A big engine in the front, sending its power to the wheels at the back: This is the time-honored formula for most performance cars, as automakers firmly believe that this is the setup most conducive to great handling, perhaps with the exception of all-wheel drive.
Therefore, cars that drive their power to the front wheels are typically more pedestrian in nature, as it’s the cheapest method for getting power to the ground. However, automakers haven’t been idling around, instead using the layout to the best of their advantage — now, some of the greatest drivers’ cars on the road are front-wheel drive.
10. Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Hyundai’s frisky, turbocharged Veloster is quirky, full of character, and quick thanks to its 1.6 liter turbo-four, which lays out 201 horsepower to the front wheels. Zero to 60 happens in under 7 seconds (6.9 by MotorTrend’s count), while a quarter-mile takes a respectable 15.3 seconds, at 93.4 miles per hour. For hot hatch faithfuls who are looking for something a bit more unique, the Veloster is certainly worth a look — it even manages nearly 40 miles per gallon in the highway.
9. Vauxhaull Corsa VXR Clubsport
Barely edging out the Veloster by a single horsepower, the Vauxhall (NYSE:GM) Corsa VXR Clubsport — a model that we don’t get here in the States, unfortunately — is a potent, rally-inspired street car at the top of the Corsa range. It too uses a turbocharged 1.6 liter inline-four, good for 202 horsepower which can propel the little hatch to 60 in 6.5 seconds, shaving off 0.7 seconds from the standard Corsa thanks to a mechanical, multi-plate limited-slip differential that helps minimize wheel spin when starting out. Flat out, you’ll be doing 143.
8. Mini Cooper John Cooper Works
With the new generation of the Mini Cooper Hardtop just hitting showrooms and driveways, the John Cooper Works edition has yet to surface. But the Coupe from the last generation is still available, with its perky 208 horsepower turbo-four, driving the car to 60 in about 6.1 seconds. Why the Coupe? It’s lighter, since it lacks the reinforcing equipment required in the convertible that adds weight and reduces rigidity. An overboost function will push torque over 200 pound-feet, making it one of the most fun Minis in the stable.
7. Volkswagen GTI
When it comes to hot hatches, the Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) GTI is the gold standard, and only gets better with each passing year. For 2015, the GTI gets a 10-horsepower bump to 210, marginally besting the Corsa’s sprint as it hits 62 in 6.5 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 153 miles per hour. An optional package due out in December allows buyers to substitute a real mechanical limited-slip differential for the electronic one, as well as more horsepower (up to 230) and bigger brakes.
6. Ford Focus ST
America isn’t all that fond of using front-wheel drive for its performance cars; American muscle was built on the formua of big power up front driving the rear wheels, and as such, front-wheel drive has been largely reserved for basic commuter cars. Perhaps America’s biggest contribution to performance FWD vehicles is the Ford (NYSE:F) Focus ST, a 252 horsepower beast of a hatch that was born and bred in the hot hatch haven that is Europe. Zero to 60 happens in under 6 seconds, on its way to a ceiling speed of 148.
5. Renault Sport Megane RS
Another model that the U.S. is, unfortunately, missing out on: the Renault Sport Megane RS and its 265 horsepower bomb under the hood. F1-inspired aerodynamic accents adorn the exterior, like the front splitter and a specially designed spoiler and diffuser, meant to make sure the power is adequately put to the ground when cornering. Sixty-two miles per hour comes up in 6 seconds flat, but this is a car that’s really all about cornering and agility over raw power.
4. Peugeot RCZ-R
The first car on the list that’s not a hatchback is the Peugeot RCZ-R, a 270-horsepower performance coupe that looks as aggressive and poised for speed as it delivers. That makes it the owner of the most powerful 1.6 liter engine in the world, thanks to no small amount of turbocharging; 0-62 occurs in a scant 5.9 seconds, and the top speed is limited to 155. It’s a shame that the RCZ-R isn’t available stateside, as it’s among the best cars currently in Peugeot’s portfolio.
3. Vauxhall Astra VXR
The Corsa VXR Clubsport is a speedy little car, but the Vauxhall Astra VXR is far and away the fastest of the brand’s compact offerings. Boasting a 276 horsepower 2.0 liter turbo that’s able to churn out 295 pound-feet of torque, it can reach 60 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds on its way to a top speed of 155; its chassis was developed on the famed Nürburgring, making it a performance hatch built from the ground up.
2. Volkswagen Scirocco R
Tied with the Astra at 276 horsepower is the Volkswagen Scirocco R, a raked, sleeker version of the Golf R than many Americans are already familiar with. It’s low-slung, aggressive, and athletically poised to offer a low center of gravity that helps the Scirocco whip through turns. For international buyers who don’t necessarily need the four-door Golf R option, the Scirocco R is arguably a sexier, leaner and meaner machine.
1. Seat Leon Cupra 280
Volkswagen’s lesser known sub-brand (in the U.S. anyways) was actually the record holder for the fastest production front-wheel drive vehicle segment with a record set at the Nürburgring when its Leon Cupra 280 lapped the 13 mile track in 7 minutes and 58.4 seconds, unseating the Renault Megane RS (though Renault took the title back with the Megane RS 275 Trophy-R earlier this month). It boasts 278 horsepower, can reach 62 in 5.7 seconds, and nails a limited top speed of 155.