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Posts filed under ‘FWD Champions’

FWD Champions: The Peugeot 205 GTI

April 1, 2013 by Matt

Peugeot 205 GTI White

The alloy wheels, the wedgy, aggressive stance… Growing up a budding car enthusiast in southern France and blind to little else besides high-end exotics, the Peugeot 205 GTI made an impression. It stood out.

It helped that I wasn’t so inured to the sight of visually hopped-up economy cars; in the mid-late ’80s a budget hatchback with sporting pretensions was something new. And in the case of the 205 GTI, the appeal extended beneath its skin. As with its VW equivalent, the specs weren’t anything to get excited about: 1.6 and 1.9 liter engine options producing a maximum of only 126 hp pulling a chassis whose underpinnings were decidedly bargain-basement. A little carefully-applied suspension tuning and some detail changes here and there, though, made the 205 GTI feel positively alive behind the wheel, never mind the fact that power was delivered to the front wheels.

Peugeot 205 GTI Red

It just looked light, lithe, playful, spritely—and the chassis delivered in massive fashion with telepathic steering response and an eagerness to rotate that beggared belief for a FWD car. The simple, unadorned lines have aged remarkably well too; it still looks almost as fresh as it did 30 years ago. It’s a case study for car designers in how carefully proportioning (as opposed to mere decoration) can dramatically extend a car’s stylistic shelf life.

Peugeot 205 GTI Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

Sadly, the 205 GTI was never imported to the US. The car’s massive success overseas prompted talks of bringing it stateside, but in the end it came to naught. However, with the recent loosening of import restrictions for cars at least 25 years old, the very real possibility exists that a 205 GTI could be brought over and registered. The car was made from 1984 to 1994, so at least the first few years of production are theoretically available to us here in the US, and given its popularity in Europe, decent examples could probably be had relatively cheaply. Worth checking out!

Image credits:,,

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

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FWD Champions:
The B4 Volkswagen Passat

February 27, 2013 by Matt

Volkswagen VW Passat B4 Black

Sandwiched between the block-ish B3 Passat and its upmarket, posh B5 successor, the 1994-1997 B4 Passat has always been a favorite of mine. I like its stance, its detailing, its “Euro-ness” and its variety of engine choices.

Volkswagen VW Passat B4 Wagon Green

Fitted with the lovely 15″ 8-spoke wheels and adorned with a roof rack, the B4 Passat looks light on its feet, capable, about as mountain-goat-ish as you can get without going for a full-on SUV. The driving lights embedded in the bumper is a favorite detail, an element that echoes my old Audi 4000’s treatment in that area. The B4’s Passat’s proportions still scream “family hauler,” yet its lines have a little extra punch, a tautness that sets the car apart from its more turgid-looking peers.

Volkswagen VW Passat B4 Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

The interior is all business, with VW’s then-standard dash design that placed all bells and whistles high up, within easy reach of the driver. The steering is pleasingly direct and the damping firm according to the European paradigm. A 5-speed was available with all engine options, which included the base 2.0l 4-cyl, a 1.9l turbo-diesel and the range-topping, muscular 2.8l VR6 engine. The wide variety of choices, along with the sedan and wagon bodystyles, gave the customer a full palette from which to mix and match their ideal family sedan.

No, I like the B4 Passat very much. Above all, it seems capable—a kind of car equally at home trundling to the grocery store, absorbing the daily commute, devouring some backroad twisties or taking my son and our camping gear up into the Appalachians for a few days of hiking and fishing. A companion, in other words. I like that impression from a car, even a FWD one.

Image credits:,,

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

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The B4 Volkswagen Passat

FWD Champions:
The Lancia Fulvia Coupe

December 21, 2012 by Matt

Lancia Fulvia White

Well, this is a lovely car. That’s really the only adjective for it.

There are, of course, overtones of the Alfa 1750/2000 GTV, but the ’63-’76 Lancia Fulvia Coupe carves out its own niche. The four-headlight grille treatments of the GTV and Fulvia are similar, but the latter’s profile is much more delicate and lithe-looking, subtly betraying its FWD nature with more visual bias toward the front of the car. Between the pencil-thin C-pillars and the uninterrupted flow of the beltline alone the car’s ethereal flanks, the Fulvia has all the visual substance of one of Tolkien’s elves.

Lancia Fulvia Silver Rally

Also like the GTV, the Fulvia has a racing pedigree, winning Lancia’s first (of an eventual 11) International Rally Championship in 1972. Like the Mini Cooper, whose rally success preceded it, the Fulvia’s triumph vindicated the quality of its FWD architecture, coupled with an emphasis on light weight and handling precision over brute power.

