Proving that not all front-drivers are wrong-wheel-drive after all.
Front-wheel drive cars first came to prominence in car design due to cost, both for the manufacture and sales of vehicles. With the engine and drive wheels so close together, there are fewer parts and less complexity involved. There's also less space used up in the passenger compartment and cargo area as drive components don't need to reach or be fitted at the car's back. That means front-wheel-drive vehicles are cheaper to make, more affordable to buy, and offer more utility than rear- or all-wheel-drive vehicles. The complaint usually comes with driving dynamics, as the front wheels have to both steer and drive the car.
We say rear-wheel-drive is not better for driving on the road; it's just different. It requires a different set of skills to drive a front-wheel-drive car quickly. The tendency to understeer rather than oversteer makes them useful for new drivers to learn with. However, an advanced driver will then start to use some techniques guaranteed to put smiles on faces, such as inducing lift-off oversteer.
When a car company melds a front-wheel-drive car's practicality and cost to a performance mindset, you can end up with some incredibly fun daily drivers. When it's used to lower the cost of entry into the luxury market while keeping decent dynamics, it can make you wonder why people insist on luxury cars being rear-wheel-drive. These are our favorites across the board that you can buy new in 2020.
Volkswagen, via the Golf GTI, invented the hot hatch genre that quickly gained traction through Europe before going worldwide in the late 1970s. Today, the Golf GTI is not guaranteed to be best in class, but it is a beautiful example of a well rounded practical car with a wicked wild side. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a total of 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque for the 2020 model. It's comfortable, well built, sharp, agile, quick, and recently one of our editors had to use one to move house and even managed to squeeze a queen-sized bed-in-a-box in the back.
One of this writer's highlights of the year before the COVID pandemic shut the US down was auto crossing a Veloster N. Hyundai's N division is relatively new and exists because of Hyundai's head of R&D, Albert Biermann. BMW fans will recognize Biermann's name as he used to head BMW's M division. He also brought to other M division engineers with him, and Hyundai's N cars bring precisely the kind of knife-sharp handling and exciting dynamics you would expect.
While the interior doesn't compete with its German rival, the Veloster N brings the noise at a lower price point with its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivering 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. It's an eager and wildly fun car to drive. It's also surprisingly hard, particularly with the optional limited-slip differential optioned, to get the Veloster N to understeer. It was pure driver error that collected cones on the autocross track.
A fun to drive front-wheel-drive car doesn't have to be a hatchback. The midsize sedan segment isn't where you typically find fun cars to drive, but the Accord is an overachiever. It ticks all the boxes for a great daily driver sedan, such as great comfort, plentiful passenger space, generous trunk space, supple ride quality, robust fuel economy, and elegant looks. For those who want to enjoy some back roads, the Accord also offers an athletic engine and engaging driving dynamics. The Mazda 6 was the other contender for this spot, but the Mazda sedan disappoints in the engine department, and the Accord in Sport trim can be had with an excellent manual transmission.
The Honda Civic is a friendly little thing; all practicality, fuel economy, and fun to drive. In Type R guise, it's one angry piece of machinery. On the outside, its styling is reminiscent and about as subtle as the Iron Throne. Under the hood is a 306 hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that punches like a six-cylinder. Until recently, the idea of putting over 300 hp through the front wheels of a car has generally been a great way of ensuring it will torquesteer into the nearest tree, but Honda's savvy engineering has made that a problem of the past. In corners, the Civic Type R has an almost absurd amount of grip, and a chassis that seems to respond as the driver thinks about making an input. The cherry on top is in just how comfortable and easy it is to daily drive, despite being a near-perfect track weapon.
If you want some Swedish style and luxury in a wagon, and a surprisingly engaging drive, Volvo has the V90. The S90 is an excellent sedan, but the V90 wagon offers better handling dynamics and cargo space. While the twincharged T76 gets all the power, it also gets AWD, so for FWD you'll need the T5 trim, which comes with a 2.0-liter engine that is turbocharged to deliver 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The V90 is a laid back and relaxing ride about town, but Dynamic driving mode livens things up and brings a smile to the face on a back road. While it won't keep pace with most cars on this list, the dynamics are part of an excellent package that you would pay a lot more elsewhere.
Mercedes has used the front-wheel-drive platform to bring luxury to the masses. It starts at $32,800, and despite a relatively low price, brings a luxurious experience that deserves the Mercedes-Benz badge. It doesn't try and compete with Audi or BMW in sporty dynamics, but that doesn't mean it's not poised, sharp, and engaging. It's the luxury ride that gets it on this list. Not ticking the adjustable adaptive damping option won't leave you feeling short-changed, but it will iron out even the most corrugated of roads.
The reason modern front-wheel-drive cars exist is down to economy. They're cheap to buy and cheap to run, and the Hyundai's Ioniq Hybrid smacks both of those balls out of the park. The most inexpensive trim, Blue, is also the most fuel-efficient. It comes in at $23,200 and, with its lower rolling-resistance tires, hits an EPA estimated 57/59/58 mpg across the city/highway/combined cycles. Even with a higher trim level selected, the Ioniq Hybrid will roll along happily for 655 miles before needing its 11.9-gallon fuel tank refilled. If you're looking at FWD for the sake of affordability and economy, they don't get much better than this.
Chevrolet beat Tesla to the punch by delivering a sub-$35,000 electric car. Now, three years after it came on the market, the Bolt boasts a 259-mile range and a high level of safety tech and convenience. It's also a surprisingly fun little car to drive. That's not only because it's fairly rapid, but because Chevy placed the battery with is weight low and located between the axles. It makes the Bolt a nimble little thing, although maximum grip is reached quickly. More to the point, though, it has more space inside it than anyone expects at first glance, although that's at the cost of trunk space. Overall, the Bolt is the leader in its class as an all-round commuter car package.
Nissan has been having a tough time of it lately but has still managed to deliver a stunning little car in the form of the next-generation Sentra. This car will raise some eyebrows in the comments, but the sheer level of bang for not a lot of buck is astonishing. The Sentra is no longer your father's rental fleet car. Nissan's Safety Shield 360 suite of safety features are standard, as is Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a swift infotainment system, and seats comfortable enough to comment on. The new styling is bold, but the sucker-punch to the rest of the small sedan segment is its handling. Nissan has given the new Sentra independent rear and McPherson strut front suspension. Even the old reviewer cliche of positive steering feedback is there.
Then there's the price. The new Sentra starts at $19,310 while the top trim comes in at just $21,650. Even with some options to fully deck it out, $25,000 gets you a lot of car.
In terms of outright fun, the John Cooper Works Mini delivers an immense amount of smiles per miles. The suspension setup is glorious and takes full advantage of its low weight - the amount of momentum it'll carry through a corner borders on the heroic. As an example of how to set up and tune a front-wheel-drive chassis for balance, this is the one. It'll forgive a new driver and help them learn, and reward an experienced driver capable of feeling a car well enough to steer on the throttle. The only downside to the JCW hardtop, and indeed all Minis, is the price, as this premium niche vehicle commands a pretty penny for the privilege to pilot one.