A front-wheel drive performance car can be great fun. Here are some of the most interesting, fast and extreme examples
Ever since the Mini first hit the roads in 1959, the world has been open to the idea of front-wheel drive cars being fun and engaging to drive. Offering completely different thrills to rear-wheel drive machines, fun front drivers were clearly put on the map by the likes of the Alfasud and Mk1 Golf GTI, while early pioneers like the Citroen DS and Saab 96 proved that the formula could also be effective in motorsport.
Today’s generation of hot hatches generally feature upwards of 250bhp, trick differentials and are all-round serious bits of kit. Cars like the ultra-hardcore Renault Megane 275 Trophy-R and VV Golf Clubsport S have taken the formula to the extreme, with ever increasing power and decreasing lap times.
Here are ten of the best front-wheel drive performance cars ever built:
Mini Cooper S JCW GP1 & GP2
Get into any new Mini, and you’re guaranteed a fun drive. The earlier R50 models are the most characterful to drive, but the later R56 is ultimately better made. The current F56 is the best built and most accomplished of all, although lacks some of the character of the earlier cars.
The John Cooper Works GP model was the first hardcore Mini, and although honed at the Nurburgring – it’s actually pretty great on the UK’s lumpy B-roads. With adjustable suspension, carbon fibre rear wing, bigger wheels and no back seat, this was a very serious Mini. The second generation GPII was even faster, and was one of the most highly rated hot hatches of its era.
Ford Focus RS Mk1 & Mk2
Some Ford RS fans were outraged when news that the first high-performance variant of the Mk1 Focus wasn’t going to get four-wheel drive like the Sierra Sapphire and Escort before it. Thanks to a limited slip diff, and the Focus’s inherent ‘goodness’, the RS managed to carve out it’s own place in fast Ford history, and appeased many of the doubters.
Many early reviews were not the best, but it’s now generally agreed that test cars were inconsistent due to harsh tyre issues, as well as an aggressive differential. While still a bit of a handful, the RS is certainly calmed down with the fitment of more modern rubber!
When the Mk2 came along, it moved the game on even further and ramped up the extreme factor. Powered by a 300bhp 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, it was definitely more of a hooligan than the original. And that’s why it’s great.
Although the hot hatch invasion of the 1980s effectively killed off the British sports car, it didn’t stop Lotus from having another go with the front-wheel drive M100 Elan. With a modest amount of power, even from the 165bhp Turbo model, it’s possibly one of the sweetest handling front-wheel drive cars of all time.
> Read the Elan M100 buying guide and browse the classifieds here
There are so many fast Renaults that we could have included here, but this is really the one that kickstarted the company’s domination of the hot hatch arena in the ‘90s and 2000s. The Monaco Blue Williams with the iconic gold wheels looks fantastic, and thanks to a chassis that was fettled by Renaultsport (not the Williams F1 team) it’s such a fantastic driving experience.
The Clio 182 Trophy is arguably the most accomplished. Adding a set of remote-reservoir £1000-per-corner Sachs dampers to a road going hot hatch might sound like a daft idea, but it’s what makes the limited edition Clio 182 such a class act. Just 500 were built for the UK market, and it’s already considered a classic.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Rather than focusing on one specific generation, it’s easier to talk about all the good GTIs in one shot. The Mk1 defined the term hot hatch, and was brilliant in its own right. Drive one today and it still feels special. When the Mk2 came along, it moved the game on with better handling and a new 16v engine. Ignoring the third and fourth generations, which were not dynamic benchmarks, the excellent Mk5 came along and revitalised GTI once again.
It’s the Mk5 that really stands out as best of the modern Golfs. As great as the Mk6 and Mk7 are, they simply built on what made the Mk5 so successful: being perfect in every way. The exception is the recent Clubsport S, which is Volkswagen’s attempt at creating the ultimate track day Golf. It currently holds the front-wheel drive lap record of the Nurburgring.
Honda Integra Type R
Some might say that the DC2 Integra represents the peak of the Type R phenomenon. The 187bhp 1.8-litre naturally aspirated engine is a gem, and the gearshift is as perfect as any driver could want. It was built by engineers, not accountants, and is not compromised by practicalities. In the words of evo Magazine’s Richard Meaden: ‘It’s a car as sweet and all-consuming as any I’ve experienced at any price’.
While Honda might have moved on to its seriously extreme turbocharged Civic Type R, purity of the Integra is something that has been lost in the pursuit of lap times.
Whether you opt for the slightly overweight VR6 or supercharged G60 model, the Corrado can be a very satisfying car to drive. Passive rear steer, thanks to clever rear-suspension bushing, helps to make the VW good fun on the twisties, although it’s a pretty grown up car in most situations.
While the Lancia Fulvia seems to be forgotten by many, the stylish saloon and more sought after coupe were extremely advanced cars for their time. Front-wheel drive performance cars might have been in their infancy when the Fulvia was launched, but it’s excellent weight distribution and sophisticated front suspension set-up endowed the coupe – and to largely the same extent the saloon – with excellent handling.
Peugeot 106 Rallye
It would be easy to declare the 205 GTI as the best handling Peugeot – It is the most popular after all – but the 106 Rallye offers something of a slightly more evolved and even more frantic experience. It's arguably more focused, thanks to a spec sheet that starts and ends with a heater and It was also homologated to compete in sub-1400cc international rallying – meaning it has some genuine rally heritage to back up those rather cool stripes.
In many ways the 205 is the most memorable, but pick any hot Peugeot from this era – 309 GTI, 405 Mi16, 306 GTI-6 and you will not come away disappointed. The company is beginning to recapture some of this magic with the RCZ-R, 208 GTI by PeugeotSport as well as the excellent 308 GTI.
Renaultsport Megane R26.R and 275 Trophy R
What Renault has done with its ultra-extreme R26.R and to an even greater extent with the 275 Trophy R is create some of the most polished and finely honed extreme track cars of all time. Many make the comparison to Porsche’s stripped out GT3 RS, and with a pair of racing seats, full roll cage and plexiglass windows it's easy to see why. The Megane was recently beaten around the Nurburgring by the Civic Type R and Golf Clubsport S, however evo Magazine’s senior road tester Dan Prosser recons that the Trophy R is still the sweeter car to drive on the limit.
Images: evo magazine