23rd May 2024

Front Drive Heroes

Front-wheel drive is often maligned by those who reckon the only place to send power is the rear wheels. Yet there are dozens of fantastic front-drivers that deliver big on handling fun, comfort, and just plain old driving satisfaction. To prove the point, here are some of our favourite front-wheel drive cars.

Gaining Traction

One of the earliest adopters of front-wheel drive was the Citroen Traction Avant, which did more than any other car to introduce motorists to this drivetrain until the Mini arrived in 1959. Cord did something similar in the US with its 810 and 812 models in 1936, but they remained on the margins when it came to pointing the way forward for drivetrain design.

Black Citroen Traction Avant with yellow hub

By attaching the engine and gearbox together up front and on a removable subframe, Citroen made it easier to build and work on the Traction Avant. More vitally, the Traction was ideally suited to use on pre-war French roads thanks to its loping suspension and excellent handling. With all of the drive ahead of the front bulkhead, it also meant the Citroen offered plenty of cabin space and that was taken to its maximum in the extended Familiale and Commerciale models with vast rear cabins. However, it’s the front-wheel drive layout that is the lasting legacy of the Traction Avant, which influenced the 2CV, DS, CX and every other Citroen that followed, and eventually almost every small and medium-sized car on the road today.

Super superminis

Almond green Austin Mini

Most of these cars also owe a debt of thanks to the 1959 Mini. Its front-wheel drive design set the template for every supermini and small hatch with its packaging. Alec Issigonis’ genius with the Mini was mounting the engine transversely across the bay, saving space, and mounting it above the gearbox to further compact the amount of room needed and maximise passenger space.

Brilliant as the Mini was, it took a while for it to catch on and was helped hugely by the launch of the first Cooper model in 1961. It may have come with a modest 55bhp, but the Cooper had 21bhp on the standard Mini’s 34bhp and went like a firework. Best of all was the handling, aided by the front-wheel drive grip on slippery rally stages, which soon saw the Mini humbling many larger and more potent rivals on track and special stage.

Silver Mini Cooper s on mountain road

It's also worth mentioning the 2001 reboot of the Mini from BMW. Few retro takes on a classic theme have been anywhere near as successful as this, and the supercharged Cooper S version captured all of the verse and front-drive fun of the original. Best of all, you can pick one up for not a lot of money and enjoy this fine handling and fast hatch as an everyday modern classic.

Premium proposition

Beige soft top, teal and pale yellow Renault 5s on sand

As more companies recognised the benefits of front-wheel drive, we were treated to cars like the Renault 4, 5, and 16, as well as the Austin 1100 and 1300, and the Maxi that deserves more praise than it gets for taking on the Ford Cortina with a front-drive solution. However, it was Volkswagen’s Golf that turned front-wheel drive into the norm for most smaller cars. Compare it with a Ford Escort of the same early 1970s period and the Golf is simply much better packaged. The Golf GTI also showed front-drive could be applied to more powerful cars while retaining the fun element keen drivers wanted.

 Red Renault 16

This opened the door to the Saab 900 Turbo, with as much as 185bhp rippling through its front tyres. Saab had been advocates of front-drive since its first cars in the late 1940s, but the 900 showed premium buyers were willing to swap their rear-drive BMWs and Mercedes for something that sent power to the opposite end. Most of them bought more modest versions of the 900, but it’s the Turbo that classic fans lust after today.

Silver saab 900 turbo near a lake

Seminal sporting models

Silver Volkswagen Golf GTI

It's the same story with other front-drive heroes, such as the Peugeot 205. This superb small car was a common sight on every street corner but it’s the GTI hot hatch that lingers in the memory. There’s good reason for this as the 205 GTI was, and remains, a seminal car of its period. It helps it had a reputation for handling that demanded concentration and a sprinkling of skill to get the best from it, but this only served to make the GTI all the more enjoyable to drive. However, don’t overlook the humbler versions of the 205 as even the most basic can be hustled along.

Black Peugeot 205 GTI

As the 205 proved, by the mid-1980s front-wheel drive was the default choice for most small and medium family cars. To stand out as a front-drive hero against this backdrop, a car had to be very special and Lotus did just that with its Elan M100 in 1989. As masters of handling and ride balance, Lotus ensured the M100 was the best front-wheel drive car possible when it came to corners. It should have set the company for better things, but it lost money on every M100 built from the first series and the second series of Turbo-only versions only managed a further 800 sales before the model was canned as the company focused on the development of the all-new Elise.

Purple Lotus Elan

The same year Lotus unveiled the Elise in 1996, Honda gave front-drive fans in the UK plenty to cheer about with the arrival of the Integra. This third generation model had been on sale elsewhere since 1993, but it took longer to come to these shores. When it did, it created a stir with its otherworldly chassis balance, precise steering and an engine that seemingly revved forever. It was extreme example of front-wheel drive could offer and enthusiasts loved it, and they loved it even more when Honda applied the same thinking to the more mainstream EP3 model of Civic Type R in 2001. This hot hatch had all the poise of the Integra in a more practical and affordable car, and it’s now every inch a modern classic alongside the Mini Cooper S of the same age.

There are plenty of other front-drive heroes from this time, suchas the Renault Sport Clio 172 and 182 models, the Ford Puma, and the Peugeot 306 GTi-6. If you fancy something more relaxed, the Fiat Barchetta roadster is another superb front-drive choice or there’s the Rover 75 that shows luxurious comfort doesn’t require rear-wheel drive.

Honda Integra Type R

There’s a long list of front-wheel drive heroes, so let us know which ones you think are the best.