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Posts filed under ‘FWD Champions’

FWD Champions: The ’88-’92 Mazda MX-6

January 2, 2012 by Matt

Mazda MX-6 MX6 GT Turbo Gray Grey Silver

There’s one of these at the house at the end of our road. A white one. I stare at it every time I drive by. Every time I stroll by its house during a walk with the kids, I have half a mind to ask the owner if he’d be interested in selling.

Even with the GT trim line’s 2.2l, 145 hp turbocharged 4-cyl engine, the first-generation Mazda MX-6 was never a screamer. 0-60 time was around 7.5 seconds—respectable for the era, but not necessarily quick. The style, too, was understated almost to the point of anonymity. The fascia in particular has no elements whatsoever that would distinguish it from your average Japanese sedan of the period. And to top it all off, the car was exclusively FWD. So what’s the big deal?

Mazda MX-6 MX6 LX Brown Black

As with many cars I enjoy, what matters are the details, and what’s under the sheet metal. Study the car’s proportions for a minute. Notice the subtle fender flares and shape of the spoiler, among other cues. Remind you of anything? An R32 Skyline, perhaps? The car’s stance radiates a quiet undercurrent of mild aggression I find very appealing.

As nice as the shape is, the core of the first-gen MX-6’s draw are the mechanical bits. As mentioned above, the GT trim line was fitted with a 145 hp turbo’d 4-banger. The horsepower figure may not be much to write home about, but the many owners and enthusiasts feel it may have been underrated, and the torque number stands at a very stout 190 ft-lbs. Not only that, the nucleus of the engine itself served in a number of noteworthy sporting Mazdas, including the 323 GTX cult car and the first-gen Miata, and is well-known to be nearly indestructible, and very responsive to basic mods.

Mazda MX-6 MX6 4WS Four 4 Wheel Steering Diagram Schematic Drawing System

The ’88-’92 MX-6’s real party piece is illustrated above: The 4-wheel steering system. Offered around the world for the majority of the car’s run, but only in North America for the ’89 model year, Mazda’s 4WS system was very close in concept to that of the concurrent Honda Prelude. A computer-controlled steering rack was fitted to the rear wheels with the ability to turn them up to an angle of 5 degrees. The rear wheels turned the opposite direction from the fronts, tightening the turning circle and enhancing maneuverability, up to a vehicle speed of around 22 mph, at which point all four wheels turned the same direction, giving the MX-6 better high-speed stability. A system failure, or routine power down (as in turning the car off) automatically returned the rear wheels to straight ahead. Added weight and complexity, sure, but the car wasn’t that heavy or complex to begin with, it did mitigate some of FWD’s inherent disadvantages, and the cool factor is off the charts. Put all that together, and you have a worthy addition to our parade of notable FWD cars.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The Audi Coupe GT

December 8, 2011 by Matt

Audi Coupe GT Type 85 Silver

The Audi Coupe GT is a seemingly humdrum FWD variant of the car that put its automaker on the map in the modern era, the Quattro. Their respective values in the used car marketplace illustrate the disparity between the two cars: The significance, performance and rarity of the latter model means its prices can top $10K for a good copy, even today, while a clean Coupe GT can be had for less than $2K.

As alluded to, the difference in value arises from a combination of attributes possessed uniquely by the Quattro: its turbocharged engine, pioneering AWD, exclusivity (only 664 were imported to the US) and rally-style boxy fender flares, among other minor cosmetic touches. If the Quattro is the ne plus ultra of Audis in the ’80s, then, is there anything to like about the Coupe GT? What more is it than an attempt to cash in on the performance variant’s image by offering a car that mimicked its overall shape but was fitted with vastly inferior running gear?

Audi Coupe GT Type 85

Well, be that as it may, a closer look reveals quite a bit to like about the lesser car. For one thing, the absence of the extra differentials and driveshafts required by AWD lowers the Coupe GT’s weight by roughly 400 lbs compared to the Quattro’s 2,800 lbs. The Coupe GT’s 2.2l SOHC 5-cylinder may only develop 115 hp versus the Quattro’s 160, but it has proportionally less car to haul around. The engine’s location out over the front axle is unchanged, so the without the extra tackle in the rear, the Coupe GT’s weight distribution actually suffers relative to its sibling, but the overall car’s relative lack of mass pays dividends when it comes to chassis response. Light weight is the gift that keeps on giving.

