Q cars, or sleepers, are the card sharps of the road. Unassuming from the outside they pack a surprising amount of wallop under the bonnet and are capable of leaving drivers of more showy machines wondering what just happened.
Here, in a no way comprehensive list, are six of our favourites
Mercedes E55 AMG
Plenty of these have suffered horribly at the hands of modifiers but in standard guise the AMG-tuned third-generation E-Class is a really eye-opener.
The E55 got unique alloys and a slightly bigger bodykit but otherwise looked like any other early 2000s E-Class. Debadged, it could almost be mistaken for a standard E220 – until the driver put their foot down and unleashed the might of its supercharged 5.4-litre V8. The handbuilt unit put out 469bhp, enough to rocket this fairly bland saloon/estate to 62mph in less than five seconds.
Nowadays when even Renault Scenics are running on 20-inch wheels the E55 looks even more understated, especially in wagon form. And what’s more, you can pick one up with a full service history for less that eight grand.
Skoda Fabia vRS
Not quite so barn-burningly quick as the Merc, but still one to catch out the unwary. The second-generation Fabia was dull as dishwater to look at, especially in estate trim. The vRS got some big wheels and a couple of badges but otherwise looked like its tall, ungainly lower-spec siblings.
Spicing up those dull looks, however, was the turbocharged and supercharged 178bhp 1.4-litre petrol from the Polo GTI. That meant the ugly duckling went from standstill to 62mph in a very respectable 7.3 seconds.
Sadly, Skoda say there isn’t enough demand for quick small hatches so they killed off the vRS for the latest generation of Fabia, arguing people are more interested in a car that looks quick than that goes quickly.
3.6 litres, six cylinders, two turbos, 377bhp and 419lb/ft. In an early 1990s Vauxhall saloon. A really boring-looking Vauxhall saloon. It’s just not normal. Admittedly, the Lotus Carlton has a deep front airdam, a spoiler and fat twin tailpipes but even these barely hint at its 5.1-second 60mph run and 177mph capabilities.
The car caused an absolute sensation on its release in 1990, becoming the fastest four-door on the market, leaving everything, including a good few supercars, for dead. Beloved by motoring journalists and joyriders, the Carlton was, sadly, shortlived. Its £48,000 price proved too steep despite its immense performance. Only 320 bearing the Vauxhall badge were sold, with another 630 Omega versions produced for Europe.
Mazda 6 MPS
Another prime example of snooze-inducing design harbouring some serious engineering chops. The Mazda 6 of the mid-2000s had a face only a mother could love, and didn’t look any better from any other angle.
While most versions backed up the dull looks with dull performance, the MPS edition dropped in a turbocharged 2.3-litre engine good for 256bhp and 280lb/ft. It also featured a stiffened body and four-wheel drive to offer some driving ability to go with that power.
Reviewers at the time rated the in-your-face Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Subaru Impreza WRX STI as better drivers but for sheer wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing laughs the Mazda wins out. You can have one now for less than £3,500.
Volkswagen Passat R36
Everyone knows the Golf R32. It was the four-wheel-drive, V6-engined star in an otherwise insipid Mk4 line-up. Not so well-known is its big brother, the Passat R36.
Like the best sleepers, this looks much like a bog-standard Passat. The dull, dull, dull looks possibly explaining why sales never took off. But the car certainly did take off. At launch it was the fastest VW on the market thanks to a 3.6-litre V6 that propelled it to 62mph in just 5.6 seconds. Its bored-out and tuned version of the Golf R32’s engine put out 295bhp and 258lb/ft which met the tarmac through an early six-speed DSG gearbox and four-wheel drive. Handling wasn’t regarded as the R36’s strong suit but for noising up Corsa drivers at traffic lights not much matches it.
Volkswagen Type 1
At first glance this looks like another pimped-up VW splitscreen bus but underneath is a whole heap of serious engineering that makes this perhaps the ultimate sleeper. The body may still be a (modified) 1962 T1 but it’s been dumped on a widened, lengthened T3 chassis. More importantly, beneath it lies a 3.6-litre twin-turbo engine from a Porsche 911 Turbo putting out more than 500bhp. That’s plenty to overcome even the VW’s brick-like aerodynamic properties. And enough to give Porsche and Aston Martin drivers a fright, as this, now legendary, video proves.