Lancia Fulvia Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

The delicacy of the interior matches the exterior as well, with a beautifully functional bank of readable gauges set into a swath of warm wood, and ample space in every direction. Rack and pinion steering is perfectly weighted and accurate, the front wheels connected by wishbones and the rears located by a beam axle and Panhard rod, similar to the later Saab 900‘s setup.

Lancia Fulvia Engine Motor V4

The Fulvia’s engine is somewhat unique: It’s a 1.2-1.6 L, longitudinally-mounted V4 tilted at 45°, sending power to the front wheels via a transaxle mounted to the rear of the engine. The powerplant is similar to the much-later Volkswagen VR6 engine in that a single cylinder head spans the narrow angle between the two banks. In the end, the piston arrangement is as much a staggered inline-4 layout as a V configuration, allowing a measure of compactness in both width and length.

Mechanically and aesthetically, the Fulvia is simply an elegant car, and I imagine that it moves with grace and aplomb befitting its lines. If there was ever a car to convert me to FWD, this is it.

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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The Lancia Fulvia Coupe

FWD Champions: The Acura Vigor

October 19, 2012 by Matt

Acura Honda Vigor

I sometimes wonder why the 1992-1994 Acura Vigor is FWD.

Just look at it. The front wheels are pushed to the front corners of the car in a characteristically RWD fashion. The engine is mounted longitudinally, not sideways, and the transmission is located behind the engine—again, like a RWD car. And the whole package has distinctly BMW 3-series proportions and overtones, mimicking the RWD sports sedan benchmark.

Acura Honda Vigor Engine Motor G25A G25A1

So again, tell me why the Vigor had to be FWD? Featuring a punchy 188-hp, 2.5l 5-cylinder engine, the aforementioned rear-mounted transmission sent power to the front wheels through a sports-car-like limited-slip differential, giving the car excellent handling in spite of its FWD nature. The engine orientation and gearbox location allowed the powerplant to be advantageously located farther rearward in the chassis, greatly benefiting weight distribution, which came in at a remarkable (for a FWD car) 60:40 front-to-rear. The whole setup is actually reminiscent of that of Saab’s first-generation 900, itself a FWD Champion. I’m no engineer, but it seems like it would have been simpler to stick a driveshaft out the back of the transmission, connect it to a diff and halfshafts out back and call it a day, rather than making the power do a U-turn and cluttering up the engine bay with the kit necessary to get said power to the front wheels. Who knows; perhaps it was a parts commonality issue? Honda didn’t produce a mass-market RWD car until the much-later S2000 roadster. They may have wanted to use much of what was in the parts bin, but the result, although excellent, suffered from a sort of halfhearted, middle-of-the-road sense of execution.

Acura Honda Vigor Green Turquoise Rear Back

Positioned between Acura’s range-topping Legend and entry-level Integra, the short-lived Vigor was the automaker’s attempt to poach midsize executive car sales from Infiniti and Lexus in particular, going head-to-head with the latter’s successful ES300. Sadly, it didn’t accomplish its goal, the most common reasons cited being a smaller size and considerably firmer suspension tuning than its rival at Lexus, qualities lost on a typical American consumer.

Acura Honda Vigor Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard Shifter

As with so many aspects of the Japanese entry into the American luxury car market in the early ’90s, it’s a shame the Vigor wasn’t properly developed and pitched. In addition to its dynamic qualities and handsome styling, one look at the beautifully understated and driver-focused cockpit above makes it clear that it’s one FWD I wouldn’t mind rolling around in 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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FWD Champions: The Mazda Millenia

August 24, 2012 by Matt

Mazda Millenia White

Here’s an oddball.

The ’95-’03 Mazda Millenia was essentially an orphan: It was built on a unique chassis, and no direct predecessors or descendants. It was intended to be one of the initial pillars of Mazda’s Amati luxury brand, but when that project was shelved, the automaker decided to roll out the Millenia under their main brand as a kind of replacement for their range-topping RWD 929 luxury car. The Millenia, though, hewed to a substantially different philosophy than the 929, being smaller, lighter, FWD and with more of an emphasis on handling excellence as opposed to smooth, serene highway cruising.

Mazda Millenia White

It was never a roadburner, even with the optional 210-hp 2.3l Miller Cycle V6 (more on that later), but its chassis dynamics were typically polished and lively, a rarity for cars in its class. Also, the Millenia weighed in at a trim (for its class) 3,400 lbs, a figure that benefited performance and fuel economy.

Debits? Pretty anonymous styling, although the basic proportions are well-executed and handsome, especially in person. It has the same overall stance as my BMW E34 525i: Solid yet flowing, and perfectly tasteful. My only quibble is with the nose area: The grille is oddly placed and shaped, and the other elements seem to have been located with an arbitrariness uncomfortably recalling the contemporary Chrysler 300M. As nice as the rest of the styling is, it’s a shame Mazda couldn’t give the Millenia a more cohesive face.