Audi Coupe GT Type 85 Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Not only that, but Audi seems to have taken a page from Volkswagen’s GTI playbook and invested the Coupe GT with healthy dose of grin-inducing playfulness. Its lightness certainly plays a role, and the rear beam axle (same design as the GTI’s), rack-and-pinion steering and general suspension tuning seal the deal. It’s a testament to the Coupe GT’s handling quality and tunability that it’s relatively frequent participant in certain classes of road racing. And a pre-facelift (< ’85) fitted with slightly larger wheels, Euro headlights and lowered is a very handsome car, without the box flares arguably even more sleek than its big brother. Far from being a cynical spinoff of the Quattro, Audi had the good sense to infuse the Coupe GT with its own identity, one that makes it a FWD car I could happily live with.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The VW Corrado

October 13, 2011 by Matt

VW Volkswagen Corrado Coraddo Corado Rear Yellow

The ’89-’94 Volkswagen Corrado. The automaker’s last attempt at a stateside sports car. Possessed of possibly the most wedge-like profile in all of automotivedom, stubby yet nicely tailored. And building on the foundation laid by its predecessor the Scirocco, engineered just about as well as a FWD chassis can be.

VW Volkswagen Corrado Coraddo Corado Front Yellow

The car arrived on the scene in ’89 touting a significant string of positives: A relatively low 2800 lb curb weight; a supercharged, 160 hp 4-banger (upgraded in ’92 to a 178 hp VR6); sharp steering and punchy, aggressive lines. By all rights, the Corrado should have advanced from the beachhead the Scirocco established, but instead, it was a chronically slow seller, tallying only 97,000 sales on both sides of the Atlantic until VW pulled the plug in ’95.

So why didn’t the car catch on? For one, the Japanese sports car wars were heating up, stealing the VW car’s thunder in the press with their turbocharged one-upmanship. The Corrado, VW’s halo car and speediest offering at the time, slotted in with the “2nd tier” sports coupes like the Ford Probe, Nissan 240SX and Toyota Celica—and it held its own, but each of its rivals had “older brothers” to elevate their image; the Corrado was comparatively isolated and ignored. Additionally, for VW, the three letters “GTI” define their sporty image in the minds of many; higher-end sports coupes, no matter how well executed, have traditionally had a difficult time fitting into VW’s lineup next their legendary hot hatch.

VW Volkswagen Corrado Coraddo Corado Interior

I love the styling, even if the stacking of the rear bumper area does tower a bit much. Particularly noteworthy design details include the light clusters in the bumper and subtle curve of the beltline. The interior combines “sport” and “business” in a uniquely German way and looks like a very inviting place to enjoy a twisty back road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. If only the Corrado had a touch less wedge in profile, its polished dynamics and exclusivity would make a very tempting FWD package.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The Peugeot 405 Mi16

September 20, 2011 by Matt

1989 1990 1991 Peugeot 405 Mi16 Mi 16

I really wish I’d driven this one. I guess I still can, assuming I can find one of the astronomically small number imported to the US from its native France during the car’s brief ’89-’91 model run here. My chances are decreased even further by the car’s appalling build quality, even when new. I had a subscription to Popular Science in ’91, and remember reading a four-way comparo that included the Peugeot, in which the magazine remarked:

The one mark against the interior was a set of squeaks and rattles that came free with the car at only 3,500 miles on the odometer.

So the 405 Mi16 is poorly-made, incredibly hard to find, FWD and French. Is there anything to like about this car?

1989 1990 1991 Peugeot 405 Mi16 Mi 16 Interior Inside Cockpit

Frankly, yes. From the same article:

The Mi16 is a lot of fun to push around, simply because it doesn’t misbehave.

And the Orlando Sentinel adds:

The car’s road manners are like those of BMW. The suspension is firm in a sporty way. There’s very little body roll, and if the 405 has a tendency to oversteer or understeer, I couldn’t detect it.

