Automakers are insecure entities: On top of wanting to sell cars, they also want to be revered and beloved. And as companies, such as Toyota, know, being the biggest volume seller doesn’t automatically equal respect. No, one of the best ways to build credibility is to do something entirely irrational: Invest in performance.
Simply put, winning races brings buyers to showrooms and lends a legitimacy to a brand no amount of ad placement could ever hope to achieve. Fast cars mean good engineering, a level of discernment on the customer’s part, and, of course, that sexy element of danger. And it can carry across a whole lineup, too. Suddenly, buying a bland crossover isn’t as bad if it’s from the same company that wins big in NASCAR or endurance racing.
That’s why in recent years, automakers around the globe have begun to invest billions in creating batches of small-run performance cars that have high visibility but limited appeal. Taking a look at today’s automotive landscape, we found 10 marques that have committed to selling fast cars in order to spread the gospel of their brand and make American roads a livelier place. Here they are, beginning with the latest and strangest.
When you think performance, Hyundai might not be the first brand you consider. But that might change very quickly.
Since 2011, the Korean brand has had an engineering center at the Nürburgring, the brutal German race track where many of the world’s best sports cars are tested. For 2018, Hyundai will launch the N-Performance sub-brand. We can expect red-hot versions of the Veloster and Elantra GT designed to take on cars, such as the Ford Focus ST, Volkswagen GTI, and Honda Civic Si.
Next: This automaker invented the idea of the in-house tuning company.
In 1972, BMW formed an in-house motorsports division to handle its growing number of racing projects. By the end of the decade, the M Performance division was hot-rodding production cars for eager buyers under its own sub-brand, creating the template that almost every performance-minded automaker has followed since.
Today, the M brand is an invaluable part of BMW’s image, and the automaker offers an M-modified version of virtually every vehicle it sells (as well as inspires a lucrative line of merchandise). Each vehicle that goes through the division is radically transformed for high speed and razor-sharp handling, whether they be a midsize sedan, sports car, or full-size SUV.
Next: BMW’s biggest rival has its own supercar.
Mercedes’ performance division AMG is actually older than BMW’s M Performance by several years. But unlike its rival, Mercedes’ tuning arm began life as an independent company that modified Benzes for private customers. By the 1980s, AMG’s bold and brutally fast cars were attracting international attention. And after years of a semi-official partnership, Mercedes acquired AMG in 1991.
Since then, it’s transformed nearly every car in the Mercedes lineup into a world-class performance machine. In 2010, Mercedes let AMG design a performance car from the ground up. That car was the incredible SLS AMG. Today, it carries on the tradition with the AMG GT.
Next: This brand offers world class driver’s cars for every budget.
Ford joined the specialty performance fray in the 1980s with its Special Vehicle Operations team, which gave the world the turbocharged Mustang SVO. In the 1990s, the American wing became SVT, giving us the Mustang Cobra, F-150 Lightning, and Contour and Focus SVT, while other global Ford branches developed on their own speed programs.
In 2014, Ford brought all of its racing and specialty programs under the Ford Performance umbrella and has since built one of the most formidable go-fast lineups on the planet. From the pint-sized Fiesta ST to the Raptor off-roader and GT supercar, Ford has figured out how to offer world-class performance cars at almost every price point.
Next: After years of ignoring performance, this brand is fully embracing it.
Lexus was founded to pit the quietest, smoothest, and most modern cars in the world against the old-world luxury brands. While that established the brand as a high-end powerhouse, it also gave it a seriously boring reputation.
That all changed in 2006 when it launched the “F” marque. Today, the RC F and GS F are no-compromise, track-ready competitors to the BMW M4 and M5. With a number of mostly cosmetic “F Sport” options for most of its lineup, this move toward performance has done wonders to undo Lexus’ old, sleepy image.
Next: Performance is this American company’s strong suit.
6. Fiat Chrysler
Fiat Chrysler offers Detroit’s smallest (and on average oldest) lineups. But thanks to its SRT division, it’s far from boring. SRT (Street and Racing Technology) began life as Performance Vehicle Operations in the 1990s, when Chrysler was developing models, such as the Viper GTS and Plymouth Prowler.
Today, SRT is under the Dodge umbrella and offers everything, including a 475-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Dodge Hellcat cars, and the 840-horsepower Demon. This unique blend of old-school muscle, modern supercar power, and relative affordability makes SRT one of the most unique in-house performance divisions in the industry.
Next: This brand’s thriving performance division is largely a do-it-yourself affair.
When it comes to performance, Toyota prefers to play it understated and old school. The safe and sensible brand relies on its Toyota Racing Development branch for excitement, which, aside from a few truck packages, mostly resides behind dealer parts counters.
Every few years, Toyota brings a TRD-built concept (such as this 2015 Corolla) to aftermarket events to show fans what its cars are capable of. If you ask us, we’d love to see Toyota build and sell a few of these cars.
Next: This company is just getting into performance with spectacular results.
Volvo has long positioned itself as a luxury brand. But with its focus on safety and reliability, it’s never been able to keep up with the heavyweight performance offerings from brands, such as BMW M and Mercedes-AMG. But that’s changing quickly.
In a 2015 move that mirrored the Mercedes-AMG merger, Volvo acquired independent tuner and long-time collaborator Polestar. The result has been a number of loud-looking, turbocharged and supercharged sedans that prove the Swedes can do speed as well as anybody. Along with its expanding lineup of world-class luxury cars, we can expect to see a lot more of the bright blue Volvos on the road in the years ahead.
Next: You might be surprised that this automaker is investing in speed.
9. Land Rover
When luxury buyers think speed, they usually think of Land Rover’s partner Jaguar instead of the 4×4 builder. But that’s beginning to change. In 2015, the British brand released the Range Rover Sport SVR, a nearly 3-ton, 550-horsepower supercharged beast that can scramble from zero to 60 in about 4.5 seconds. Although the track-ready setup is only available on the Sport for now, the brand has been toying with the idea of expanding SVR lineup for a couple years. We’re all for it.
Next: Germany’s other great in-house threat
We’d be remiss if we brought up AMG and M without Audi Sport. Like its German rivals, Audi Sport is an in-house tuner that turns the already fast all-wheel drive Audi lineup into a group of legitimate performance cars. But unlike its rivals, many of the division’s legendary RS models are tantalizingly kept in Europe. Luckily, American buyers will be getting the RS5 coupe (pictured above), a 450-horsepower, V8-powered sports car that’s as close to a muscle car as Audi has ever made.