Mazda Millenia Engine Motor Miller Cycle V6

The top-of-the-line V6 engine was unique. Wringing 210 hp from only 2.3 liters of displacement, it employed a variation of the traditional 4-stroke suck-squish-bang-blow process known as the Miller cycle. The idea is to reduce pumping losses during the compression stroke by holding the intake valve open for much longer, well into the piston’s upward rise, and relying on a supercharger to force the intake charge to stay inside the cylinder. The power loss from the supercharger is less than would be incurred by the piston having to compress as much of the fuel/air mixture as it would with a conventional cam profile, so the upshot is more net power from less displacement. It’s a neat idea, and it worked, giving the Millenia class-leading fuel economy with respectable power from a smallish engine, as the cost of a bit of added complexity.

Mazda Millenia Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

The Millenia was treated to a refresh for the 2001 model year, with most of the emphasis going to a fascia redesign which, ironically, made the car even more bland-looking and anodyne. And when the axe finally fell at the end of 2003, after a long, eight-year model run, Mazda never fielded a replacement, ending their participation in the luxury + performance market niche.

The Millenia deserved more success. Never quite sure how to market the car, Mazda seemed to suffer from much of the same ambivalence about their own product that afflicted the early Infiniti Q45’s model run. It was a luxury car with a few novel technical tricks up its sleeve, and blessed with a taut chassis and a dash of performance, and the Japanese just weren’t sure how to take on BMW on their own turf. I’m still not quite sure they are. Perhaps with more marketing resolve the Millenia could have been pitched as a worthy contender (the chassis was certainly up to par). Pity it wasn’t.

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 Citroën SM

August 3, 2012 by Matt

Citroen SM Gold Bronze

Behold, one of the coolest cars ever made (even Automobile magazine agrees with me): The Citroën SM.

Featuring a far more tasteful, structured shape than the technically groundbreaking yet gothic and overwrought DS, the SM was Citroën’s performance model for the duration of its 1970-1975 model run. Developed during the French automaker’s partnership with Maserati, the SM was fitted with one of the Italian company’s 2.7l, 170-hp V6 engines, later bumped up to an even 3.0l and 180 hp. Paired with a bantamweight 3,300-lb car, the V6 delivered competent acceleration and top speed for the day.

Citroen SM Black

The SM’s engine was oriented “backwards” behind the front axle line, in the same manner as the engine of the later Saab 900. This mechanical configuration minimized FWD’s inherent weight distribution shortcomings and made room under the hood for the car’s complex hydraulic system, by then a Citroën trademark and arguably the key to its overall excellence.

Citroen SM Engine Motor

The SM’s hydraulics powered most major peripherals under the hood and within the chassis, including steering, braking and the self-leveling suspension system. The fully-powered steering, in particular, was a technical tour de force in the sense that the hydraulic power provided the driver feedback normally communicated by the suspension geometry. The result was that the front suspension could be optimized for roadholding alone, without having to compromise in ways the undercarriages of conventional cars do by incorporating a self-centering quality, for instance. No, in the SM’s case, the hydraulic pressure centered the steering automatically, allowing the front suspension to be fully optimized to maintain as consistent a contact patch as possible at all times. Brilliant, really.

Citroen SM Interior Inside Cockpit Dash Dashboard Console Shifter Brown Maroon

The upshot of all the technical trickery was, for its day, an unrivaled blend of roadholding, stability and ride comfort, especially for a FWD car. The SM’s mechanical uniqueness alone guarantees it a spot in the Cool Car Pantheon™, but add to that forward-looking yet timeless design, inside and out, and consider its rarity and quasi-exotic cachet, and the SM quickly rises to the level of the all-time greats. I want one.

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 Fiat Coupé

July 14, 2012 by Matt

Fiat Coupe Coupé Chris Bangle Pininfarina Yellow

I’m going to do something unheard-of in this post. I’m going to compliment a Chris Bangle design.

In contrast to the almost insurmountable damage he did to the BMW design image in the early ’00s (which is only just now beginning to be undone), before his sense of style “evolved” to encompass the truly hideous, in the ’90s his designs were considered merely avant-garde, and in some cases, actually attractive.

Fiat Coupe Coupé Chris Bangle Pininfarina Rear Taillights Blue

Take the ’93-’00 Fiat Coupe, for example. Yes, its front wheels do the work of propelling the car, as on so many sports coupes of its day, such as the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Probe or Mercury Cougar. But in contrast to those cars’ derivative proportions and detailing, the Fiat Coupe is striking in its originality and coherence. Most elements, such as the bubbled headlight covers, the taillight design or the bodywork “slashes” above the wheels, are unique in the automotive world, and the car is a true head-turner, and not in a gaudy way, either–the Coupe’s design is provocative without looking superfluous or overwrought. It’s right on the money.

