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

2000 Ford Contour SVT

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

1992 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.

Mercury Marauder

2003 Mercury Marauder

The 2003 Mercury Marauder has to be the greatest factory sleeper of all time. At first glance, the Marauder appears as nothing more than a blacked-out Mercury Grand Marquis, itself just a rebadged Ford Crown Victoria. Ford went a little crazy with this one, going so far as to shoehorn a 4.6-liter V-8 which churned out 302 hp and 318 lb-ft of torque, thanks to shared performance components with the 2003-2004 Mustang Mach 1. The suspension and brakes were upgraded as well, making the 2003 Mercury Marauder one of the strangest and most interesting performance offerings from Mercury.

Volkswagen Beetle RSi

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.

Jaguar XJR

2007 Jaguar XJR

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

Shelby GLHS Front Three Quarter

Shelby made a name for itself in the 1960s with the Shelby Cobra and modified Ford Mustangs, and captured a whole group of enthusiasts with the signature Shelby appearance and performance. In the 1980s, the performance pickings were much slimmer, with many of the large V-8-powered cars hampered by pesky emissions equipment. In response, Shelby turned to the rather bland Dodge Omni compact hatch, resulting in the creation of the Shelby GLH and the even hotter GLH-S. What does GLH stand for? “Goes Like Hell,” and “Goes Like Hell S’more,” of course. To match the legendary Shelby badge, performance was increased with the addition of extensive engine modifications including heavy-duty fuel rails, injectors, and wiring harnesses, a larger throttle body, a bigger turbocharger, high-flow intake and exhaust manifolds, a bigger intercooler and radiator, and a GLH exclusive ECU. Power was an impressive 175 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque, enough for the lightweight GLH-S to outrun contemporary V-8 Camaros, Mustangs, and Trans-Ams.

Acura TL Type S

2008 Acura TL Type S Front Three Quarter

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

2002 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

2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT

The 2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT was the closest thing buyers got to a factory Forester STI. While not as powerful as the Impreza STI or even the Impreza WRX, the 2.5XT still pumped out 210 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque from its turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four engine. Performance was unbelievable for an SUV its size; 0-60 mph came in in a blazing 5.3 seconds, and top speed was limited to 130 mph, putting it right in line with the Porsche Cayenne of its day.

Mitsubishi Galant VR-4

1987 Mitsubishi Galant VR4

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

2002 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.


2004 Mazdaspeed6

The spec-sheet of the 2006 Mazdaspeed6 reads like that of a high-performance Subaru or Mitsubishi; 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder pushing out 274 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, all-wheel drive with a six-speed manual transmission, and a 0-60 mph time of just 5.4 seconds. Sadly, the car was only produced for two years, and we’re unlikely to see a new performance version of the Mazda6 (we won’t give up hope just yet).

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