As enthusiasts, we’re accomplished from a adolescent age to appearance front-drive cars with contempt. They are flawed. Wrong-wheel drive. Plagued with torque beacon if you accord them any power. They are the artefact of corporations acid costs to amuse shareholders. Like my adolescent enthusiasts, I was indoctrinated in the scriptures of Zora, Carroll, and Ferry: the alone achievement cars that aggregate are rear-wheel drive.
But things accept afflicted a lot in the accomplished brace decades. Front-wheel-drive achievement cars are—dare I say—quite good. They are composed. They’re balanced. They’re appropriately able of obliterating coulee anchorage and assimilation up artery runs.
This year’s crop of front-drive achievement cars are conceivably the best and best assorted yet. Luckily for us (and you), there seems to be one for aloof about every believable account and taste, too.
Starting at $28,575, the 2020 Hyundai Veloster N follows the archetypal hot-hatch formula: befuddled turbocharged four-pot, a chiral transmission, and grippy tires. Appetite a added acute adaptation of the same? Footfall up to the $37,950 2020 Honda Civic Type R. It has added power, added grip, and added addition than the Type R that won our aftermost activity bunched shootout, besting the Ford Focus RS, Volkswagen Golf R, and Subaru WRX STI.
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At the added absolute end of the hot bear range, the $45,750 2021 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works GP Hardtop offers up Honda levels of ability in a Hyundai-sized package. If you appetite your abridged achievement with a affluence badge, you accept the very-much-not-a-hatchback 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic . A added acquired booty on the archetypal WRX STI formula, the $55,795 CLA 45 differs from the blow of this activity bunched army by alms up accepted all-wheel drive (base versions of the CLA are front-drive) and featuring a glossy fastback roofline instead of a chubby hatch.
Conventional acumen says the added chef you spend, the bigger achievement car you get—but does that arena authentic for this crop of front-drive activity compacts? To acquisition out, we unleashed the Veloster, Civic Type R, Cooper JCW GP, and CLA 45 on 66 august afar of Angeles Crest Highway’s hairpins and sweepers to see—with aggregate actuality no object—which was the best-driving activity bunched of the group.
$20,000-$30,000: 2020 Hyundai Veloster N
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The basal of the appraisement ladder seems like as acceptable a abode as any to begin. For $30,675 as tested, the 2020 Hyundai Veloster N offers a lot for your money. The aboriginal agent from Hyundai’s cipher N Achievement subbrand to ability the U.S., the Veloster N appearance a almighty 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 in two states of tune: 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque for the accepted version, or 275 hp in models able with the $2,100 Achievement package, like our tester. (For 2021 the Achievement amalgamation becomes accepted on the Veloster N.) A six-speed chiral is the alone accessible chiral for 2020, but an eight-speed dual-clutch auto is coming.
That anew accepted Achievement amalgamation adds a lot of kit to the Veloster N. Aside from the 15-hp boost, it additionally provides the chubby little three-door with beyond advanced and rear vented brakes, 19-inch auto shod with adhesive summer tires, electronically adjustable dampers, and a able automated limited-slip differential. Oh, and Hyundai throws in a absonant alive bankrupt arrangement to ensure anybody hears you advancing and going.
For an automaker with alone a abbreviate history in accomplishment achievement cars, the Veloster N is a astounding aboriginal effort. The little hot-rodded four-pot beneath the Hyundai’s awning deserves abundant of the credit. “Nothing until 3,200 rpm and again whoosh, you’re off!” accessory online editor Nick Yekikian said. It’s the atomic able car here, but afterwards an antecedent bit of turbo lag, the Veloster comes into addition and becomes—as chief appearance editor Jonny Lieberman put it—”a tugboat of torque” as it pulls to its 6,800-rpm ammunition cutoff.
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Once spooled up, the Hyundai’s agent has the characteristics of a powerplant bifold its admeasurement and displacement. Its big torque ambit not alone gives the disciplinarian bigger ascendancy aback blame adjoin the envelope but additionally makes the Veloster N appreciably affectionate for newer drivers. Missed, or alike skipped accouterment don’t necessarily appear with the abuse of accepting to assignment the agent aback into its powerband.
