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. 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 praise 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 debuted in the late ’50s, the Mini featured a transversely-mounted engine with front-wheel drive, which nobody else 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. 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.
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 with a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension and front-wheel drive. Also, it had a futuristic interior, aerodynamic design, aluminum hood and plastic roof.
For 1955 Paris Auto Show visitors, the Citroen DS was a vision of the future that landed in France, which 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 and car customers accepted the futuristic model. 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 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.
Today’s car enthusiasts may not remember Oldsmobile since they retired the brand in the 2000s, but back in the ’60s, it enjoyed a reputation for inventive technology, style and luxury. Oldsmobile represented the cutting edge of GM at one point, presenting models that were far ahead of their time. Olds was once a company that displayed power and style on the global market.
One of their most famous front-wheel drive cars is the Oldsmobile Toronado from 1966. This was a big, powerful personal luxury coupe with a twist because it included front-wheel drive. In those days, only a few imports came with front-wheel drive, while all domestic cars, regardless of the class or engine, were rear-wheel drive. However, Oldsmobile wanted to introduce something new, so it constructed the ingenious FWD system.
The Oldsmobile 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 superb driving characteristics, leaving its competitors in the dust. The first two generations were the best, while the later Toronado was just a Cadillac Eldorado with a different grille.
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. So, Cadillac needed a new model to make a statement and keep the Eldorado on top of the segment.
The car that did the trick 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. 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 it still kept its mighty 340 HP engine and classic Cadillac characteristics.
Lancia Fulvia Coupe
Today, Lancia is a forgotten company that’s still barely active, but with nothing interesting in their lineup except rebadged Chryslers. But, back in the ’60s, 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. Thanks to the low weight of the car, it provided a vivid performance. In those days, all sports coupes had rear-wheel drive, but Lancia decided to go the 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 its perfect driving dynamics. In fact, the Fulvia Coupe motivated other manufacturers to think about using front-wheel-drive in this class.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1
In the mid-70s, Volkswagen was ready to introduce a whole new line of models including the Polo, Golf and Passat to shed the dull, economy-car image of the Beetle. All their new cars featured modern designs and engineering, so what would be the best way to get the attention of 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 a three-door hatchback body style, sporty exterior details, a 1.6-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder engine and a 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 those mid-spec Camaros or Mustangs, making 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 that’s still relevant today. The Golf GTI Mk1 also started a breed of fast Golfs they sold in the millions during their 42 years on the market.
One of the coolest-looking and most exclusive Citroen cars was the gorgeous SM they introduced in 1970. When Citroen presented this elegant coupe to the public, it made the competition look outdated and old. In the late ’60s, Citroen was successful, so they acquired Maserati, the famous Italian sports car manufacturer.
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. Soon, the Citroen SM was born. The aesthetics were clearly French with a hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension and front-wheel drive. But instead of Citroen’s sluggish four-cylinder engine, it came with a 2.7-liter V6 from Maserati that provided a lively performance.
SAAB 900 Turbo
SAAB presented the 900 Turbo in the late ’70s when turbocharging was new. They were at the height of success as an upscale manufacturer of high-quality, high-tech cars. Back then, only a few models had turbocharging as a regular production item. So, for a brief time in the late ’70s, SAAB was the only non-sports model with 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 then as a convertible. In the ’80s, SAAB cars were popular among upper-middle-class buyers, intellectuals and artists. They were stylish, yet usable and affordable transport that possessed advanced technology and unique designs.
Back in the day, the SAAB 900 was different from any other offering in that price class. The convertible was especially popular in yuppie circles of young executives in the ’80s. 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 introduced FWD to the upper class.
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 famous is the 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, that isn’t impressive, but for 1989, it was a lofty figure. It helped the SHO go from 0 to 60 in just 6.7 seconds.
Cadillac presented 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.
Peugeot 205 GTI
When Peugeot introduced the compact 205 model in 1983, a performance GTI version wasn’t in the cards. But when Peugeot realized a hopped-up model could be successful on the market, it presented the 205. The 205 GTI came with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder and 115 HP. The lightweight body, precise steering,rev-happy engine and lively performance was extremely popular with global buyers.
Peugeot considered selling the 205 GTI in the U.S., but since the company 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 ’80s. The 205 GTI was practical and economical, so it managed to attract a cult following in Europe.
In the late ’80s, the 205 GTI got a 1.9-liter engine upgrade that delivered 136 HP and 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.
Cadillac Seville STS
Ever since the Eldorado received front-wheel-drive in 1967, Cadillac has included this drivetrain in the rest of its lineup. During the ’90s, they gave the Seville had a major redesign including a new platform, Northstar V8 engine and a sleek look.
In the late ’90s, Cadillac introduced the Seville Touring Sedan or STS, which was a competent car. It got 300 HP from a 4.6-liter V8 engine, a magnetic ride, a plush interior and numerous other features. The Seville STS was a true competitor to Mercedes or BMW. The most interesting thing about the STS was its power rating and front-wheel drive.
