As enthusiasts, we’re taught from a young age to view front-drive cars with contempt. They are flawed. Wrong-wheel drive. Plagued with torque steer if you give them any power. They are the product of corporations cutting costs to please shareholders. Like my fellow enthusiasts, I was indoctrinated in the scriptures of Zora, Carroll, and Ferry: the only performance cars that matter are rear-wheel drive.
But things have changed a lot in the past couple decades. Front-wheel-drive performance cars are—dare I say—quite good. They are composed. They’re balanced. They’re equally capable of obliterating canyon roads and soaking up interstate runs.
As a result, pocket rockets such as the Ford Fiesta ST have been segment standouts, even finishing a respectable sixth place at Best Driver’s Car, vanquishing the likes of the BMW i8 and Jaguar F-Type. It’s not the highest-finishing front-driver at BDC, either. (We won’t spoil it for those with short memories.)
This year’s crop of front-drive performance cars are perhaps the best and most diverse yet. Luckily for us (and you), there seems to be one for just about every conceivable budget and taste, too.
Starting at $28,575, the 2020 Hyundai Veloster N follows the classic hot-hatch formula: punchy turbocharged four-pot, a manual transmission, and grippy tires. Want a more extreme version of the same? Step up to the $37,950 2020 Honda Civic Type R. It has more power, more grip, and more wing than the Type R that won our last sport compact shootout, besting the Ford Focus RS, Volkswagen Golf R, and Subaru WRX STI.
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At the more exclusive end of the hot hatch range, the $45,750 2021 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works GP Hardtop offers up Honda levels of power in a Hyundai-sized package. If you want your pocket performance with a luxury badge, you have the very-much-not-a-hatchback 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic+. A more evolved take on the classic WRX STI formula, the $55,795 CLA 45 differs from the rest of this sport compact flock by offering up standard all-wheel drive (base versions of the CLA are front-drive) and featuring a slick fastback roofline instead of a stubby hatch.
Conventional wisdom says the more dough you spend, the better performance car you get—but does that ring true for this crop of front-drive sport compacts? To find out, we unleashed the Veloster, Civic Type R, Cooper JCW GP, and CLA 45 on 66 glorious miles of Angeles Crest Highway’s hairpins and sweepers to see—with cost being no object—which was the best-driving sport compact of the group.
$20,000-$30,000: 2020 Hyundai Veloster N
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The bottom of the pricing ladder seems like as good a place as any to begin. For $30,675 as tested, the 2020 Hyundai Veloster N offers a lot for your money. The first vehicle from Hyundai’s upstart N Performance subbrand to reach the U.S., the Veloster N features a potent 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 in two states of tune: 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque for the standard version, or 275 hp in models equipped with the $2,100 Performance package, like our tester. (For 2021 the Performance package becomes standard on the Veloster N.) A six-speed manual is the only available transmission for 2020, but an eight-speed dual-clutch auto is coming.
That newly standard Performance package adds a lot of kit to the Veloster N. Aside from the 15-hp boost, it also provides the stubby little three-door with larger front and rear vented brakes, 19-inch wheels shod with sticky summer tires, electronically adjustable dampers, and a proper mechanical limited-slip differential. Oh, and Hyundai throws in a raucous active exhaust system to ensure everyone hears you coming and going.
For an automaker with only a short history in manufacturing performance cars, the Veloster N is a phenomenal first effort. The little hot-rodded four-pot under the Hyundai’s hood deserves much of the credit. “Nothing until 3,200 rpm and then whoosh, you’re off!” associate online editor Nick Yekikian said. It’s the least powerful car here, but after an initial bit of turbo lag, the Veloster comes into boost and becomes—as senior features editor Jonny Lieberman put it—”a tugboat of torque” as it pulls to its 6,800-rpm fuel cutoff.
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Once spooled up, the Hyundai’s engine has the characteristics of a powerplant double its size and displacement. Its big torque curve not only gives the driver finer control when pushing against the envelope but also makes the Veloster N remarkably forgiving for newer drivers. Missed, or even skipped shifts don’t necessarily come with the punishment of having to work the engine back into its powerband.