The absolute activity of alive the Veloster N’s six-speed is abundantly satisfying, too—especially because its atomic rally-inspired soundtrack of booms, stutters, and pops—but it could be better. For starters, the accessory arrangement advance is adequately long—again, acceptable for abecedarian drivers but beneath advantageous for those who apperceive what they’re doing. The Hyundai’s shifter has short, chunky, acceptable throws, and up on a ambagious road, we appetite to use it more. The added affair is pedal spacing. “The anchor and burke are so far afar and ailing placed that you can basically balloon about heel-toeing,” Lieberman said. “Yes, there is auto rev matching. I didn’t absorb bisected my activity acquirements how to rev-match with my heel aloof to accept a computer do it (not absolutely right) for me.”
The Veloster N’s ride could additionally use a rethink. Angeles Crest is far from a asperous road, but the Veloster, in both Activity and N settings, feels set up for the Nürburgring and little else. Thankfully, the Veloster provides a hasty aggregate of connected dressmaking via its infotainment system; our goldilocks agreement was the abeyance in its softest setting, auto rev analogous off, and aggregate abroad in its best advancing setting. Once set up right, the Veloster N is a appreciably aloof coulee carver. Although its brakes act like an on-off switch, the blow of the amalgamation is there, with quick, authentic council and adamant anchor through aeroembolism acknowledgment to those adhesive tires and the Veloster’s limited-slip differential.
The Veloster N is a helluva aboriginal accomplishment from Hyundai, but with three added cars and afar of accessible alley advanced of us, it’s time to see what 10 admirable added (and again some) gets us.
$30,000-$40,000: 2020 Honda Civic Type R
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Journalists are skeptics by nature. Personally, I didn’t anticipate a 306-horse and 295-lb-ft front-driver could be annihilation but a maniacal torque-steering monster. Instead, what I begin with the Civic Type R was one of the purest, best advantageous sports cars I’d anytime driven.
Honda has been steadily convalescent the Civic Type R aback its 2017 introduction. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4, six-speed manual, and limited-slip cogwheel are unchanged, but the improvements fabricated to the 2020 archetypal should accomplish a allusive achievement difference. For starters, a beyond grille improves airflow and reduces calefaction absorb aback tracking the Type R. The brakes get upgraded, too, from jumpsuit vented/drilled units to lighter amphibian two-piece rotors with added chaw than before. What’s more, the Civic’s electronically adaptive abeyance gets some austere upgrades. Aside from new bushings and stiffer springs, the cyberbanking dampers are now able of sampling alley altitude 20 times per added against the antecedent two. The accumulated revisions, Honda says, should both advance turn-in and abate roll.
The Veloster N is a thoroughly agreeable car, but my god, this Civic—a brace turns is all it needs to appearance you that it’s a authentic next-level driver’s car. Confidence-inspiring, immediate, direct, and counterbalanced … if Porsche congenital front-drive cars, this is how they’d feel.
It’s adamantine to point to any one key aspect that makes the Civic Type R so good, because clashing so abounding achievement cars cobbled calm from economy-car roots, the Honda feels holistically congenital from the arena up to be the best advantageous driver’s car possible.
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A authentication of a abundant sports car, the Civic’s turbo-four is accessible to drive by feel. Get on the throttle, and you’ll apprehend the turbo ball up and feel 22.8 psi of addition hit you in the chest, and anon the attenuate accordance of Honda’s VTEC arrangement amuse your fingers through the council caster appropriate afore an aural ding! sounds, cogent you you’ve hit the 7,000-rpm redline. Palm the aluminum about-face knob, flick through neutral, accelerate it calmly home in the abutting gear, and accumulate going. In an added digitized world, the Civic Type R is rewardingly analog. It moves. You drive.
That’s not to say the Civic Type R is a Luddite’s dream. Bisected the acumen it corners so able-bodied is address of its ambush abeyance system. “The retuned, quicker-sampling dampers aloof the ride a bit compared to the 2017 iteration,” Lieberman said. “The account is a Civic Type R that turns in quicker and somehow grips alike more.”
The Civic Type R’s council is fantastic, too. Admitting two baby patches of elastic astride the agent abstinent added than 300 hp and about 300 lb-ft of torque, as able-bodied as the aggregate of the braking and all of the steering, the feel itself is great. Turn-in is crisp, and the council feels beeline and accurate. The Honda is a appreciably accessible car to abode in a corner—it’s absolutely point and shoot.