In the past, most manufacturers had problems with stability when a car was too powerful. However, 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, the Cadillac STS was the most powerful production front-wheel drive car they ever built, showing other brands how it’s done.
Nissan Sentra SE-R
The Sentra SE-R was one of the most surprising economy cars from the early 2000s. It featured a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission that delivered 175 HP to the front wheels.
From the outside, the Sentra looked as ordinary and boring as any other economy-class compact. But when the driver pressed the gas, this little sedan could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds, embarrassing many pricier cars.
Acura Integra Type R
The Acura Integra Type-R is the definitive JDM legend. It is still popular among car enthusiasts for its swift performance and fantastic handling. The front-wheel drivetrain is the main reason the Integra Type R is so universally popular.
The Honda engineers designed a front-wheel-drive set up that worked with the rear axle in perfect balance. It is why the Integra handled neutrally with few understeering problems and great steering feedback. Despite getting just 187 HP from its high revving 1.8-liter engine, the Integra Type R delivers an impressive performance, even by today’s standards.
Mazda Mazdaspeed 3
The Mazdaspeed 3 is an overpowered and brutal front-wheel-drive car that debuted in 2007. Mazda powered this hot hatch with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder producing 263 HP. At the time, they considered that a crazy amount of horsepower going to the front wheels.
However, despite the severe torque steer, the Mazdaspeed 3 was a quite capable and rapid car that brought many customers to the dealerships. In fact, it reintroduced the Mazda as a prime affordable performance brand in the U.S, market.
Ford Focus ST
Because all eyes are on the brutal and capable Focus RS, most car fans don’t know 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 a perfectly-balanced front suspension, the Focus ST delivers driving excitement. But with the strong chassis, decent brakes and direct steering, it is a great family hatchback for everyday use.
Honda Civic Type R
The latest member of 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, highly-sought-after addition to the hot hatch class.
Honda resisted the temptation to turbocharge its performance engines for a long time until now, in the Civic Type R. The 2.0-liter turbo-four delivers 306 HP and propels the Civic Type R to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and tops 170 mph. The acceleration times are somewhat slower than its competitors because the Civic is front-wheel drive and not AWD like most other models in its class.
Hyundai Veloster N
The regular Veloster is an odd-looking hatchback with an unusual three-door layout. It includes two doors on the right side and one on the left. Apart from this quirky feature, the Veloster in its standard guise is a boring car without any real significance to car enthusiasts. However, the N version is a whole different story.
The Veloster N delivers 250 to 275 HP with its turbocharged engine and trick front differential, as well as its different suspension and exterior design package. With all of this, the nature of the car went from a boring economy hatchback into one of the best hot hatches on the market.
Lancia Thema 8.32
Ferrari never officially built a four-door sedan but Lancia did, introducing the Thema 8.32 in 1986. This was a top-of-the-line Lancia model featuring a transversally mounted Ferrari 3.0-liter V8 engine from the 308 GTB Quattrovalvole; hence, the name. It came with eight cylinders that had 32 valves.
It wasn’t the first time Lancia borrowed an engine from Ferrari. Some 10 years before the Thema 8.32, the Lancia Stratos received a 2.4-liter V6 from the Ferrari Dino. However, it was the first time a Ferrari engine powered a luxury sedan.
The Thema 8.32 produced 212 HP with a seven-second 0 to 60 mph time, which was fast for the day as well as for a front-wheel-drive sedan. To call the 8.32 a BMW M5 competitor would be a stretch, but the Thema Ferrari was a comfortable cruiser with lots of style. Also, Lancia offered a high level of standard equipment and a long list of luxury options. Discontinued in 1992, they sold just over 3,000 Thema 8.32s.
Chevrolet Cobalt SS
Although discontinued, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS is famous as one of the best affordable performance cars. Available as a supercharged, turbocharged or naturally-aspirated model, the best SS was the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder Chevrolet presented in 2008.
The engine delivered 260 HP, which was astonishing at the time and more than any of its competitors. Also, the Cobalt SS had big tuning potential, so it was easy to get even more power from the engine. Although they based it on the regular Cobalt, the SS version was nothing like the boring economy car it originated from.
One of the most interesting compact and affordable cars is the legendary Honda CRX. Honda offered it from 1983 to 1991, basing it on the Civic, but with a lower, sportier body and only two seats. Since it was light, nimble and came with precise steering, the CRX was a true sports car, but with front-wheel drive and pumping up to 140 HP.
The biggest selling points of this model were the extremely light body, as the whole car weighed 1,800 pounds and a high revving four-cylinder engine. Honda never repeated the success of the CRX, so its lineup can use another car like this.
These are 25 of the most influential front-wheel-drive cars they ever made. Have you ever driven or owned any of these vehicles? Front-wheel-drive may not be a popular option today, but it made an impact on automotive design and production.