The 220-hp 20V turbo version of the car has a surprising turn of speed, also, its 6.5-second 0-60 dash making it the fastest FWD car of its day. Furthermore, as the Coupe’s chassis dynamics were developed in Europe, it’s far more buttoned-down and taut than most front-drivers offered here in the US.

Fiat Coupe Coupé Chris Bangle Pininfarina Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard Limited Edition LE Red

It’s a shame the car was never offered here, but I doubt it would have sold well in any case. Europeans in general are far more tolerant of daring styling decisions in their small cars (see: Renault Twingo, Ford Ka, Fiat Multipla, etc), although ever since the success of the radically box-like first-generation Scion xB on our shores, our attitude towards economy car design risks has softened a good deal. So the Fiat Coupe might have had a chance here…10 years after it was phased out. It wasn’t a world-beater, but for offering an arresting shape wrapped around a competent chassis and array of powerplants, it deserves to be recognized.

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 P10 Infiniti G20

June 21, 2012 by Matt

Infiniti G20 P10 Silver

Early Infiniti cars have been given short shrift by automotive enthusiasts. I’ve written articles on the underrated first generations of the Q45 and M45, and today’s car—the first gen “P10” Infiniti G20—also falls into the overlooked-yet-excellent category, in spite of the fact that its front wheels do the pulling.

A rebadged version of the Japanese-market-only Nissan Primera, the ’91-’96 G20 is blessed with fundamental goodness in two key areas: its engine and front suspension. The engine is the same brilliant 2.0l, 140-hp SR20DE 4-cyl fitted to Nissan’s contemporary Sentra SE-R, a rev-happy, robust, smooth and torquey powerplant, one of the all-time greats. Regarding the front suspension, Popular Science wrote in a period review:

It uses a variation of the Nissan 300ZX multi-link front suspension, adapted for the first time to accept a front-wheel-drive power train. It is a complex but compact system, and it works like magic with the conventional strut-and-link rear setup to provide a combination of accurate steering, wheel control, and ride quality. In short, it’s tremendous fun to drive quickly.

Infiniti G20 P10 Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Dash Console

Coupled with a commendably low curb weight of just over 2850 lbs, the G20 delivered 0-60 times in the mid-8 second range—not smoking fast by any stretch, but respectable for the era—along with grin-inducing, tossable handling enabled by the suspension design noted above. All told, the car’s tautness and verve gives it a very European feel for something originating from Japan.

Infiniti G20 P10 Red Auburn

In spite of its engine and chassis brilliance, one glance at the utterly, completely bland and featureless styling renders moot the question of why the P10 G20 is frequently overlooked. Even for the early ’90s, a period that saw dozens of vanilla-ish cars flood the market, the first-gen G20’s design is particularly inert. Especially considering it was then-brand-new Infiniti’s first crack at an entry-level car, they might have been better served to have drawn a shape with a bit more splash. But for those who prioritize mechanical and dynamic excellence over the appearance of it, the first-gen G20 is worth checking out.

Editor’s note: A big thanks to Mark for providing a photo of his P10 G20’s interior for the article. Thanks Mark!

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 B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R

April 19, 2012 by Matt

B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R SER Red

Here’s one I’d absolutely love to drive.

Like the Toyota AE86, in its day, the ’91-’94 B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R was something of a hidden jewel. Never a smashing success in spite of the profile-raising accolades heaped upon it by the automotive press, it exited the market quietly in ’94 without leaving a real replacement.

It’s easy to see why more buyers didn’t gravitate in the B13 SE-R’s direction—the styling is decidedly soap bar-ish in spite of the sporty wheels, fancy air dam and spoiler. That said, those who didn’t consider one by all accounts missed something special.

Nissan Sentra SE-R SER Engine Bay Motor SR20 SR20DE B13

To create the SE-R, Nissan took their cheapest car, stiffened the suspension, fitted it with a limited-slip differential, and equipped it with their wonderfully stout, flexible and rev-happy 4-cylinder, 2.0l, 140 hp SR20DE engine. The result was a car that could blow through 60 mph from a standstill in 7.6 seconds—not blisteringly fast, but quick enough to keep pace with higher-tier sports coupes and sedans. The suspension gave the car a fling-about, tossable character and the LSD helped put every last bit of power to the ground effectively.

Nissan Sentra SE-R SER Interior Inside Cockpit Console Seats

The B13 SE-R was more than the sum of its parts. Car and Driver, one of its biggest fans, wrote, “The Nissan Sentra SE-R isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it’s a beautiful driving experience.” All reviews of the day praised the convergence of the SR20 engine’s brilliance, the chassis’ playful character and the overall car’s price and utility into a near-perfect package for the price. As for me, its underrated, diamond-in-the-rough persona is a major draw, and elevates it into the ranks of seriously desirable 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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The B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R