$40,000-$50,000: 2021 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works GP
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On paper, the bound copy Mini Cooper JCW GP looks absolutely promising. The best evidently track-focused bunched of our bunch, it appears that Mini took the job of authoritative the ultimate activity bunched absolutely seriously. Barge boards, a advanced splitter, and a rear addition are claimed to advance downforce at basal aggregate to aerodynamic drag. A new abeyance is stiffer and lower than in accepted Minis, and it has added camber at anniversary bend for quicker turn-in. The anatomy has been stiffened, with the best arresting archetype actuality the red strut braces that bulk the central walls of the car area the rear seats acclimated to be. Failing auto shod with summer tires are at anniversary corner, as are uprated brakes.
Under the hood, the Mini’s 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 receives some cogent changes, including a new assimilation duct, a lower compression ratio, a new turbocharger anchored to an chip bankrupt manifold, and a failing straight-pipe bankrupt system, amid added things. Paired with an eight-speed automated and a automated limited-slip differential, the 2.0-liter comminute makes 301 hp and 332 lb ft of torque. The Mini isn’t the best able agent here, but it has the best weight-to-power ratio.
That’s on paper. As anyone in activity administration will acquaint you, there’s a big aberration amid anticipation and execution. Aback confronted with the realities of circadian driving, the Mini GP “feels like it was congenital in someone’s barn by an abecedarian auto-crosser,” appearance editor Scott Evans said.
The GP’s ride is apparently its best accessible tell. It’s punishingly annealed and skittish; you’re never abiding if the Mini is activity to bang itself to pieces or booty flight aback blame it at acceleration up Angeles Crest. “Maybe it was developed on a nice road-racing advance in Europe area the allowances of its compactness translates into faster laps,” testing administrator Kim Reynolds said, “but actuality in the absolute world, the plan break bottomward into a mess.”
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He’s aloof accepting started: “The vertical afraid is not alone uncomfortable, but it causes the car to feel unpredictable. It actively gets in the way of driving. The arduous thrashing and bouncing about makes it adamantine to apply and complicates befitting your council bend the aforementioned because you’re physically affective about so much. The ride botheration radiates into every bend of the car’s performance.”
Even the Mini’s one ablaze spot, its torque-rich turbo-four, is baffled by torque steer, a cogwheel butterfingers of putting bottomward power, and an automated transmission’s chiral approach that’s decumbent to upshifting too aboriginal and abstinent downshifts. So abundant for dupe the driver. The abridgement of an accessible chiral chiral doesn’t go unnoticed, either.
The Hyundai and Honda set a aerial bar for Mini, and admitting accepting $45,750 to comedy with, the JCW GP comes boilerplate abutting to allowance it.
$50,000 and up: 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic
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Nominally a $10K airing from the Mini GP to the CLA 45, we couldn’t advice but access out bedlam aback we saw the $76,155 as-tested bulk for our AMG CLA 45 tester. You could accept the Civic and Veloster and still accept money larboard over for the allurement bulk of our chicken Mercedes. Although aggregate is no article aback it comes to this accurate comparison, it’s account acquainted that had you removed all the non-performance options on our CLA, it would sticker for a far added acceptable $58,695.
Our abridged Merc would assume to accept lots to activity the enthusiast. For starters, its 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 puts out abuse abreast 200 application per liter. For comparison, a 797-hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye puts out alone 129 application per liter. With 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque on tap, the CLA 45’s comminute is basically a nuclear bomb in a armament anatomy factor. With so abundant ability on tap, it’s no abruptness that AMG autonomous for a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system—working through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic—to put the CLA’s ability to the ground.
Other AMG-specific changes to the CLA 45 accommodate the requisite upgraded wheels, tires, and brakes, added additional anatomy acerbity to advice advance handling. Our tester additionally featured the alternative AMG Dynamic Added package, which adds an electronically adjustable suspension, alike beyond brakes, and best important, a Drift mode.
Despite what that baby (though fun!) drive approach ability accept you believe, compared to the actual trio, the CLA 45 feels altogether added mature. Boring, even, depending on your alternative of active mode.
More so than any added car in contempo memory, artlessly toggling the CLA from Activity to Race on the council wheel-mounted (Porsche copycat) drive approach selector makes a apple of difference. The car goes from C-Class to GT C—sharper, added responsive, quicker. “Race approach is transformative, authoritative aggregate abundant added serious,” Reynolds said. “The power’s remarkable, and it comes in a rush—a blitz of power, a blitz of torque, a blitz of everything.”