The actual process of shifting the Veloster N’s six-speed is largely satisfying, too—especially considering its explosive rally-inspired soundtrack of booms, stutters, and pops—but it could be better. For starters, the gear ratio spread is fairly long—again, good for novice drivers but less rewarding for those who know what they’re doing. The Hyundai’s shifter has short, chunky, satisfying throws, and up on a winding road, we want to use it more. The other issue is pedal spacing. “The brake and throttle are so far apart and poorly placed that you can basically forget about heel-toeing,” Lieberman said. “Yes, there is auto rev matching. I didn’t spend half my life learning how to rev-match with my heel just to have a computer do it (not quite right) for me.”
The Veloster N’s ride could also use a rethink. Angeles Crest is far from a rough road, but the Veloster, in both Sport+ and N settings, feels set up for the Nürburgring and little else. Thankfully, the Veloster provides a surprising amount of parameter tailoring via its infotainment system; our goldilocks configuration was the suspension in its softest setting, auto rev matching off, and everything else in its most aggressive setting. Once set up right, the Veloster N is a remarkably neutral canyon carver. Although its brakes act like an on-off switch, the rest of the package is there, with quick, accurate steering and tenacious grip through bends thanks to those sticky tires and the Veloster’s limited-slip differential.
The Veloster N is a helluva first effort from Hyundai, but with three more cars and miles of open road ahead of us, it’s time to see what 10 grand more (and then 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 think a 306-horse and 295-lb-ft front-driver could be anything but a maniacal torque-steering monster. Instead, what I found with the Civic Type R was one of the purest, most rewarding sports cars I’d ever driven.
Honda has been steadily improving the Civic Type R since its 2017 introduction. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4, six-speed manual, and limited-slip differential are unchanged, but the improvements made to the 2020 model should make a meaningful performance difference. For starters, a larger grille improves airflow and reduces heat soak when tracking the Type R. The brakes get upgraded, too, from one-piece vented/drilled units to lighter floating two-piece rotors with more bite than before. What’s more, the Civic’s electronically adaptive suspension gets some serious upgrades. Aside from new bushings and stiffer springs, the electronic dampers are now capable of sampling road conditions 20 times per second versus the previous two. The combined revisions, Honda says, should both improve turn-in and reduce roll.
The Veloster N is a thoroughly enjoyable car, but my god, this Civic—a couple turns is all it needs to show you that it’s a true next-level driver’s car. Confidence-inspiring, immediate, direct, and balanced … if Porsche built front-drive cars, this is how they’d feel.
It’s hard to point to any one key attribute that makes the Civic Type R so good, because unlike so many performance cars cobbled together from economy-car roots, the Honda feels holistically built from the ground up to be the most rewarding driver’s car possible.
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A hallmark of a great sports car, the Civic’s turbo-four is easy to drive by feel. Get on the throttle, and you’ll hear the turbo spool up and feel 22.8 psi of boost hit you in the chest, and soon the subtle vibrations of Honda’s VTEC system tickle your fingers through the steering wheel right before an audible ding! sounds, telling you you’ve hit the 7,000-rpm redline. Palm the aluminum shift knob, flick through neutral, slide it easily home in the next gear, and keep going. In an increasingly 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. Half the reason it corners so well is courtesy of its trick suspension system. “The retuned, quicker-sampling dampers numb the ride a bit compared to the 2017 iteration,” Lieberman said. “The benefit is a Civic Type R that turns in quicker and somehow grips even more.”
The Civic Type R’s steering is fantastic, too. Despite two small patches of rubber astride the engine restraining more than 300 hp and nearly 300 lb-ft of torque, as well as the bulk of the braking and all of the steering, the feel itself is great. Turn-in is crisp, and the steering feels linear and accurate. The Honda is a remarkably easy car to place in a corner—it’s truly point and shoot.
