The 12 Most Unlikely Performance Cars
Some of the most fascinating vehicles ever put into production are performance variants of basic sedans and compact cars. Cars with no performance aspirations whatsoever, like the Mercury Grand Marquis and Volkswagen Beetle, sometimes spawn misfits equipped with turbochargers, large engines, adjustable suspensions, and big brake kits–odd things to find on cars more accustomed to playing the role of cheap transportation or family sedan. From Oldsmobile to Saab, they’re all here. Take a look at the weird and wonderful performance models time forgot about below. If we missed something, sound off in the comments below.
Ford SVT Contour
When the Ford Contour debuted in 1994, it was a European-designed compact sedan which offered little more than basic transportation for the masses. That is, at least up until 1999. In 1999, Ford looked to inject performance and excitement into their lineup, aside from the already stimulating Mustang. Ford’s Special Vehicles Team (SVT) worked their magic on the Contour, transforming it from a bread and butter sedan into America’s (claimed) M3 competitor. To facilitate this paradigm shift, the Contour received a high-flow intake manifold, polished and ported heads, specially ground camshafts, hot pistons, a lighter flywheel, and a trick high-flow dual exhaust system. These modifications pushed the 2.5-liter Duratec V-6 from 170 hp to 195 hp, with torque remaining a respectable 165 lb-ft. Ford added a beefier suspension, with thicker anti-roll bars and a stronger set of brakes to handle the added speed.
Oldsmobile Achieva SCX
I know, I know. At this point, An anemic early-90s Oldsmobile compact would seem like the least likely car to spawn a performance variant. However, not only did Oldsmobile create a higher performance Acheiva, but they created one of the best driving compacts of its day. The list of improvements the SCX carries over the base Achieva is extensive, so keep up. The 2.3-liter Oldsmobile Quad 4 engine was the highest horsepower naturally aspirated four cylinder GM produced up to that point, with 190 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque, thanks to special camshafts, valves, exhaust, and ECU programming. To make the SCX competitive in SCCA showroom stock series, the SCX came equipped with electronically adjustable struts and shocks with higher spring rates and more aggressive bushings, a wider rear axle, uprated performance tires, and wider rear anti-roll bars. A hot five-speed Getrag transaxle carried special ratios for second and fifth gear, aimed at improving acceleration and powerband management. Not your Grandma’s Oldsmobile, indeed.
Volkswagen Beetle RSi
The 2001-2003 Volkswagen Beetle RSi is VW’s best attempt at making the connection between the Beetle and its long-lost Porsche 911 cousin. A 221-hp 3.2-liter VR6 engine from the Golf R32 was under the hood, mated to a slick six-speed manual transmission. All-wheel drive made sure it put all this power to the ground, along with a highly modified rear suspension. A rear brace stretched across the rear seats and an aggressive wide-body kit let onlookers know this was no ordinary Beetle. The interior featured heavy use of carbon fiber, billet aluminum, and orange leather, with racing seats from Recaro. Production was limited to 250 units.
The Jaguar XJ8 sedan conjures to mind a gentle and coddled drive through the countryside, a leisurely and relaxed vehicle that ensures you get to where you are going on time, and no faster. The first-generation XJR was quite the departure from this milquetoast attitude, with a supercharged 4.2-liter V-8 under the elegant hood producing a prodigious 390 hp and 399 lb-ft of torque. 0-60 came in a scant 5.3 seconds, with some magazines dropping the figure as low as 4.8 seconds. Brembo brakes sloughed off the speed, while Jaguar’s air suspension ensured an even ride on twisty roads. The first XJR set the tone for future high-performance Jaguar sedans like the current Jaguar XJR and XFR sport sedans.
Shelby Omni GLH-S
Acura TL Type S
The third generation Acura TL, produced from 2004-2008, was a rare departure from the gussied up Honda sedans from the past. The 2007 model year saw the return of the high-performance Type-S variant. The Type-S’ performance was stellar for a front-wheel drive sports sedan. A 286-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 from the larger Acura RL mated to either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission. 0-60 mph arrived in 5.3 seconds, on its way to its 150-mph limited top speed. All that speed and power was reigned in through a trick limited-slip differential, a Brembo brake kit, a stiffer suspension, and high-performance summer tires. The interior received special touches as well, with carbon fiber and aluminum trim.
Saab 9-3 Viggen
The 2002 Saab 9-3 Viggen was quite the Swede speed machine. The Viggen’s 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder pushed out 230 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, allowing the Viggen to sprint from 0-60 in 6.4 seconds, on to its lofty top speed of 160 mph. To eke out this power, Saab added a high-performance intercooler, a tuned ECU, a modified exhaust, along with a sturdier clutch and pressure plate. Saab also fitted the Viggen with more aggressive springs, dampers, and uprated CV joints and driveshafts. A new rear wing increased aerodynamic downforce by 50 percent, while new bumpers and side skirts reduced the overall drag coefficient by eight percent. Each U.S. Viggen buyer was treated to an extensive performance driving academy to prepare for the capabilities of his or her new torque-steering monster.
2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT
Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
To homologate a car for the Group A Rally class, Mitsubishi produced a high-performance variant of its bread-and-butter Galant sedan. An all-wheel drive system with a series of locking differentials was added to the Galant, along with rear-wheel steering, a wider track, high performance tires, and an uprated 195-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine. All of these go-fast rally bits allowed the Galant VR-4 to crack 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds, and achieve rally-bred handling characteristics.
Ford Focus SVT
The 2002-2004 Ford Focus SVT was one of the few high-performance European Ford compacts we got the privilege to enjoy in the U.S. To bring performance up to snuff, the Focus SVT was outfitted with a high-compression, 170-hp, Cosworth-tuned 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder, mated to a six-speed Getrag transmission shared with the Mini Cooper S. A more aggressive steering rack, bigger brakes, and a more performance-tuned suspension rounded out the SVT package. A high-quality interior appointed with leather made the SVT an approachable and usable daily driver, as well as a capable track car.