From today’s standpoint, front wheel drive or FWD technology is nothing to write home about. It has been around for ages. Most new vehicles are using this drivetrain and it is as common as it gets. However, not too long ago, front wheel drive was an exotic engineering solution mostly for foreign cars. But to understand how it became so popular, you have to look at the most influential front wheel drive cars they ever made.
For those who don’t know, front wheel drive is drivetrain configuration they designed to deliver power to the front wheels of a car. It is somewhat more practical since it helps when you have to save space. Also, front wheel drive is less expensive to produce and better for driving in tough conditions. Of course, it has several design flaws such as the tendency to understeer and wear out the front tires. Also, it produces a poor turning circle due to the busy front end of the car.
Despite all that, front wheel drive has become standard in the car industry. In fact, most drivers have owned or at least driven a front wheel drive car in their lifetime. They invented front wheel drive as a concept early in the dawn of the automobile age. However, it took a lot of time for this drivetrain option to become mainstream. So, keep reading to learn all about the 20 best front wheel drive cars that changed the industry and influenced manufactures all over the world.
1. Cord L-29
Although he was involved with Duesenberg and Auburn, Errett Lobban Cord was a successful car salesman and businessman who wanted to build cars under his own name. So, in 1929, he established a company he called Cord and introduced his first model, the L-29. The philosophy behind Cord cars was simple. Offer advanced technology, powerful engines and gorgeous designs, which is exactly what he did.
The finest coachbuilding companies produced the L-29 bodies. Also, it had an interesting feature, which was front wheel drive. In those days, no one had heard of FWD. And Cord was the only manufacturer in the world with this drivetrain. So the L-29 was the only car in the world with front-wheel drive. Additionally, it was the only luxury FWD model they produced in almost 70 years.
The driving characteristics of the L-29 were superb as well as the build quality and performance. But they launched the car just after the Great Depression. And it was the worst economic recession the world has ever seen, which greatly affected the sales. However, despite the sales flop, the Cord L-29 was and still is an immensely important car.
2. Cord 810 – 812
The Cord wasn’t ready to quit. So, as the market recuperated in the late 1930s, the company introduced another front wheel drive model. It was the gorgeous Cord 810/812 sports car. This was the most famous Cord featuring Art Deco styling, front wheel drive and a powerful V8 engine.
When they introduced the 810 in 1936, which was later the 812, the car market was stunned. At that moment, it was the most advanced American production car. It came with V8 power, front wheel drive, an independent front suspension and hideaway headlights.
The car featured many industry firsts, establishing itself as one of the first revolutionary American sports cars of all times. Unfortunately, the market was unprepared for such an advanced automobile, so the sales numbers were terrible. This caused Cord to close its doors in the late 1930s.
3. Citroen Traction Avant
Citroen was famous for its quest for innovation and avant-garde design, making this brand one of the quintessential French automotive symbols. The first car ever to materialize the Citroen ways of thinking was the famous Traction Avant. It was a mid-size family sedan they introduced in 1934. In the 1930s, Citroen was one of the biggest car factories in Europe.
However, the company wanted more than just market success. They wanted to revolutionize the concept of family transport and the construction of the automobile in general. They also wanted to offer much more than their competitors. So, in 1934 they introduced the Citroen 11 CV Traction Avant. And it was one of the most advanced production cars in pre-war Europe.
The Traction Avant had the unusual front-wheel drive; hence, the name. Also, it had unibody construction at the time when all cars had a heavy ladder-type chassis. Best of all, it had an independent suspension on both axles, which was an extremely advanced design for the times. Suddenly, all other cars on the market looked outdated compared to the Traction Avant.
Fortunately, the market responded quite well, so the Traction Avant was also a sales hit. In fact, it stayed in production until 1955. The majority of their cars were four-door sedans, but Citroen produced some cool looking coupes and convertibles, as well.
4. Citroen 2CV
The idea behind the Citroen 2CV was to present the most affordable family car possible. And it would be totally minimalistic and utilitarian, but still had a certain level of comfort. And finally, it needed to have enough space for four occupants and their luggage.
The construction was extremely simple and durable, and all 2CVs had canvas tops. They presented the first Citroen 2CV in 1948. It soon became a bestseller in France, as well as in the rest of Europe. The early models had a diminutive flat twin engine with only 21 CID and nine HP.
However, some later versions grew to 40 CID and 29 HP. The power was sent to the front wheels, which was highly unusual for the standards of the day. This made the 2CV one of the first FWD cars in the economy class.
