A sleeper is a car that speaks softly and carries a big stick — in other words, a car that is fast, but doesn’t necessarily look fast.
We’ve expanded the definition a bit to include a few vehicles that deliver significantly better performance than anyone in their right mind would expect. Here are 10 sleepers you can buy for less than $20,000.
Chevrolet Cobalt SS
It’s hard to describe the Chevrolet Cobalt in kind terms, unless you consider “loser” to be a compliment. But there was one bright spot in the Cobalt lineup: The SS coupe. Equipped with a 205-hp supercharged engine — later replaced by a 260 hp turbo mill — the SS was quick and felt exceptionally well sorted out on the track, particularly for a front-wheel-drive car. (Chevrolet also made naturally aspirated versions; we’d pass on those.) These cars are unappreciated and underpriced: You should be able to pick up a nice one for less than $7,000.
Find your Chevy Cobalt SS for sale here.
Maybe it’s wrong to call the Chrysler 300C a sleeper, because it really is a pretty aggressive looking car. Nevertheless, with plenty of six-cylinder 300s on the road, it’s likely that other drivers might not realize just how quick the V8-powered 300C is — and it is plenty quick, with an all-American soundtrack to back it up. This is a good ol’ fashioned muscle sedan, and with plenty on the road, you’ll have no problem finding one no matter what your budget.
Shop for your Chrysler 300C for sale here.
It may look like a (fairly) ordinary compact hatchback, but the Mazdaspeed version of the Mazda3 packs a 263-hp engine, enough to handily out-power the Volkswagen GTI. These cars are remarkably quick, although they do suffer from torque steer — which, if you want to put a brave face on it, adds an element of adventure and unpredictability. Best of all, you can easily pick up one of these speedsters for less than $10,000.
Find your Mazdaspeed3 for sale here.
Dodge Neon SRT4
At first glance, the SRT4 looks like a regular Dodge Neon with a big wing — and there’s no shortage of those on the road. But the truth is that the Neon SRT4 is the complete package, with a 230-horsepower turbocharged four under the hood and a surprisingly competent chassis (developed at a time when Chrysler was giving us mush). What we like best about the SRT4 is the noise it makes: Like the modern-day 500 Abarth, the SRT4 has no muffler, relying on the turbocharger to keep the noise levels (just) legal. Prices are great: You should have no trouble buying one for less than $7,500. Dodge later did an SRT4 version of the Caliber; it’s very quick but neither the suspension nor the exhaust note are as good as the Neon.
Find your Dodge Neon SRT4 for sale here.
Buick Regal Grand National
No one is quite sure how Buick — a brand known in the ’80s for softly sprung land yachts aimed at the geriatric set — came out with a car like the Grand National, which had a 200-hp turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 with multi-port fuel injection and distributorless ignition, which in the ’80s was the automotive equivalent of rocket science. These old Buicks are fast and fun, though not quite as quick as the GNX. Asking prices are often above $20k, but if you shop carefully, you should be able to nab one well within our $20,000 budget.
Search listings for your Buick Grand National here.
Ford Taurus SHO
We were going to choose just one version of the SHO, but we couldn’t decide which we liked best. From the original Yamaha-engined cars to the mid-run V8-powered versions to today’s twin-turbocharged terror, all of the SHOs are good, quick fun, and many of them don’t look much different than the ordinary run-of-the-mill family version. You can find the latest-and-greatest Ford Taurus SHO for less than $20k, while older models can be had for as little as $2,000.
Find your Ford Taurus SHO here.
Subaru Legacy GT
People generally buy Subarus when they need to go in the snow, but few are aware that Subaru built a sporty version of its mid-size Legacy sedan called the GT. The fourth-generation cars (2003-2009) used a turbocharged version of Subaru’s 2.5-liter flat four tuned for a healthy 265 hp. All-wheel drive gives the Legacy great grip in the dry as well as the wet, and a properly driven GT will give many German sport sedans a run for their money in the curves. Best yet, you can get this car as a sedan or a wagon. You can put one of these hot rods in your driveway for less than $8,000. If you really want the best of the best, look for the limited-run Spec B, which costs more, but handles even better.
Get the Subaru Legacy GT you’ve been wanting here.
One could argue that Volvo introduced the world to the stationwagon sports car, and by the mid-90s, it had the formula down pat. The 850R’s turbocharged five-cylinder engine delivered 240 horsepower with a wail that sounded like it came from somewhere other than this planet. In 2003, the car got a new name (V70R), an additional 56 horsepower, and all-wheel drive, making it the fastest way to help your friends move. These express estates are rare, but when they do change hands, they usually do so at reasonable prices.
Find your Volvo V70R here.
GMC Syclone and Typhoon
Perhaps we’re pushing the definition of “sleeper” a bit, because all it takes is one glance to see that this isn’t your average Sonoma pickup — but few people realize just how quick these trucks are. By adding a turbo, an intercooler, and a bit of throttle body to its chunky 4.3-liter V6 truck engine, GMC raised the output to 280 hp — enough to hustle these trucks to 60 mph in less than five and a half seconds. Now, finding one for under $20k can take some doing; we’ve seen asking prices north of $25,000, but if you shop carefully and are willing to put in a little TLC, you can find one of these muscle trucks well within your budget.
Find your GMC Syclone right here.
Chevrolet 454 pickup
Back in the heydey of Chevrolet muscle cars, the 454-cubic-inch big block V8 was the king of the hill. The muscle cars are gone, but the 454 (commonly known by its metric displacement of 7.4 liters) lives on — and considering that pickup trucks don’t weigh a whole lot more than some of those Detroit land barges of the 1960s, there’s no reason you can’t build a 454-powered Chevy pickup into a serious muscle truck. Take it easy on paint and trim and the world at large will think your tire-smoking bow tie is nothing but a tired old work truck — and that makes it the ultimate sleeper. With millions built, you’ll find prices all over the place, with a plethora of nice trucks priced between $1,000 and $10,000.
Shop for your Chevy 454 pickup here.
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