GRR

The 7 best front-wheel-drive cars 2023

08th August 2023
Russell Campbell

Legend has it that proper car enthusiasts only drive rear-wheel-drive cars, but much like Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster such declarations often turn out to be entirely false. The latest crop of hot hatches serves up a unique handling balance, which we urge you to sample. Hot hatches have another benefit that a rear-wheel-drive sportscar can't hope to match – they're practical, opening up the realm of fun cars to more than just the well-heeled or childless. Here's our guide to the best jack-of-all-trade, front-wheel-drive performance cars currently on sale.

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1. Honda Civic Type R

The old Honda Civic Type R was a fabulous hot hatch demonstrating immense speed and composure on even the most technical roads. Still, its questionable looks knocked it down a peg or two on the lists of many buyers. Thankfully, the new model is even better to drive, and its subtle style won't immediately rule out half the population.

Power comes from a revised version of the old 2.0-litre four-cylinder with 329PS (242kW) good for 0-62mph in 5.4 seconds and a 171mph top speed. The driving experience is an intoxicating blend of raw, straight-line pace and phenomenal cornering grip that stoically refuses to be knocked by bumps, dips and cambers.

The magical effects of its mechanical LSD are mere icing on the cake. Lovely steering, superb gear change and impressive ride comfort mean you can enjoy Honda at average speeds, too. Meanwhile, the roomy back seat, big boot and vastly improved infotainment make it a family car that requires no excuses.

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2. Abarth 500e

The Abarth 500e is not without its faults – it's pricey, droney on the motorway and short on range – but if you're looking for a front-wheel-drive car you can enjoy in the city, this is the one for you.

Electric power is key, giving the Abarth urban performance that belies its modest (155PS/114kW, 0-62mph in seven seconds, top speed 99mph) performance stats. Instant torque means the Abarth scrabbles off the line like a terrier with a rocket up its bottom, and with a single gear, acceleration is seamless.

Abarth's sound synthesiser (the cause of the drone mentioned above) at town speeds injects a generous dose of Italian Brio into the experience, mimicking the gurgles and pops of the old petrol models. The 500e small size makes it ideal for scurrying through whatever rat runs Waze throws your way. And, being an EV, you’re exempt from paying inner city emissions charges.

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3. Cupra Leon 300

In many ways, the Cupra Leon is an odd hot hatch. At first, it feels immensely grown up, the styling is subtle. All the while its 2.0-litre four-cylinder produces 300PS (220kW) for 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, and a 155mph limited top speed, but its linear power delivery and muted soundtrack mean it doesn't feel as explosive as some of the alternatives we’ve featured on this list.

The handling appears unexceptional at first, too. That is until you let the steering weigh up, lift your foot off the accelerator and discover the Cupra will wag its tail like a Labrador on heat, except with significantly more control. It's a surprising twist in what is an outwardly solemn hot hatch.

Everything else is as sensible as you'd expect for a VAG product. The interior is a tad dull but well-designed and squeezes a surprising amount of space out of the car's modest footprint.

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4. Skoda Octavia vRS Estate

If the Cupra Leon merely appears sensible, the Skoda Octavia vRS estate – another VAG product – is sensibleness personified. It's a hot hatch that you buy as much for its rear seat legroom and cavernous boot as you do for the smile it can put on your face.

It uses a detuned version of the Leon's 2.0-litre producing 245PS (180kW) for 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds and 155mph flat out. In the Skoda, the distinctive exhaust noise, rock-solid body control and mechanical LSD you get in other hot hatches makes way for high-speed refinement, compliant ride comfort and 40mpg fuel economy, which, when you factor in the cabin space (there's lots of it), makes this the most family-friendly car on this list.

But this is still a car you can have a laugh in. The vRS will reveal its fun side if you dig deep enough, its neat handling translates into considerable pace. 

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5. Hyundai i20N

Hyundai's 'N' badge is still a relative unknown amongst the likes of GTI, ST and Type R that we've become accustomed to, so it may surprise you (it did us) that the Hyundai i20N is one of the best hot hatches out there.

You'll be less surprised when you read the spec sheet. Along with a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder producing 204PS (150kW) (for 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds and a 143mph top speed), the i20N rides 40mm lower than the standard car, has a strengthened chassis and mechanical LSD. On the road, it feels like an old-school hot hatch with gutsy performance and handling that encourages you to throw it into corners by the scruff of its neck.

Yet this is still a sensible purchase with five doors, a five-year warranty and the potential to return 40mpg fuel economy.

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6. Mini Cooper

While adding the Cooper S or JCW to this list would be easy, the standard Cooper is the sweet spot in the three-door Mini range thanks to skinny tyres and a peppy engine. Less grip translates into a playful chassis that will stick or rotate on its axis according to your mood.

Meanwhile, the Cooper's 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine delivers on multiple angles. Its light weight makes the Cooper feel more eager to turn in, its 911-like thrum is more aurally pleasing than its big brothers' four-cylinders, and it also costs buttons to run, with 50mpg a distinct possibility.

The performance sounds brisk rather than startling – 138PS (101kW) delivers 0-62mph in eight seconds and a 130mph top speed – but it suits the cheery demeanour of the rest of the car and, unlike the faster versions, you can have a slick manual gearbox. 

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7. Ford Fiesta ST

The Ford Fiesta ST went out of production at the end of June 2023, but that doesn’t mean we’ll easily forget about one of the best front-wheel-drive cars the world has ever seen. The Fiesta ST is all about having fun. You get cheeky looks on the outside and a pair of body-clamping Recaros on the inside.

Performance from the Fiesta's 200PS (147kW) 1.5-litre three-cylinder is ample. It rockets from 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds and on to 143mph flat out. But the Fiesta is about more than numbers. An active exhaust provides crackles and pops on demand, and the stiffly sprung chassis means it corners like a whippet, with a mechanical LSD clawing it out of corners.

The 'sensible' box is also ticked, with vastly improved refinement compared to the old model and cylinder deactivation (which turns this triple into a twin on the motorway) for 40mpg fuel economy.

  • List

  • Honda

  • Civic

  • Type R

  • Abarth

  • 500e

  • Cupra

  • Leon

  • Skoda

  • Octavia

  • vRS

  • Hyundai

  • i20N

  • Mini

  • Ford

  • Fiesta ST

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