Shelby, and LeBaron GTC in 1989.
  • 19
    Mike E V San Diego July 17, 2014 at 15:06
    I absolutely loved the 60 Starliner and have come close on a few occasions to purchasing rather beat up versions. At a car show where I was the DJ recently aman came in with a 60 Starliner he claimed he had over 200K invested. It certainly appeared he could have spent that much on it. The interesting part was a story he told regarding the DOT and Ford when that car was built. The DOT told Ford it was too wide for the then 8' wide lanes of our highways and would not let Ford build the car. This was a disaster for Ford after the Edsel debacle and they agreed to build the car for one year and then reduce the width for 1961. Keep in mind mercury and Edsel were built on the same platform that year. We all assumed the man knew his Fords and the story to be authentic.
  • 20
    Al DiNottia Rochester,N.Y. July 17, 2014 at 17:40
    I had a 1995 Buick Roadmaster with the LT1 motor in it.I do not know how many roadmasters Buicks made that year,but it was the best GM car I ever had.
  • 21
    Curt Ohio July 17, 2014 at 07:17
    The SHO wasn't the only Taurus available with a 5 speed. You forgot about the bucket seat, alloy wheel, 5 speed with the 2.5 four cylinder-the MT5. An attractive package but no go. I wanted a five speed Taurus but not with that 2.5. Finally got my wish in a 90 SHO, awesome car-still have it
  • 22
    GLHNSLHT2 Spokane, Wa July 17, 2014 at 20:30
    The Caravan motor was a Turbo 1 not a Turbo 2. The trans options were either a 3spd Auto or a 5spd manual. These are very easy to get into the 14's in the 1/4 with just a bit more work to go 13's or quicker. I'm surprised that the Spirit R/T didn't make the list., somewhat boxy compared to the SHO but faster with a 2.2 16v intercooled turbo.
  • 23
    Ed Crowell Maine July 17, 2014 at 09:35
    The HP starliner was rare, but my younger brother had one in 1964 1965. It could certainly go through tires.
  • 24
    Keith Birmingham, MI July 17, 2014 at 11:30
    I had a 1990 Plymouth Voyager Turbocharged 4 cylinder (same van as the Caravan mentioned above). You had to put your foot in it to get the turbo puffing, but the results were very satisfying. Surprisingly fast for a soccer mom car.
  • 25
    bobm NC July 17, 2014 at 00:24
    I agree 100% with Jim about the Starliner & the rarity of the 360hp engine. I have never seen one in 50+ yrs. Also, the 94 Caprice did not come standard with the LT1 engine. Only wagons & tow package speced sedans. All other sedans were standard with the 200hp L99. (Editor's note: Good eye, Bob! We've corrected the error in the Caprice section.)
  • 26
    Zevon64 Nashville July 18, 2014 at 09:19
    You car guys ought to spell Riviera correctly.
  • 27
    Phil Los Gatos, CA July 21, 2014 at 02:12
    Interesting article but not as good as the "expert" comments from your customers.
  • 28
    Kate Kansas City May 22, 2016 at 01:12
    Lots of great cars here! I'll certainly vouch for the SHO - I had two 93's. (actually I've loved all 6 of my Tauruses) One more for the list - the 1998-2000 Ford Contour SVT - mine is 16 years old and still does over 140 without breaking a sweat.....ahem, at least that's what I've heard about SVTs. :)
  • 29
    bob flucke 49093 September 28, 2016 at 17:03
    How about the 60's Studebaker SEDANS like the "PLAIN BROWN WRAPPER"? That one curled the hair of a lot of factory hot rods!

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