Everyone loves a little burst of acceleration every now and then, but it’s increasingly difficult to get an everyday car that offers puerile thrills without the accompanying childish suite of bulges, vents and splashes of red.
So what car do you buy if you fancy the subtle look but still enjoy humiliating the teenager in his be-winged hatchback in a traffic light Grand Prix?
Try one of these 10 grown-up speed machines for size. Not only are they quick without necessarily looking it, but some of them are – wait for it – diesels. So you can be quick and frugal!
Mini Paceman JCW
It’s almost the last thing in the world that anyone would ever expect to be a performance car, but the John Cooper Works version of Mini’s weird Paceman hatchback/coupe crossover packs something of a punch.
Allying a 215hp version of the Mini’s 1.6-litre turbocharged engine to the ‘ALL4’ four wheel drive system, the Paceman JCW will spring off the line and hit 60mph in a barely believable 6.8 seconds. The ungainly shape may be something of a limitation when it comes to top speed though.
A second offering from the BMW group, this time something more traditional when it comes to undercover performance cars.
While those who are after outright on-paper acceleration will look for something like an M3 or M4, M cars are no longer the subtle iron fist/velvet glove combination they were 20 years ago. Look a little further down the range and you’ll find some astonishing performance in more mundane packaging and the 335d exemplifies this.
It sports a three-litre diesel engine pumping out 309hp and 464lb ft of torque, mated to the xDrive four wheel drive – and this helps it leap to 60mph in under five seconds. That’s faster than any of the first three generations of BMW’s M3, but in a 50mpg diesel. And internet folklore has it that there’s nothing faster on UK roads than a remapped BMW 335d. We’ll leave that one there.
Skoda Octavia vRS
Unless you’re a pretty hardcore Skoda geek, the only external sign to the world that you’re in a performance model is a small red and green badge. Other than that, it’s the epitome of the sleeper – a high output engine wrapped in a plain-Jane bodyshell.
Better still, you can have the vRS powertrain stuffed into the estate body if you like, with the same 217hp output and the same 6.9-second 0-60mph sprint time, but with over 600 litres of storage space. Dogs like acceleration too. If you want to keep an eye on economy then you can get a still-amusing 2.0-litre diesel Octavia vRS.
We give it a year or two before the UK’s traffic police start using these as undercover patrol cars – you’ve been warned!
Skoda Superb V6
One thing the Octavia is missing though is a big V-engine soundtrack. That’s where the Superb comes in, sporting a monster 3.6-litre V6 that drives all four wheels. This is exactly the same setup as the previous generation Volkswagen Passat’s flagship “R36” model, and when VW is happy to slap an “R” badge on it you know it’s quick.
Kicking out 256hp, it’s not the most stressed engine in the world, but it’ll move the big saloon to 60mph even faster than the Octavia vRS will do it, in 6.6 seconds. Like the Octavia you can also have it as an estate model with the same stats but a huge 633 litre boot. It’s not the most frugal car on the list though, showing only 30.4mpg combined.
It won’t cope as well with corners as the Octavia vRS, but you’ll get a slightly plusher interior, Diplomat-friendly levels of rear legroom and a hidden umbrella in one of the rear doors. And you can tell people you own a Superb.
Audi A6 Avant BiTDI
When it comes to high performance but subtle estate cars, it’s hard to beat Audi’s A6 Avant. Stuffing a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre diesel under the nose gives the Audi 316hp and with the quattro four wheel drive system and a tiptronic gearbox marshalling it all, it’s good for a 5.2-second 60mph drag – just a gnat’s unmentionable slower than the previous-generation RS4.
It’s just about outclassed in the boot-space stakes by the Skodas, but 565 litres is still plenty and the diesel engine means 45mpg is possible – at least on paper.
Volvo V60 Polestar
It’s possible to get a subtle estate to go quicker still than the Audi A6 Avant, but you need all of Sweden’s expertise to do so. The V60 Polestar is a piece of purified lunacy, with a 350hp straight six underneath it allowing for a 5.0-second dead 0-60mph time.
Unlike most of the cars on this list though, it’s an exclusive one – limited to just 125 examples – and though there’s no particularly obvious vents or bulges, that ‘Rebel Blue’ paint colour is a little less than covert.
Infiniti Q50 Hybrid
The Q50 Hybrid is a great example of a subtle performance car with a badge that gives you entirely the wrong impression. Everyone knows that hybrids are slow, so with the big, cheery, silver letters on the boot advertising the fact you’re in an eco-friendly car, absolutely no-one will expect what happens when you press the go pedal.
With a 3.5 litre V6 stapled onto the 67hp electric motors, the Q50 Hybrid has twice as much power – that’s twice as much – as any other Q50 in the range (apart from the Eau Rouge version, which may not make production) and will hurl itself to 60mph in just five seconds. Combined with the rarity of the car, this more than anything else here will lead to frequent questions of “What was that?”
Peugeot 308 GT
Hot hatches have got gaudy over the last 10 years, with acidic paint jobs, huge arch extensions (to house huge wheels, themselves housing huge brakes), stickers, wings and occasionally plastic windows and a roll cage. It’s nice to encounter a performance hatchback which doesn’t bother with any of that.
While it ‘only’ packs 202hp, which ‘only’ allows for a seven-second 0-60mph time, the 308 GT is an exercise in subtlety that still manages to be quicker than most other traffic on the roads. If you can wait, there’s a slightly less subtle but significantly more potent 308 GTI coming next year, using the same 266hp engine as the Peugeot RCZ R…
Volkswagen Golf R
Still, when it comes to subtlety, nothing can hold a candle to the Volkswagen Golf. It’s so understated these days as to be actively boring to look at – and while even the Golf GTI has a red stripe to say “look at me”, the Golf R has nothing.
This is good news for people who like the engine to do the talking, as a 296hp turbocharged 2.0-litre engine lurks beneath the bonnet, with 4MOTION four-wheel-drive to prevent that from making a mess of your front tyres. Hitting 60mph in just 5.3 seconds, the Golf R is really alarmingly fast – it may be boring to look at, but you have to get close enough to see it first…
Tesla Model S
The very last thing in the world that anyone would expect to be a performance car is a milk float, even one as curvy as the Tesla. The low hum the Tesla makes will not make anyone shy away and the body hints at nothing sprightly hiding underneath.
That’s a pity, because the Model S packs roughly enough electricity to throw 380hp onto the road and, with electric motors providing peak torque instantly, that’s enough for a 5.4-second 0-60mph time.
If that’s not going to be enough for you, there’s a four wheel drive model coming next year with 221hp of motors driving the front wheels and 470hp doing the rear. Yes, that’s 691hp of electricity and the 3.2s 0-60mph time is enough to shame just about anything.
Fancy wearing your horsepower on your sleeve?
Take a look at the shortlist for the 2014 carwow awards performance car category – you should find something suitably shouty and incredible to drive.