You’ve decided to buy a performance car but you don’t want to look like you just drove off the set of The Fast and the Furious. Fair enough. Not everybody wants that kind of attention. But what can you buy for under $10K that drives like a sports car but looks like a family hauler? Here are ten performance cars that disguise their true performance potential with generic styling, for a bargain price.
Perhaps the quickest station wagon in the first decade of the 21st century, the Dodge Magnum SRT8 is equipped with a monster 425 hp 6.1-litre Hemi V8 engine that pumps out a tire-smoking 420 lb-ft of torque. Though it weighs a hefty 1,932 kg (4,260 lb), the Magnum SRT8 is capable of 0–100 km/h in just over five seconds. Even with its standard 20-inch performance tires mounted on five-spoke forged alloys and four-wheel disc brakes with red brake calipers, the Magnum SRT8 doesn’t look particularly threatening. Chances are few people will guess the awesome power lurking beneath the Magnum SRT8’s wagon body style.
The Mazdaspeed6 is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sold in 2006 and 2007 and based on the mid-size Mazda6 sedan, the Mazdaspeed6 is powered by a turbocharged 274 hp 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. In addition, it features all-wheel drive, a sport-tuned suspension, larger brakes, and 18-inch wheels and performance tires. Zero to 100 km/h streaks by in just 5.5 seconds, and braking performance is phenomenal, according to AJAC tests. Styling differences with the Mazda6 GT are modest: It has a slightly higher hood, blacked out grille, side sills, trunk lip spoiler and fatter tires. For the average onlooker, it looks just like another Mazda6.
The performance-tuned Nissan Altima SE-R sedan looks similar to the Altima 3.5SE model, but the SE-R’s 3.5-litre V6 offers 260 hp instead of 250 hp and it has a standard six-speed manual transmission or optional five-speed automatic with manual shift mode, instead of a standard five-speed manual/five-speed automatic. Externally, the SE-R has slightly different front and rear fasciae with small fog lights, rear trunk lip spoiler, and larger 18-inch summer performance tires and unique alloy wheels, but it’s all very understated. Performance is awesome according to our 2005 test drive report: “When it comes to the twisties… the SE-R will bid adieu to its siblings and most other front-drive sedans of any size and price range, and do so with considerable alacrity.”
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“Reliable”, “practical”, and “economical” are terms you might use to describe the Toyota Corolla, but “exciting” is not; unless you’re talking about the Corolla XRS, sold in 2005 and 2006. While the standard 2005/06 Corolla sedan had a 130 hp 1.8-litre four-cylinder motor, the XRS came with the Celica GT-S’s high-revving 170 hp 1.8-litre twin-cam 1.8-litre VVTi four-cylinder engine mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission. The XRS also featured a sport-tuned suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and 16-inch tires. Externally, the XRS didn’t look much different from any other Corolla of its day, but for driving fun, it was a whole different experience.
You could be forgiven for asking, “What is a Vibe GT?”, or even, “What is a Pontiac?” Top marks if you remembered that the Pontiac Vibe GT is actually a re-styled, re-badged version of the Toyota Matrix XRS hatchback. Like the Toyota Corolla XRS sedan mentioned previously, the Vibe GT features Toyota’s high-revving 170 horsepower 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine (borrowed from the Celica GT-S) mated to a standard close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission. The Vibe GT also gets 16-inch tires and alloy wheels, four disc brakes with ABS and stability control. Equipped to maximize performance, the Vibe GT is a lot more fun to drive than its tall, hatchback bodystyle might indicate.
The darling of rental car fleets, the mid-2000s Chevrolet Impala was the very definition of the generic American sedan that nobody noticed. In 2006, base Impalas were available with two V6 engines with 211 and 240 horsepower respectively, but the Impala SS came with a new 303 hp 5.3-litre V8 engine which featured the ability to run on four cylinders under light load to improve fuel economy. A four-speed automatic transmission was standard – no manual was offered – but the suspension was stiffer for improved handling and it came with larger 18-inch tires. Apart from its distinct SS badging, a slightly different front bumper, and larger tires, the Impala SS looked like every other Impala on the road. But with an extra 63 horsepower and better driving dynamics, the Impala SS performed much better than its appearance implied.
Acura’s mildly-restyled version of Honda Civic sedan, the CSX, came with a standard 155 hp engine but the CSX Type S shared the Civic Si’s high-revving 197 hp 2.0-litre twin-cam i-VTEC four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission – an automatic was not available in the Type S. In our 2007 test drive of the Type S, we reported, “As you approach the 7,800 redline, it lets out a howling shriek similar to high-revving race engines.” And, “The six-speed manual shifter has short, precise shifts… and it corners very flat with impressive grip.” But you wouldn’t guess this from the Type S’ appearance. The styling of the CSX Type S was very similar to the regular CSX or even the regular Civic sedan.
Remember the Chevrolet Cobalt? No? In 2005, it was the successor to the compact Cavalier which at one time was the best-selling car in Canada. Base Cobalt models were designed for fuel economy, but the Cobalt SS Coupe offered a 205 hp supercharged 2.0-litre engine. Then in 2006, GM added the 171 hp SS Coupe and SS Sedan models with a non-supercharged 2.4-litre engine, 17-inch performance tires, four-wheel disc brakes, and a performance-tuned suspension. The SS Coupes stood out with their bold colours and sporty styling but the SS Sedans were virtually indistinguishable from the bread-and-butter Cobalt sedans. A performance sedan that nobody remembers or cares about, the Cobalt SS Sedan is your ticket to anonymous driving fun.
The only luxury sedan on our list of sleepers under $10K, a used Infiniti G35 sedan offers performance on a level with the BMW 3 Series for a bargain price. Available with rear wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the G35 sedan has a powerful and smooth-revving 306 hp 3.5-litre V6 engine with a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. In particular, the G35 Sedan Sport model features a manual six-speed transmission, 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, larger brakes, limited-slip rear differential, and in some models, four-wheel steering. The G35 sedan’s styling is handsome, though not particularly sporty. Its powerful V6 engine, balanced handling, and unpretentious styling make it the perfect sleeper with an upscale pedigree.
A product of Toyota’s now-defunct Scion youth brand, the Scion tC is perhaps the most under-appreciated performance coupe/hatchback on the market. Though not particularly sporty-looking (its tall, chunky styling was “helmet-inspired”, according to Scion) the tC is equipped with a 180 hp 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode, plus standard low-profile 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, fully independent suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes. The rarely seen Scion tC is virtually unknown to the general public yet offers invigorating performance and Toyota reliability. And thanks to merciless depreciation, tCs less than 10 years old can be had for under $10K.