Performance-oriented cars offer the excitement of sharp handling and crisp acceleration, but not all of these models telegraph their capabilities via splashy sheet metal. Many come with modest packaging that offers no clues regarding their true disposition.
Each is a hare dressed as a tortoise. The main advantage to choosing a vehicle such as this is that it helps you cruise safely beneath the radar. Our men and women in blue can spot a flashy red sports car coming from a mile away, but a more humble-looking thrill machine presents an image that conjures an entirely different set of expectations. With their unassuming exteriors, these performance beasts are often able to slip by unnoticed.
Depreciation makes used cars a smart choice from a financial perspective, and you can save big money by purchasing a previously owned vehicle. With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of five used sleeper models offering surprisingly sporty performance. With these picks, you get compelling driving dynamics, affordable pricing and discreet sheet metal.
Our picks are listed in alphabetical order by make and model.
1. 2014-2016 Ford Fiesta ST
When most people look at the Ford Fiesta, all they see is affordable transportation. However, when dressed in the ST trim level, there’s more to this friendly little hatchback than meets the eye. Launched in model year 2014, the ST builds on the basic Fiesta architecture, adding performance enhancements such as a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels, sharper steering and upgraded brakes. The ST gets its hustle from a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 197 horsepower and a mighty 214 pound-feet of torque. In keeping with this trim’s performance agenda, the only transmission offered is a six-speed manual. When it’s not busy making fevered enthusiast dreams a reality, the ST offers all the perks of a standard Fiesta, such as an attractive cabin and Bluetooth connectivity.
2. 2010-2016 Ford Taurus SHO
Most people associate full-size sedans with retirement communities and Centrum Silver. The Ford Taurus SHO is a full-size sedan, but there’s nothing geriatric about it. The SHO is a performance variant of the Ford Taurus, which was last redesigned for the 2010 model year. The Taurus offers perks such as stable handling and a gigantic trunk providing 20.1 cubic feet of capacity, and the SHO ups the ante with key performance upgrades. All SHO models come with all-wheel drive, a stiffer suspension and sport-tuned steering. Taurus SHO models are motivated by a turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 offering 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, and a six-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles governs the proceedings.
3. 2015-2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT
Midsize SUVs aren’t usually hailed for their blinding speed and razor-sharp performance, but the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT isn’t your typical midsize SUV. This performance variant takes your standard Jeep Grand Cherokee and adds high-performance embellishments such as 20-inch wheels, a specialized all-wheel-drive system, an adaptive suspension, sport-tuned steering, Brembo brakes and a limited-slip rear differential. In 2015, the SRT benefited from an update that left it with a more powerful engine. A 6.4-liter V8 engine lives under its hood, and it spits out a blistering 475 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. Gears are shifted by an eight-speed automatic transmission. The Grand Cherokee SRT is a monster off the line, and it sprints with a quickness that belies its massive dimensions.
4. 2006-2007 Mazdaspeed6
Midsize sedans bring to mind images of PTA meetings and Little League soccer practice. The midsize Mazdaspeed6 looks like any other family sedan, but beneath its suburban sheet metal, this model packs a high-performance plot twist. Produced from 2006 to 2007, the Mazdaspeed6 adds a generous helping of hot sauce to the Mazda6 sedan, peppering it with upgrades such as a tightened suspension, larger wheels and bigger brakes. The Mazdaspeed6 is powered by a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 274 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. All-wheel drive is standard, and the only transmission offered is an enthusiast-friendly six-speed manual. With explosive acceleration and responsive handling, the Mazdaspeed6 is an ideal pick for those who need a car that does double duty as family hauler and weekend thrill machine.
5. 2015-2016 Volkswagen Golf R
The Volkswagen Golf’s pert sheet metal and modestly priced refinement have made it a popular choice for first-time car buyers. The Golf R variant takes this cheerful blueprint and colors it with performance upgrades that transform the Golf from meek starter car to high-octane bruiser. Launched in 2015, the latest Golf R generation adds all-wheel drive, an upgraded suspension and bigger brakes to the Golf formula, and it’s even more performance oriented than the other variant in the family, the GTI. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine gets things moving to the tune of 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, and a six-speed automated manual transmission governs the action.