5. Austin Mini
American car enthusiasts know the Mini for its 21st-century modern iteration sponsored by BMW after the German brand bought Rover in the 1990s. However, the interesting story of the Mini dates back to 1959. To be clear, they introduced the original Mini in 1959 and sold it until 2000. And it is one of the most important British cars of the 20th century.
Although the British car industry is full of expensive, limited production models, the Mini has proven to be the most influential and timeless car. The reason for such praises is that the Mini is a technological marvel. Also, it is an immensely capable little car that motorized Great Britain and influenced every car maker since.
When it was first introduced in the late ’50s, the Mini featured the unusual concept of a transversely mounted engine with front-wheel drive. And it was something nobody had in those days. Fast forward 60 years and all front-wheel-drive compact cars in the world have the same layout as the Mini. And the Mini was the champion of usability since it was tiny from the outside, but could sit five people on the inside.
Even though it had just 34 HP from the factory, this little car managed to win some of the world`s most prestigious races like the Rally Monte Carlo thanks to its low weight, front wheel drive agility and precise handling.
6. Citroen DS
Imagine being transported back to the year 1955 at the Paris Auto Show. There were many cars on display, but most of them were warmed-up prewar designs with common engines and nothing interesting. However, at the Citroen booth was the new DS. It was a car with a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension and front-wheel drive. Also, it had a futuristic interior, aerodynamic design, aluminum hood and plastic roof.
For the visitors to the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the Citroen DS wasn’t just a car, but a vision of the future that landed in France. And this was exactly what Citroen intended. In fact, they designed the DS to be a family sedan that was the most innovative car in the world. Car customers accepted the futuristic model. And by the end of the first day of the car show, Citroen received over 18,000 orders for the new model.
They also sold the DS in America where people considered it a technical marvel, so it achieved a modest success on the market. Despite all the advantages of its basic design, Citroen had problems with their underpowered four-cylinder engines and complicated mechanics, so U.S. customers were reserved. However, in all other parts of the world, they sold over 1.5 million DS models before ceasing production in 1975.
7. Oldsmobile Toronado
Today’s car enthusiasts may not remember the Oldsmobile since they retired the brand in 2000. But back in the ’60s, this company enjoyed a reputation for inventive technology, style and luxury. Oldsmobile represented the cutting edge of GM at one point in time, presenting models that were far ahead of their time. They were once a company that displayed power and style on the global market.
And one of their most famous front wheel drive cars is the Oldsmobile Toronado from 1966. This was a big and powerful personal luxury coupe with a twist since it included front wheel drive. In those days, only a few imports were front wheel drive, while all domestic cars, regardless of the class or engine, were rear wheel drive. However, Oldsmobile wanted to introduce something else and constructed the ingenious FWD system.
Designers drew a fantastic looking shape with low roof and hidden headlights. The power came from a big block 455 V8 with 385 HP. The Toronado was a success because it introduced some superb driving characteristics, leaving their competitors in the dust. The first two generations were the best, while the later Toronado was just a Cadillac Eldorado with a different grille.
8. Cadillac Eldorado
The 1967 model year marked a revolution for the Eldorado model in a new design as well as in the technology and drivetrain. The Eldorado model served for years as a top of the line personal luxury model from Cadillac. But by the mid-60s, almost all other GM brands developed similar cars to compete with the Eldorado on the market. So, Cadillac needed a new model to make a statement and keep the Eldorado on top of the segment.
This was the 1967 model that featured gorgeous new coupe styling with hide-away headlights, a long hood and an elegant rear end. The new Eldorado looked gorgeous. And even though they discontinued the convertible option, sales went through the roof. But the biggest change was the switch to the front-wheel-drive layout.
In those days, FWD cars were rare foreign models. So, when Oldsmobile introduced front-wheel drive on its 1966 Toronado, Cadillac took the patent and slightly improved it for use on the Eldorado. With this feature, the Eldorado had almost perfect handling and better driving dynamics yet still kept its mighty 340 HP engine and classic Cadillac characteristics.
9. Lancia Fulvia Coupe
Today, Lancia is a forgotten company still barely active but with nothing interesting in their lineup except selling rebadged Chryslers. But, back in the â60s, Lancia was an independent luxury manufacturer with specific, highly-respected cars featuring unique designs and technical solutions. So, when the company presented the Fulvia Coupe in 1965, the car world took notice.