If there’s anything cars could use more of on this continent, it’s the Europeans’ proficiency in tuning their cars’ suspensions to be “firm in a sporty way.” That, and a dollop of the personality our neighbors from the other side of the pond are so adept an infusing into even their small cars. After all, it’s the continent that gave us the original VW Beetle and Golf GTI, the Mini and the BMW 2002. Who knows; perhaps some of the passion Pininfarina demonstrated when they penned the clean, taut lines trickled into the 405 Mi16’s road manners, or it could just be the combination of independent rear suspension, 5-speed manual, a 2,800 lb curb weight and an all-aluminum 1.9l, 160 hp 4-cyl. Whatever the case, I’d love experience one and add my own accolades to the pile.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The Saab 900

September 12, 2011 by Matt

Saab 900

I had originally dismissed this one as a pretender…until I took a closer look at its mechanicals. It has something of a cult following, too, and I’d like to believe at least part of the enthusiasm is based on some degree of dynamic ability. I can’t think of another FWD car that enjoys the Saab 900’s level of devotion without a fair amount of fun-to-drive factor. A test drive would elucidate the issue, to be sure; I should track down an owner’s club in the area. Hmm.

Saab 900 mechanical cutaway

To clarify, the car under consideration today is the ’78-’93 “true Saab” car, not the GM-ized ’94-’98 platform-sharing jellybean. The former had mechanical uniqueness to match its looks; the second-generation 900 was built on an Opel Vectra chassis and was depressingly conventional. A couple of under-the-sheetmetal features set the first-generation car apart: Double wishbone front suspension (the best configuration for handling) and a unique powertrain orientation that enabled much of the engine to sit behind the front axle line for better weight distribution. In the case of the second mechanical quirk, the engine is turned 180°, with the transaxle underneath and drawing power from the front of the engine. It doesn’t allow the powertrain to be located fully behind the front axle line, but it’s certainly superior to, say, Audi’s practice of hanging the entire engine out over the front axle. The rear suspension, for its part, is a simple beam axle of the type that has served VW’s hot hatches well over the years.

Saab 900 Interior

All that said, I’d never buy one for the dynamics alone. I can’t imagine that the car really offers a fundamentally different feel than a standard front-driver. However, other factors, including a very tunable turbo engine and general quirkiness and uniqueness, deepen its appeal considerably. The cockpit is businesslike and cool and the styling, while it wouldn’t win a beauty contest, is at least consistently unique. You certainly can’t examine its contours and conclude the designers chickened out anywhere—they were determined to create something that looked like nothing else on the road, and they succeeded. It’s weird, but it’s all weird, and it works—a statement that could apply equally well to its engineering, and for that, I give the whole package props.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The Volvo 850 T-5R

September 1, 2011 by Matt

Volvo 850 T-5R T5R

Once upon a time, Volvo got wacky. It’s never really happened before or since; in spite of a number of well-received sporty models, by and large, the company’s staid, conservative reputation is deserved.

But for one year, in 1995, the automaker went a little nuts with the release of a special edition of its midsize 850 family hauler: The T-5R. Despite Porsche’s hand in its development, the engine output wasn’t much to write home about: 240 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque from the transverse, turbo’d 5-cylinder driving the front wheels, producing a 7-second 0-60 time. And sadly, a manual transmission option was never offered in the US, but only in the Swedish automaker’s home market as well as Canada (?). In any case, what makes the car special isn’t really the performance, straight-line or lateral; it’s the context.

Volvo 850 T-5R T5R Engine

Most significantly, there was the image. As stated above, Volvo projects itself, for better or worse, as a safe, secure car company that makes safe, secure, somewhat joy-less cars. The introduction of the T-5R—only available in banana yellow, olive green or black, by the way—was a delightful jolt to the enthusiast community’s perception of the automaker. It’s like a boring friend that never takes a dare, and then suddenly completely breaks character and goes skydiving, as you smile through your mild shock. I felt like giving Volvo’s upper management a collective high five for approving the car for production. It was boxy and dorky, but unbelievably cool, and still is—a collection of adjectives that neatly sums up the output of the aftermarket Volvo tuner scene. I give Volvo major props for recognizing what performance-oriented owners were doing to their Volvos, and packaging the car accordingly. If only more automakers would cater to their enthusiast customers so effectively.

There’s one more piece of the puzzle: What the car emerged from. Up until the release of the 850 (on which the T-5R was based) in ’93, Volvo had never sold a FWD car on our shores. Presumably in search of greater packaging efficiency, the automaker switched its whole line to FWD, and hasn’t made a proper rear-driver since. Enthusiasts greatly lamented the abandonment of the RWD platform, and just as we were surrendering ourselves to the possibility that Volvo had firmly decided to become a creator of genuinely boring FWD appliances, out popped the T-5R, cluing us into the fact they actually had a sense of humor and fun. What took them so long?

