Sleepers, Q-cars, call them what you will – subtle performance is always impressive; we pick the 10 best sleepers on the market today
It’s a nice thing to be able to defy other people’s expectations – to impress more than was expected, to emerge as a dark horse with surprising performance, and it is for this reason that sleeper cars are popular among driving enthusiasts.
A sleeper, also sometimes known as a Q car (named after heavily armed merchant Q-ships) is, in essence, a car that looks relatively humdrum and commonplace on the outside, but which delivers a turn of speed that is at odds with its low-key design. We’re not talking about Audi RS, Mercedes-AMG or BMW M models here; instead we’re looking at cars that walk softly, but carry a big stick where performance is concerned.
Ever-tightening emission regulations mean few if any carmakers cram a juicy V6 engine into a standard hatchback these days, instead reserving their more powerful engines for high-end performance sub-brands such as the ones mentioned above.
That’s not to say there aren’t new sleepers out there if you know where to look, though, which is rather fitting given the subtle nature of these cars…
Here’s our pick of the 10 best sleeper cars currently on sale in the UK today.
- Volvo XC40 Recharge Twin
- Skoda Superb Estate 2.0 TSI 280PS
- Peugeot 3008 Hybrid
- BMW 2 Series Active Tourer 223i
- SEAT Leon Estate 2.0 TSI
- Mercedes V-Class 300d
- BMW 545e
- Toyota RAV4 PHEV
- Volkswagen Golf GTE
- Mercedes E-Class Estate 300de
1. Volvo XC40 Recharge Twin
- Twin electric motors, 408hp
- 0-62mph: 4.7 secs
- Top speed: 112mph
Volvo may have established a reputation for building safe, practical cars, and the firm has also made a hugely successful push upmarket in recent years. But Volvo’s engineers also on occasion reveal their fondness for performance, as the 408hp electric XC40 Recharge Twin demonstrates.
Because while it may weigh a little over two tonnes, with 408hp on tap from its twin (one front, one rear) motors, the four-wheel-drive XC40 Recharge Twin is anything but slow. True, as with all current Volvos the top speed is capped at 112mph, but with a 0-62mph time of under five seconds, this practical, modern SUV will surprise many with its off-the-line performance.
2. Skoda Superb Estate 2.0 TSI 280PS
- 2.0-litre petrol, 280hp
- 0-62mph: 5.3 secs
- Top speed: 155mph
Skoda has its own vRS performance sub-brand, which comes complete with a sporty bodykit and tuned suspension, but a true Q car requires more subtlety than this, and the Superb Estate delivers this in spades.
Opt for the 280hp 2.0-litre petrol engine and you’re not getting much less power than the Volkswagen Golf R, with the Superb taking just 5.3 seconds to go from 0-62mph as it makes its way on to a top speed of 155mph. The dual-clutch gearbox and four-wheel drive system help put that power down effectively, while the 660-litre boot makes this one of the most practical cars on the market.
3. Peugeot 3008 Hybrid
- 1.6-litre petrol + two electric motors, 300hp
- 0-62mph: 6.1 secs
- Top speed: 149mph
As mentioned above, car makers may tend not to put large capacity engines in their mainstream cars as a matter of course these days, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes give them plenty of power. The Peugeot 3008 is a good example of this, as the high-output plug-in hybrid motor puts out 300hp thanks to its turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine and a brace of electric motors.
Power is sent to all four wheels, and while the complex engine and motor combination may mean there’s a slight hesitation when you really put your foot down, once the computers and drive units have worked out what to do, the 3008 hustles along with more brio than many would expect form a sensible looking, stylish family SUV.
4. BMW 2 Series Active Tourer 223i
- 2.0-litre petrol, 218hp
- 0-62mph: 7.0 secs
- Top speed: 150mph
Sharing a mechanical platform with the Mini Hatch certainly doesn’t hurt where handling is concerned, while the 2.0-litre, 218hp petrol engine sees 0-62mph come up in seven seconds dead. That’s decent performance by most standards, and the fact you get the same sliding rear seats, tall, practical boot and the spacious cabin that’s offered in lesser Active Tourers makes this a car you can choose with your head as well as your heart.