The Fulvia Coupe was a little 2+2 two-door car with a narrow-angle V4 engine in the front powering the front wheels. This unique layout handled fantastically. And with the small weight of the car, it provided a vivid performance. In those days, all sports coupes had rear wheel drive, but Lancia decided to go opposite way.
Despite having from 85 to 115 HP, the Lancia Fulvia Coupe was a rally champion and extremely rewarding car to drive fast on those winding roads. The front wheel drive in conjunction with the small weight and perfect balance was the key to the driving dynamics. In fact, the Fulvia Coupe motivated other manufacturers to think about front wheel drive in this class.
10. Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1
In the mid-70s, Volkswagen was getting ready to introduce a whole line of new models including the Polo, Golf and Passat. They were desperately trying to shed the dull, economy image of the Beetle. All their new cars featured modern designs and engineering. And what would be the best way to gain some attention from the motoring world than by producing a performance model?
So, in 1975, along with the regular Golf lineup, VW presented the GTI version. The Golf GTI featured three-door hatchback body style, sporty details on the exterior, 1.6-liter fuel injected four-cylinder engine and 110 to 115 HP power output. With the 0 to 60 time of nine seconds, improved handling and cool looks, the GTI was an immediate hit with car buyers.
This was especially true in the late ’70s when performance levels were low due to tightening regulations. The power went to the front wheels, so the GTI was one of the first models that proved front wheel drive cars could be performance models. In America, the Golf GTI could outrun mid-spec Camaros or Mustangs. This made it one of the best performance cars you could buy.
The popularity of the GTI influenced other manufacturers and even coined the term, “hot hatch.” Interestingly, Volkswagen wasn’t the first to produce such a car or even the first company to use “GTI” as a model designation. However, they were the first to market it globally. They made it so popular, it started a trend still relevant today. The Golf GTI Mk1 also started a breed of fast Golfs they sold in millions during their 42 years on the market.
11. Citroen SM
One of the coolest looking and most exclusive Citroen cars was the gorgeous SM they introduced in 1970. This elegant coupe had some interesting features. When Citroen presented it to the public, the SM made the competition look outdated and old. In the late ’60s, Citroen was successful.
So through some stock market transactions, they became the owner of the famous Italian sports car manufacturer, Maserati. Citroen management thought they could use Maserati’s powerful engines and sports car know-how to produce a luxurious, fast coupe with their signature design and style.
And that is how the Citroen SM was born. The aesthetics were clearly French with hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension and front-wheel drive. But instead of Citroen’s four-cylinder engine, there was the 2.7-liter V6 from Maserati that provided enough power for a lively performance.
12. SAAB 900 Turbo
SAAB introduced the 900 Turbo in the late ’70s when they were at the height of success as an upscale manufacturer of high-quality, high-tech cars. But SAAB presented the 900 Turbo at a time when turbocharging was new. In fact, only a few models had it as a regular production item. So in the late ’70s, SAAB was briefly the only non-sports model that had a turbocharged engine.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder with forced induction produced 143 HP at first but went all the way to 185 HP in later versions. They initially offered the 900 Turbo as a coupe and as a convertible. In the â80s, SAAB cars were popular among upper-middle-class buyers, intellectuals and artists. They were a stylish, yet usable and affordable transport that possessed advanced technology and unique designs.
Back in the day, SAAB 900 was totally different from any other offering in that price class. The convertible was especially popular in yuppie circles of young executives in the â80s. With front-wheel drive, an exotic name and updated technology, power and performance, the 900 Turbo is one of the greatest front wheel drive cars ever. Also, it is a model that introduced FWD to the upper class.
13. Ford Taurus SHO
Back in the late ’80s, Ford caused a revolution with the introduction of the Taurus model. This was the first truly modern American sedan that ditched the heavy ladder-type chassis and big engines. Instead, they went in a different direction with a sleek and aerodynamic body, new technology and front wheel drive.
The Taurus sold in volumes but the most interesting is the famed Super High Output or SHO version. The SHO wasn’t a muscle car by any means since it was a family four-door sedan. However, it delivered a significant amount of power.
The SHO was a performance model in the Taurus lineup that featured a Yamaha-sourced 3.0-liter high revving V6 with 220 HP. Today, this doesn’t sound like much. But for 1989, it was a lofty figure. Also, the performance was outstanding with just 6.7 seconds to 60 mph.
14. Cadillac Allante
Cadillac envisioned the Allante to compete with the Mercedes SL convertible. It was a two-seater luxury convertible with Italian styling by Pininfarina. They included a Northstar V8 engine and front-wheel drive. This was an unusual combination, but the car looked and performed well. Even the production process was specific.