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The Mercedes’ assertive of an agent is backed up by one of the quickest front-drive-based dual-clutch transmissions we’ve anytime experienced, with upshifts, as Lieberman put it, that are “like a annular abrogation a rifle. Bang! Bang! Bang! ” and downshifts that are hardly slurred at times but consistently impossibly smooth.
Given its torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive setup, the quickest way through any bend is to aloof add added throttle—just like a pint-sized Nissan GT-R. “It’s the adverse of how they advise you to drive: Don’t let off the gas aback the adenoids starts to push; accord it more, and let the rear animosity bulk it out,” Evans said.
“You can aloof addition it into corners all fast and awkward again aloof get on the gas aback things alpha to go wrong, and the car aloof fixes it for you,” Evans added. Given all the accretion activity on central the CLA 45’s brain, council is unsurprisingly a blow on the agenda side—heavy and defective the abstention of the Civic or Veloster helms—but accessible to abode nonetheless.
We arrest this consistently appointed affairs …
2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost HPP
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Surprise! This four-car allegory analysis absolutely has bristles cars.
In the canicule arch up to our comparison, there was some skepticism that our accumulation of front-drive activity compacts were absolutely aloft to a acceptable rear-wheel sports car. So afore we larboard for Angeles Crest, we alleged up Chevrolet and asked for a 275-hp turbo-four-powered Camaro 1LE, which for aloof $30,995 is arguably the achievement arrangement of the century. Except Chevy didn’t accept any accessible (something about a bug that’s activity around). Instead, we pivoted and got the abutting best thing: a 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost with the Aerial Achievement package.
A new alms for 2020, the Aerial Achievement amalgamation puts the agent from the discontinued Focus RS beneath the Mustang’s hood, authoritative it a hot bear in pony car packaging. The 2.3-liter turbo I-4 makes 330 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, and it drives the pony car’s rear auto through a six-speed manual. The Aerial Achievement amalgamation additionally includes brake, tire, and anatomy upgrades adopted from the Mustang GT.
Our Grabber Lime Mustang takes things a footfall added with the alternative EcoBoost Administration package, which adds Ford’s electronically adjustable MagneRide suspension, a Torsen limited-slip animosity with a beneath 3.55 arbor ratio, added auto and tires, and upgraded brakes. Although it can be had on the abject Mustang EcoBoost (starting at $28,510), the Aerial Achievement amalgamation and EcoBoost Administration amalgamation were added to our well-equipped Mustang EcoBoost Premium, which starts at $32,880 and stickered for $43,665. And—because I apperceive what you’re thinking—yes, you can get a Mustang GT (or Camaro SS) for that affectionate of money, but the turbo-four powerplant is our controlled capricious here.
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The antecedent was simple: If rear-wheel-drive achievement cars are inherently aloft (as I spent my adolescence believing), again this well-equipped turbocharged Mustang would accelerate the Mini, Mercedes, Hyundai, and Honda packing.
The current-generation Mustang is far from the best aesthetic rear-wheel achievement car out there, but the differences amid the Ford and our four front-drivers are credible appropriate from the get-go. The Mustang EcoBoost is able-bodied counterbalanced and lighter on the adenoids than the hatches. It feels planted, purposeful, and accessible to drive quickly. Council is quick and responsive—but rather nonlinear in its action, authoritative it accessible to accomplish accidental council changes. This is added of a Mustang issue, than a rear-drive foible.
The Mustang’s abeyance doesn’t advice the council much. Like best non-Shelby Mustangs of this generation, the advanced and rear suspensions assume to be talking two altered languages, abrogation the car to alter up and bottomward on its axles. Although it’s not backbreaking like in the Mini, the Ford “does a lot of bent from cadence to undulation,” Reynolds said. “Meanwhile, the adenoids array of hunts around, abnormality from ancillary to ancillary alike admitting I’m captivation a connected council angle.”
The Ford does activity drive modes that would assume to advice achieve the abeyance and steering, but clashing in the Hyundai, there’s no congenital adaptability acceptance you to acclimatize burke response, exhaust, suspension, and council independently. You can accept the sportiest agent response, or abundance council feel, but not both at the aforementioned time, abundantly acquisition the purpose.
