Ten front-wheel drive cars that don’t suck

Front drivers don’t get a whole lot of love for a variety of reasons – so many people equate them to generic econoboxes, and their handling tends toward benign understeer rather than more challenging, steer with the throttle, hang-the-tail-out terminal oversteer.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s tough to do a genuinely impressive smoky burnout in a front-driver, at least without breaking something expensive. Nonetheless, here are some cars that are undeniably great in spite of their original sin of FWD:

1. Austin Mini Cooper S

WHAT WAS IT? The original Mini was the the brilliant Sir Alec Issigonis’s brainchild. It’s comically tiny on the outside, but its remarkable packaging (including Cozy Coupe-esque 10” wheels) make it remarkably roomy on the inside.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: With the addition of the “big block” 1275-cc engine in “S” tune, the car was a legitimate giant killer in any situation that involved the ability to go around corners, particularly in less than ideal weather conditions.

2. 1991 Alfa Romeo 164S

WHAT WAS IT? The Alfa 164’s origins don’t make it sound particularly promising. It was Alfa’s first real foray into platform sharing. Its siblings were the Saab 9000, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema. Only the 164 and the Saab were sold in the US.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: Two reasons – Alfa’s 3.0-L V-6 and Pininfarina’s masterful styling. The Giusseppe Busso-designed engine was both gorgeous to look at (a feast of cast alloy and polished intake runners, even if it sat sideways) and incredible in the aural department. In S or Quadrifoglio tune, the car went quite well too. Its style had real presence as well, in a broad-shouldered, ‘80s Armani suit kind of way.

3. 1989 Ford Taurus SHO

WHAT WAS IT? The first-generation Taurus was Ford’s first really modern full-sized, front wheel-drive sedan. It was about as vanilla as it gets. That is until the introduction of the Super High Output or SHO version.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: Ford went to motorcycle manufacturer Yamaha to create a 24-valve cylinder head for its Vulcan V-6 and the resulting 220hp turned the otherwise not-all-that-different looking SHO into one of the ultimate sleepers. The five-speed version was capable of 0-60 in 6.6 seconds. That’s about Porsche 911SC quick.

4. 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado

WHAT WAS IT? The Toro was the first American front-driver since the Cord 810/812. While massive, it served much the same purpose as a European GT, a high-performance, all-weather touring car capable of crossing a continent in comfort. The fact that the continent in question was North America, rather than Europe likely accounts for its size.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK:  Even if you’re not taken in by the car’s high style (designed under Bill Mitchell, with numerous nods to the Cord 810) the engineering is impressive. GM engineers managed to make a massive, 425-cid, 385 hp V-8 work in a front-driver. The torque converter was linked to the gearset with a massive chain. Amazingly, it all worked quite well. Even the CV joints held up just fine. Additionally, the first year Toro is drop-dead gorgeous and capable of 135 mph in totally stock trim. The inadequate drum brakes are the only buzz-kill to be found.

5. 1967 Lancia Fulvia

WHAT WAS IT? The Fulvia was a small 2+2 coupe very much in the mold of the BMW 1600/2002.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: It’s Italian for starters. Smaller, more delicate and infinitely prettier than a BMW 2002, the details were astonishing—The dash sported the same full complement of Veglia gauges that you’d see in a contemporary Ferrari, along with wood and chrome badging as nice as anything that came from Maranello. Exterior trim (including bumpers) was stainless steel. The tiny 1.3-L V-4 was beguiling to look at, slanted in the engine compartment and with miniature alloy cam covers. The quality of engineering and assembly was positively Germanic. It’s said that Lancia lost money on every one, forcing it into Fiat’s arms.

6. Volkswagen Corrado SLC

WHAT WAS IT? The Corrado was the last GT car that VW sold in the US (they steadfastly refuse to send us the latest Scirocco), the Corrado replaced the MK2 Scirocco.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: The stubby, pumped-up MK1 Scirocco’s looks are pleasing enough, but the second series Corrado featured VW’s torquey and powerful narrow-angle VR6 engine giving the Corrado near Porsche performance. Grippy leather sport seats and pretty Italian Speedline wheels made for a very compelling package.

7. Cord 810/812

WHAT WAS IT? Maybe the most stunning and technically advanced American car, ever.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: Illinois-born designer Gordon Beuhrig designed something truly extraordinary in the 810/812. Even people who ordinarily express little interest in pre-war cars find it hard to resist the Cord 810. A 1930s sci-fi vibe, hidden headlights, a cool pre-selector gearbox with a tiny gated shifter mounted on the steering column (plus an optional supercharger) actually make the car interesting to drive.

8. 1967 Cadillac Eldorado

WHAT WAS IT? The ’67 Eldo was the last of GM’s three epic personal luxury coupes built on the E-body platform to be introduced. Like its sister the Olds Toronado, it was also a front-driver (the third, the Buick Riviera was a conventional rear-driver).

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: In one word – style. The 1967 Eldorado was one of the recently retired GM Global Design chief, Ed Welburn’s, favorites.  A fair bit of the Eldo still shows up in Cadillac’s current design language. Also, we’re suckers for a huge V-8 and the ones used in this generation of the Eldo were among the most massive ever, ranging from 429 cubic inches all the way up to 500.

9. 1971 Citroen SM

WHAT WAS IT? Citröen’s bid to build the most technically advanced GT car on the planet.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK:  The SM (which stood for Systéme Maserati after the car’s Italian V-6) was a seriously outrageous car. It looked like nothing else seen before or since. Wildly unconventional like a Citröen DS, but unlike the DS, it didn’t resemble a basking shark. It was actually quite pretty, particularly with the proper covered European headlights. Like all Citröens of the era, advanced, highly pressurized hydraulics ensured that ride, steering and braking were superior to anything else on the road. Carbon fiber wheels were even an option although nobody runs them today—they’re pretty much irreplaceable.

10. 1983 VW Rabbit GTI MK1

WHAT WAS IT? The first car that gave Americans a clue as to what they were missing in European hot hatches.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: By today’s standards, the first GTIs that Americans got (known as Golf GTIs to the rest of the world) were underpowered and not particularly quick. Not to mention they were less than carefully assembled in a soon-to-shutter Pennsylvania factory. But for the time, the car was a revelation. Plaid sport seats held the driver in place well enough to cope with the grip generated by the standard Pirelli P6 tires and the 90 hp generated by the 1.8-L four-cylinder at least made for some buzzy good fun. For some odd reason, MK1 GTIs seem like they’ve been preserved more frequently than the superior MK2 GTI. Nice MK1s still turn up on a pretty regular basis.