5. SEAT Leon Estate 2.0 TSI
- 2.0-litre petrol, 190hp
- 0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
- Top speed: 144mph
We could have gone for the sporty Cupra Leon Estate, but while that’s a relatively subtle car, it still has the trappings of a performance model, the most obvious of which is the standalone Cupra name.
No, instead we’re going for the less powerful but far more subtle Seat Leon Estate, but specified with the 2.0-litre 190hp petrol engine. This gives the sensible family wagon a 0-62mph time of under eight seconds and a top speed that’s just shy of 150mph, together with the sharp handling we’ve come to expect from modern SEATs.
6. Mercedes V-Class 300d
- 2.0-litre diesel, 237hp
- 0-62mph: 7.9 seconds
- Top speed: 137mph
This is undoubtedly a rather left-field choice, not least as the market for the V-Class people carrier is rather small outside the business world. But for those families who want the maximum ability to carry people and belongings, the V-Class does so with a level of luxury that’s not common in this class of car.
Of course, the V-Class wouldn’t warrant a place here were it not configurable with a potent engine, and the 237hp 2.0-litre diesel engine the 300d comes with meets that criteria – not least because the idea of hurtling down a German autobahn at 137mph in a luxurious MPV that can seat eight is incongruous, to say the least.
7. BMW 545e
- 3.0-litre petrol + electric motor, 394hp
- 0-62mph: 4.6 secs
- Top speed: 155mph
You may not be able to configure a BMW 5 Series 550i with the 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine any more, but BMW will sell you a 545e. This pairs an electric motor with a 3.0-litre petrol engine for a potent 394hp, together with the ability to plug in for an official EV range of around 35 miles.
Choose the Touring estate if you’d like to add some extra spaciousness and practicality to proceedings, or stick with the saloon for the ultimate in motorway cruising ability.
8. Volkswagen Golf GTD
- 2.0-litre diesel, 200hp
- 0-62mph: 7.1 seconds
- Top speed: 152mph
The Volkswagen Golf is available in so many different guises that choosing a sleeper version is tricky. But the GTI and R models are too overtly sporty to be Q cars, while we’ve had a fair few plug-in hybrid models already in this list – so why not that curious thing that is a performance diesel hatch?
These types of car used to be in strong favour, but while they’re now a relatively rare concept, there’s a lot to be said for the Golf GTD. That 2.0-litre engine may produce a relatively modest 200hp, and the 0-62mph time may not be headline material, but with 400Nm of torque there’s some serious in-gear performance on offer, bolstered by the fact the GTD officially returns 54mpg, and can go almost 600 miles between fill ups.
9. Toyota RAV4 PHEV
- 2.5-litre petrol, + electric motor, 306hp
- 0-62mph: 6.0 secs
- Top speed: 111mph
Few cars are as sensible as the Toyota RAV4, but the easygoing nature of this popular SUV is at odds with the performance on offer if you choose the plug-in hybrid model.
Do so and you’ll get a 2.5-litre petrol engine together with an electric motor, with the latter adding up to 183hp, for a combined output of 306hp. That’s enough to see off the 0-62mph sprint in six seconds dead, which is enough to keep up with a fair few hot hatches, and is definitely enough power to put the ostensibly sensible RAV4 into sleeper territory.
10. Mercedes CLS 400d
- 3.0-litre diesel, 340hp
- 0-62mph: 5.0 secs
- Top speed: 155mph
The Mercedes CLS is by its nature a subtle car: the sleek, low profile and curvy silhouette helps it slink up the road with less ostentation than its relatively high price tag might suggest, and while you can have a potent AMG version, the six-cylinder, 3.0-litre CLS 400d offers more than enough performance for most.
Power may be a solid, rather than exceptional 340hp, but with a frankly ludicrous 700Nm of torque on offer 0-62mph take just five seconds, while in-gear acceleration is nothing short of relentless.
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