They did the fabrication in Italy in the Pininfarina factory and then shipped the cars to the U.S. by jet. But this affected the cost of the final product. The Allante stayed in production until 1993, and they built over 21,000 of them. The car proved too expensive to produce, so the factory allegedly lost money on every Allante they built.
15. Peugeot 205 GTI
When Peugeot introduced the compact 205 model in 1983, a performance GTI version wasn’t in the cards. But they realized the hopped-up model could be successful on the market. So Peugeot presented the 205 with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder and 115 HP. The lightweight body, precise steering,rev-happy engine and lively performance proved extremely popular with global buyers.
Peugeot even considered selling the 205 GTI in the U.S. But since it pulled out of the market in 1991, American buyers never got the chance to experience one of the best affordable compact performance cars of the â80s. The 205 GTI was practical and economical.
And it managed to attract a cult following in Europe. In the late â80s, the 205 GTI got a 1.9-liter engine upgrade that delivered 136 HP and an improved performance. As all European hot hatches of the day, the 205 GTI had front wheel drive and was popular for its handling and superb driving feel.
16. Cadillac Seville STS
Ever since the Eldorado became a front wheel drive model in 1967, Cadillac included this drivetrain in the rest of their lineup. During the â90s, Seville had a major redesign that included a new platform, Northstar V8 engines and a sleek look.
However, the best was yet to come, so in the late â90s, Cadillac introduced the Seville Touring Sedan or STS, which was a competent car. It had 300 HP from a 4.6-liter V8 engine, a magnetic ride, a plush interior and numerous other features. And it was a true competitor to the likes of Mercedes or BMW. The most interesting thing about the STS was its power rating and the front wheel drive.
In the past, manufacturers had problems with stability if the car was too powerful. But Cadillac managed to add a 300 HP engine to power the front wheels. Yet it still retained its world-class ride control and road holding. For almost 10 years, Cadillac STS was the most powerful production front wheel car they ever built, showing other brands how it’s done.
17. Acura Integra Type R
As one of the most brilliant front-wheel-drive cars ever produced, the Acura Integra Type-R is the definitive JDM legend. It is still especially popular among car enthusiasts for its swift performance and fantastic handling. The front wheel drivetrain was the main reason the Integra Type R is so universally popular.
Honda’s engineers managed to design and produce a front wheel drive set up that worked with the rear axle in perfect balance. So, this is why the Integra handled neutrally had little understeering problems and great steering feedback. Despite just 187 HP from its high revving 1.8-liter engine, the Integra Type R delivers great performance even by today’s standards.
18. Mazda Mazdaspeed 3
A perfect example of an overpowered and brutal front wheel drive car is the legendary Mazdaspeed 3. Mazda introduced it in 2007. They powered this hot hatch with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder delivering 263 HP. And at the time, they considered that a crazy number of horsepower to send to the front wheels.
However, despite severe torque steer, the Mazdaspeed 3 was a quite capable and rapid car that brought many customers to the dealerships. Also, it reintroduced the Mazda as one of the prime affordable performance brands on the U.S, market, at least in that period.
19. Ford Focus ST
Although all eyes are on the brutal and crazy capable Focus RS, most car fans forget the Focus ST is the sweet spot of the Focus range. The ST stands for Street Technology and it is Ford’s performance model for normal people with everyday driving habits
Under the hood, there is a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine sending power to the front wheels. With around 260 HP on tap and perfectly balanced front suspension, the Focus ST delivers driving excitement. But with the strong chassis, decent brakes and direct steering it is also can deliver a great family hatchback for everyday use.
20. Honda Civic Type R
The latest addition to the innovative front wheel drive car club is the fifth generation Honda Civic Type R. The new performance Civic looks like every racer’s dream with numerous spoilers, scoops and air vents all over the body. The aggressive design, great performance and JDM appeal make this Civic a valuable and sought-after addition to the hot hatch class.
Honda has resisted the temptation to turbocharge its performance engines for a long time. But now, the Civic Type R has exactly that under the hood like other competitors in its class. The 2.0-liter turbo four delivers 306 HP.
And it can propel the nasty-looking Civic Type R to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and top 170 mph. The acceleration times are somewhat slower than the competitors. And the reason for that is because the Civic is front-wheel drive and not AWD like most other models in the same class.
These are the 20 most influential front-wheel-drive cars ever made. All have made their mark in automotive history. Did you find your favorite? If so it’s time to hit the road.