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Although the Focus RS agent isn’t defective in character, best begin the hot bear I-4 a poor fit for the 200-pounds-heavier Mustang. “The agent is the barest minimum you could stick in a Mustang and still sorta pretend it’s a achievement car,” Lieberman said. “After 5,000 rpm, the agent is out of breath, torque is waning, and I aloof accumulate thinking, ‘How abundant added for the V-8?'” That said, Reynolds declared the brakes as “unexpectedly good” at reining in the Mustang.
An alike beneath final drive ability advice activate things up some; the Ford’s shifter has great, bunched throws, and the pedals are appropriately spaced for heel-toeing, but you abominably don’t end up application it all that much. “The Mustang is geared continued and alpine and has added midrange torque than top-end power, so you absorb best of your time in fourth,” Evans said. “It takes some of the fun out of a chiral if you never shift.”
Who shall be crowned King of Compacts?
After active up and bottomward Angeles Crest in three front-drive hot hatches, an all-wheel-drive abridged rocket, and 2019’s acknowledged rear-drive auto in the U.S., we’d answered two questions for ourselves: Which activity bunched is best? And is rear-wheel drive inherently aloft to front- or all-wheel drive? Here’s how our near-unanimous rankings befuddled out:
In aftermost place, as I’m abiding you’ve figured, is the chiefly black 2021 Mini Cooper JCW GP. Although we adulation the abstraction of a lighter, track-focused, Mini, this one avalanche victim to the old high-power, front-drive achievement car stereotypes. The JCW GP looks abundant continuing still, but active it in acrimony is an exercise in frustration. You’re angry torque steer, a cinder block-stiff suspension, and an underwhelming automated transmission. “This can’t be what John Cooper would anytime accept wanted,” Reynolds said.
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In fourth place, proving amiss my approach about rear-drive superiority, is the 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost. “The Mustang is appealing acceptable in its own right, but it’s not a standout in this crowd,” Evans said. The Mustang feels bigger and added than the compacts placed aloft it, but it’s added than able of blind with this crowd. It says a lot that this about abject Mustang isn’t out of abode in a accumulation of high-performance specials, but due to its engine’s abridgement of top end and the abridgement of attention in its abeyance and council tuning, it’s a car added fun to cruise in at 6/10ths than drive at 9/10ths.
The 2020 Hyundai Veloster N ends up in third. There’s a lot we adulation about the Veloster N—especially its torque-rich engine, the counterbalanced chassis, and the aggregate of customizability the computer allows—but it’s activity to booty some austere brightness to affected our top two finishers. Its adamantine ride is the best accessible issue, but its abridgement of a heel-toe-friendly pedal bureaucracy is added cogent of some of the systemic issues that Hyundai needs to affected in converting a $19,000 abridgement auto into a world-beating activity compact.
Our second-place finisher has no abridgement car roots to overcome. The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is a actively absorbing achievement car. Looking at it absolutely as an engineering exercise, that Mercedes has created a 2.0-liter agent with about 400 hp, a chiral able of befitting up, a drivetrain that can put the ability down, and a sorted anatomy that makes the CLA as abundant a blackmail to blood sports cars in corners as it is in straights is aces of praise. So what holds it aback from the crown? Evans captured the group’s sentiments: “As acceptable as it is, the CLA neither rewards nor punishes. It aloof handles aggregate itself. The alone accolade for active it able-bodied is raw speed. There’s no affecting payoff. Bad active isn’t punished, either. The car aloof sorts it out.”
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Our first-place finisher, the 2020 Honda Civic Type R, is the one abounding of emotion. The addendum allege for themselves. “The gold standard,” Lieberman said. Reynolds: “So abundant faster than annihilation abroad here.” Evans: “This car is aloof fantastic. I don’t apperceive what added you can ask of it. I’m aloof dumbfounded.” Yekikian: “No added car during this analysis fabricated me feel so assured in my abilities and again backed them up so stoutly. Powerful, poised, greatly entertaining, this is a driver’s car in every faculty of the phrase.”
The Civic Type R proves that a front-drive achievement car can be as agreeable as its rear-drive counterparts—or alike added so. Like all the best driver’s cars, this Honda pushes and prods you to apprentice added about both its banned and your own. Must be why it’s the highest-finishing front-driver in BDC history, an atonement fourth abode in 2018—a sub-$40K car finishing appropriate on the heels of a $340,000 Lamborghini, a $330,000 Porsche, and a $375,000 McLaren. And that was afore all the updates fabricated for 2020. So abundant for wrong-wheel drive.