$40,000-$50,000: 2021 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works GP
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On paper, the limited edition Mini Cooper JCW GP looks quite promising. The most outwardly track-focused compact of our bunch, it appears that Mini took the job of making the ultimate sport compact quite seriously. Barge boards, a front splitter, and a rear wing are claimed to improve downforce at minimal cost to aerodynamic drag. A new suspension is stiffer and lower than in standard Minis, and it has increased camber at each corner for quicker turn-in. The body has been stiffened, with the most visible example being the red strut braces that span the inside walls of the car where the rear seats used to be. Lightweight wheels shod with summer tires are at each corner, as are uprated brakes.
Under the hood, the Mini’s 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 receives some significant changes, including a new intake duct, a lower compression ratio, a new turbocharger bolted to an integrated exhaust manifold, and a lightweight straight-pipe exhaust system, among other things. Paired with an eight-speed automatic and a mechanical limited-slip differential, the 2.0-liter mill makes 301 hp and 332 lb ft of torque. The Mini isn’t the most powerful vehicle here, but it has the best weight-to-power ratio.
That’s on paper. As anyone in project management will tell you, there’s a big difference between ideation and execution. When confronted with the realities of daily driving, the Mini GP “feels like it was built in someone’s garage by an amateur auto-crosser,” features editor Scott Evans said.
The GP’s ride is probably its most obvious tell. It’s punishingly stiff and skittish; you’re never sure if the Mini is going to rattle itself to pieces or take flight when pushing it at speed up Angeles Crest. “Maybe it was developed on a nice road-racing course in Europe where the benefits of its firmness translates into faster laps,” testing director Kim Reynolds said, “but here in the real world, the plan breaks down into a mess.”
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He’s just getting started: “The vertical shaking is not only uncomfortable, but it causes the car to feel unpredictable. It seriously gets in the way of driving. The sheer thrashing and bouncing around makes it hard to concentrate and complicates keeping your steering angle the same because you’re physically moving around so much. The ride problem radiates into every corner of the car’s performance.”
Even the Mini’s one bright spot, its torque-rich turbo-four, is undone by torque steer, a differential incapable of putting down power, and an automatic transmission’s manual mode that’s prone to upshifting too early and denying downshifts. So much for trusting the driver. The lack of an available manual transmission doesn’t go unnoticed, either.
The Hyundai and Honda set a high bar for Mini, and despite having $45,750 to play with, the JCW GP comes nowhere close to clearing it.
$50,000 and up: 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic +
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Nominally a $10K walk from the Mini GP to the CLA 45, we couldn’t help but burst out laughing when we saw the $76,155 as-tested price for our AMG CLA 45 tester. You could have the Civic and Veloster and still have money left over for the asking price of our yellow Mercedes. Although cost is no object when it comes to this particular comparison, it’s worth noting that had you removed all the non-performance options on our CLA, it would sticker for a far more palatable $58,695.
Our pocket Merc would seem to have lots to offer the enthusiast. For starters, its 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 puts out damn near 200 horsepower per liter. For comparison, a 797-hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye puts out only 129 horsepower per liter. With 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque on tap, the CLA 45’s mill is basically a nuclear bomb in a grenade form factor. With so much power on tap, it’s no surprise that AMG opted for a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system—working through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic—to put the CLA’s power to the ground.
Other AMG-specific changes to the CLA 45 include the requisite upgraded wheels, tires, and brakes, plus additional chassis stiffness to help improve handling. Our tester also featured the optional AMG Dynamic Plus package, which adds an electronically adjustable suspension, even larger brakes, and most important, a Drift mode.
Despite what that childish (though fun!) drive mode might have you believe, compared to the remaining trio, the CLA 45 feels altogether more mature. Boring, even, depending on your selection of driving mode.
