Nine times out of ten it’s pretty easy to tell a car is fast just by looking at the design. Low-slung sporty bodies, extensive body kits and aerodynamic elements such as vents and diffusers are telltale signs that a car is super fast. However, not all performance cars look fast. There is a special class of performance cars, known as sleeper cars, that do not meet the standard. Sleeper cars have plain, humble designs, but once you put your foot on the gas, they’re fast enough to compete with the fastest sports cars.
The coolest thing about sleeper cars is that they tend to be a lot cheaper than what their performance stats would lead you to believe. That said, let’s take a look at ten great American sleeper cars that you can still buy today for less than $20,000.
10/10 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning – $20,000
Pickup trucks are meant to help people move and tow things more easily – not to race against other drivers on the highway. But that all changed in the late 20th century when American automakers began introducing performance pickup trucks like this masterpiece – the Ford F-150 SVT Lightning.
Built by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, this amazing truck was so popular that it has been driving for two generations. The second-generation SVT Lightning featured a 5.4-liter supercharged V8 that produced up to 380 horsepower, making it one of the the coolest pickup trucks ever.
9/10 2003-2004 Mercury Marauder – $16,000
Mercury went through a rough time in the early 2000s as it struggled to make sales. As such, Mercury decided to revive the Marauder in 2003 after a 33-year hiatus. The 2003 Marauder was essentially a high-performance version of the Grand Marquis, designed to compete with the Chevy Impala SS.
The 2003 Marauder had a monochromatic appearance that gave it a menacing appearance and several performance upgrades over the standard Grand Marquis, including a 4.6-liter modular DOHC V8 engine rated at over 300 horsepower. Other upgrades included a stiffer suspension system, a high-speed torque converter, and a free-flowing exhaust.
8/10 Chevrolet Cobalt SS – $15,000
When Chevy introduced the Cobalt sedan to replace the Cavalier in the early 2000s, there was nothing interesting about it. That all changed in 2005 when Chevrolet introduced the Cobalt SS.
Although the Cobalt SS had the legendary ‘SS’ decal, it looked exactly like the base Cobalt and had the same basic interior. Luckily, it made up for it in the power department, as it had a turbocharged four-cylinder developing 260 horsepower.
7/10 Ford Taurus SHO – $15,000
Like many American automakers, Ford had a terrible time in the 1970s and 1980s because it couldn’t sell performance cars. Ford needed a new affordable sedan to generate sales, and so the Taurus was born in 1986. The Taurus worked like a charm as it generated millions of sales for Ford, but because it was slow, Ford decided to build a high-performance one. version in production for a few years – the Taurus SHO.
The Taurus SHO kept the bland design of the base model, but had a much better 3.0-liter Yamaha V6 engine with 220 horsepower, making it super fast. The Taurus SHO has enjoyed production on and off until its discontinuation in 2019, which is why there are plenty of affordable options.
6/10 Dodge Neon SRT-4 – $13,000
There was nothing particularly interesting about the Dodge Neon sedan when it debuted in the ’90s. It was just another boring four-door sedan that you mainly saw on the daily commute. Satisfying, Chrysler .’s SRT Division took possession of the Neon in the early 2000s and worked its magic on it, resulting in the Neon SRT-4.
The Neon SRT-4 was equipped with a 2.4-liter inline-four engine that produced about 250 horsepower, making it fast. A new five-speed manual transmission also made it a joy to drive.
5/10 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 – $19,000
When Dodge revived the Charger in the mid-2000s, many people were unhappy that their beloved muscle car had been turned into a large four-door sedan. Fortunately, Dodge did not disappoint in the power department, especially in the SRT8 trim.
Early seventh-generation Charger SRT8s are making great buys these days because they’re cheap, solidly built, and have 6.4-liter Hemi V8s that deliver 470 horsepower.
4/10 2016 Ford Flex Ecoboost – $18,000
The Flex is one of the most confusing models in Ford’s lineup. The Flex looks like a mash-up of a crossover SUV, wagon and minivan – all kinds of vehicles you wouldn’t expect to be fast.
However, when fitted with the Twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine option, the Flex is an absolute beast as it sends 365 horsepower to all wheels. You don’t want to race the Flex Ecoboost.
3/10 Ford SVT Contour – $15,000
Ford’s SVT division had a great time in the 1990s. After the huge success of the Mustang SVT Cobra and F-150 SVT Lightning, the division went back to the drawing board and decided to work on another car in 1997 – the Contour.
This gave birth to the SVT Contour, which had similar styling cues to the base Contour but was a completely different machine underneath. The SVT Contour had a 2.5-liter V6 engine with an output of 200 hp, exclusively mated to a five-speed manual transmission. It also had a reworked suspension, upgraded brakes and larger wheels.
2/10 2005 Cadillac CTS-V – $20,000
A few years after the CTS went into production, Cadillac noticed that many buyers complained that it was too slow compared to the best compact luxury sedans of the time, so it built the crazy CTS-V. The CTS-V was like a regular CTS on steroids.
To find a suitable engine for the CTS-V, Cadillac raided Chevrolet’s engine shop and took one of the most powerful engines they could find: the Corvette C5 Z06‘s 400-horsepower LS6 V8 engine, taking it from 0 to 60 in just 4.6 seconds. You can still find early CTS-Vs for under $20,000but not for much longer.
1/10 Chevrolet Impala SS (7th Generation) – $19,500
When ‘Impala SS’ is mentioned, most gearheads immediately think of the Impala SS from the 60s to 70s, one of the most popular muscle car models ever marketed. Those who first saw the seventh-generation Impala SS were confused, as it was a four-door sedan that looked nothing but a muscle car.
Fortunately, the seventh-generation Impala SS was all muscle under the hood. Equipped with a 5.7-liter V8 that spawned 260 ponies, the Impala SS was no slouch.