For what the car did for Volvo in the midst of the company’s FWD transition, in spite of its one-year model run and inherent FWD limitations, the T-5R deserves recognition and acclaim.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The Honda Prelude

August 17, 2011 by Matt

97-01 Honda Prelude

Honda really can work wonders with their front-wheel-drive architecture. Take the 5th-generation (’97-’01) Prelude—the example under consideration here—which Car and Driver declared in ’97, after a comparo, to be the best handling car available for under $30K. And even when, just for kicks, they pitted the car several months later against the $30K-and-up crop of cars, the Prelude, hampered by the inherent limitations of FWD and only 197 hp from its H22A 4-cylinder, posted a respectable mid-pack finish, garnering the same score as the brutally fast Viper GTS. It’s a remarkable achievement for a 3000 lb FWD car with 63/37 weight distribution.

97-01 Honda Prelude Interior

What makes the difference? In a word, details. As mentioned above, the ’97-’01 Prelude was the 5th incarnation of Honda’s top-of-the-line sporty coupe, so they really had perfected the formula by the time of its release. The ideal suspension setup for handling—double wishbones all around—laid a strong foundation, and the steering feel’s perfection was matched by the action of the typically slick-shifting 5-speed. And the interior, liberated of the previous generation’s universally-decried weirdness, was a paragon of no-nonsense ergonomic efficiency.

97-01 Honda Prelude

All that said, as you might expect, the attribute that moves the car from “that’s nice” to “I’d seriously consider one as a daily driver” territory is the styling. Again eschewing the hunchbacked oddity of the ’92-’96 car’s design, Honda wisely chose to normalize the proportions, free the flanks of any chunky cladding, and inject a little Nissan R32 Skyline into the profile. It gives the car an aggressive, upscale look that has aged very well indeed. The only questionable element is the portrait-orientation headlight treatment, but even that isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s an exceedingly handsome car, and between that and the universal acclaim heaped on its handling prowess, I’d drive one in a New York minute. Even if the front wheels are doing all the work.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The VW Scirocco

August 10, 2011 by Matt

MK1 Volkswagen Scirocco

I love rear-wheel-drive cars. There’s nothing like the feel of a car whose front wheels’ sole responsibility is directing the car, and whose rear wheels’ mission in life is to push the car forward. It feels natural, balanced, efficient, perfect—and this in everyday driving; it doesn’t take a track junkie to pick up on the appeal.

That said, there are a few cars that could possibly tempt me away from my RWD fixation. It does take a lot to overcome my FWD prejudices; the car in question has to have a whole host of attributes stacked in its favor, whether lightness, or character, or chassis tuning, or just uniqueness and/or cool factor. It usually ends up being a combination.

Today, we look at the first in a series of cars that make FWD seem downright attractive: The ’75-’88 Volkswagen Scirocco.

Introduced in the mid-’70s by VW as a sportier complement to their Beetle-replacing Golf, the Scirocco took its more plebeian brother’s underpinnings, firmed them up, and wrapped them in a rakish Giugiaro-penned body. As with the Mini, its basic light weight and low-ish center of gravity (especially when lowered) masked a lot of inherent FWD disadvantages, and its styling gave it a lean and agile look absent the boxier Golf.

MK1 Volkswagen Scirocco

I love the way the first-generation (’75-’81) Scirocco looks. The wedge shape doesn’t convey pretenses of straight-line speed, but makes the car look downright hungry for a twisty road. In spite of its uprated specifications, it wasn’t nearly as popular as the Golf, which gave it a certain exclusivity, at least on this side of the pond. So the rare/cool factor is present as well.

MK1 Volkswagen Scirocco Interior

The interior is German-functional and businesslike. There’s nothing exceptional about it, but there doesn’t need to be—it’s an environment designed to focus you on the task of driving. No fluff; just a sense of ergonomic precision and purpose.

MK2 Volkswagen Scirocco

The “Mark 2” Scirocco (shown above) arrived in ’82, and while the styling alterations (especially the rear side window treatment) took a step back from the truncated wedge shape that made the previous generation’s look so appealing, dynamic improvements, including a new 16-valve engine, gave the car chops in the acceleration department to match its handling prowess.

I’m not as big a fan of the Mark 2 as I am its predecessor, but I’d still take one in a pinch—the “’80s look” appeals, and the essential goodness and rarity of the car are still there.

Either way, the Scirocco is an excellent ambassador for the FWD platform. As much of a diehard RWD-er as I am, I wouldn’t object to having one to fling about on a daily basis.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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