Sleeper Cars: Under the Radar and Still Utterly Unrestrained
We’ve discussed the notion of the sleeper car in brief before, and we talked a bit about some of the greatest unsuspecting performance cars of all time like the Mercury Marauder and the Subaru Forester XT which packed a turbo. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, a “sleeper” often refers to a vehicle that appears to be an ordinary commuter car on the outside, but packs an unexpected amount of power under the hood. This keeps a driver better removed from unwanted law enforcement attention, and provides a nasty surprise for anyone trying to show them up on the interstate.
Local Cincinnati photographer, Kai Verspeek, has an interesting sleeper; it’s a 2005 Subaru Impreza WRX STI, which from the factory pushes a respectable 300 horsepower to all four wheels. But while an STI may not be your average family sedan, it doesn’t really scream “sports car” either. Subarus are often labeled as capable or laughable by the average Corvette owner, but when they realize they can’t keep up with Kai’s STI they are quick to curse or praise him when they get to the next red light.
When asked why he went with this particular chassis, Kai laughed and mentioned something about needing a sedan that “didn’t suck” to haul ass around town in. But once the “tuner bug” bit him everything changed, starting with the car’s suspension and interior. Kai told the Cheat Sheet how he now has upgraded everything from the electronics to the powertrain, all while keeping the exterior as close to stock as possible. “I built the car to be a good street car, one that I could have some fun with on the street and some occasional track use,” Kai says “It has performed in that role very well and surprised a few cars on the highway as well.”
This Japanese sedan now puts down 512 horsepower to all four wheels, which is an insane amount of power, even by muscle car standards. Getting there wasn’t easy either, but after many hours of tuning with Subaru specialists Turn in Concepts, Kai now has a family car that will give any Mustang owner a run for their money. More importantly, the car also handles extremely well, as its symmetrical AWD system can out-handle most sports cars in tight turns.
Sleepers have been a popular trend for quite some time, most of us just never really noticed them because… well, they’re sleepers. Often referred to as “stealth cars or Q-ships,” these kinds of vehicles first began to gather steam in 1955, when Chrysler rolled-out its C-300, which put down a stunning 300 horsepower. This was unheard of at the time, when big luxurious cars were purely designed for comfort, and as time went on this idea of having an unassuming “rocket” began to catch on with consumers.
By the mid-1960s the “sleeper craze” was in full effect, and as the muscle car era began to blossom gearheads were swapping performance engines into everything from station wagons to panel trucks. By 1971, when the cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop hit theaters the sleeper phenomenon was in full swing, and this classic Route 66 piece of drag racing existentialism helped solidify the trend as it inspired a whole new generation of auto enthusiast to build reserved-looking road-rippers. And while this film may not have been a blockbuster, it certainly had a profound impact, and in 2012 the L.A. Times reported that the National Film Registry was inducting the film into the library of Congress as it was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Nowadays we have monsters like Kai’s car, with its upgraded sport suspension and potent Garrett turbocharger and fuel system running on E85 ethanol. With its reinforced transmission, taller gears, and beefier clutch, the sharp-shifting sedan snaps and snarls under full throttle. But no one notices this unless he blows past you on the interstate, and since Kai’s car sports stock 2010 Subaru STI wheels and has a conservative ride height people usually think it is just another factory STI.
People don’t know it, but sleepers are also a great way to save money. Performance cars are rarely cheap, and external modifications are expensive and attract all sorts of unwanted attention. Speeding tickets are expensive too, so looking slow(er) is a bonus, and a seemingly stock sedan is not nearly as coveted by thieves as one that looks like it would play host to some expensive aftermarket parts. But only time will tell if this trend continues to grow in popularity or finally fizzle out. But until then we will keep appreciating cars like Kai’s for their uniqueness and for the joy they bring to his daily commute.
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