More so than any other car in recent memory, simply toggling the CLA from Sport+ to Race on the steering wheel-mounted (Porsche copycat) drive mode selector makes a world of difference. The car goes from C-Class to GT C—sharper, more responsive, quicker. “Race mode is transformative, making everything much more serious,” Reynolds said. “The power’s remarkable, and it comes in a rush—a rush of power, a rush of torque, a rush of everything.”
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The Mercedes’ powerhouse of an engine is backed up by one of the quickest front-drive-based dual-clutch transmissions we’ve ever experienced, with upshifts, as Lieberman put it, that are “like a round leaving a rifle. Bang! Bang! Bang! ” and downshifts that are slightly slurred at times but always impossibly smooth.
Given its torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive setup, the quickest way through any corner is to just add more throttle—just like a pint-sized Nissan GT-R. “It’s the opposite of how they teach you to drive: Don’t let off the gas when the nose starts to push; give it more, and let the rear diff figure it out,” Evans said.
“You can just wing it into corners all fast and sloppy then just get on the gas when things start to go wrong, and the car just fixes it for you,” Evans added. Given all the computing going on inside the CLA 45’s brain, steering is unsurprisingly a touch on the digital side—heavy and lacking the purity of the Civic or Veloster helms—but easy to place nonetheless.
We interrupt this regularly scheduled program …
2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost HPP
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Surprise! This four-car comparison test actually has five cars.
In the days leading up to our comparison, there was some skepticism that our group of front-drive sport compacts were really superior to a good rear-wheel sports car. So before we left for Angeles Crest, we called up Chevrolet and asked for a 275-hp turbo-four-powered Camaro 1LE, which for just $30,995 is arguably the performance bargain of the century. Except Chevy didn’t have any available (something about a bug that’s going around). Instead, we pivoted and got the next best thing: a 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost with the High Performance package.
A new offering for 2020, the High Performance package puts the engine from the discontinued Focus RS under the Mustang’s hood, making it a hot hatch 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 wheels through a six-speed manual. The High Performance package also includes brake, tire, and chassis upgrades borrowed from the Mustang GT.
Our Grabber Lime Mustang takes things a step further with the optional EcoBoost Handling package, which adds Ford’s electronically adjustable MagneRide suspension, a Torsen limited-slip diff with a shorter 3.55 axle ratio, wider wheels and tires, and upgraded brakes. Although it can be had on the base Mustang EcoBoost (starting at $28,510), the High Performance package and EcoBoost Handling package were added to our well-equipped Mustang EcoBoost Premium, which starts at $32,880 and stickered for $43,665. And—because I know what you’re thinking—yes, you can get a Mustang GT (or Camaro SS) for that kind of money, but the turbo-four powerplant is our controlled variable here.
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The hypothesis was simple: If rear-wheel-drive performance cars are inherently superior (as I spent my childhood believing), then this well-equipped turbocharged Mustang would send the Mini, Mercedes, Hyundai, and Honda packing.
The current-generation Mustang is far from the most refined rear-wheel performance car out there, but the differences between the Ford and our four front-drivers are apparent right from the get-go. The Mustang EcoBoost is well balanced and lighter on the nose than the hatches. It feels planted, purposeful, and easy to drive quickly. Steering is quick and responsive—but rather nonlinear in its action, making it easy to make unintentional steering changes. This is more of a Mustang issue, than a rear-drive foible.
The Mustang’s suspension doesn’t help the steering much. Like most non-Shelby Mustangs of this generation, the front and rear suspensions seem to be talking two different languages, leaving the car to seesaw up and down on its axles. Although it’s not punishing like in the Mini, the Ford “does a lot of hopping from undulation to undulation,” Reynolds said. “Meanwhile, the nose sort of hunts around, wandering from side to side even though I’m holding a constant steering angle.”
The Ford does offer drive modes that would seem to help settle the suspension and steering, but unlike in the Hyundai, there’s no built-in flexibility allowing you to adjust throttle response, exhaust, suspension, and steering independently. You can have the sportiest engine response, or comfort steering feel, but not both at the same time, largely defeating the purpose.
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Although the Focus RS engine isn’t lacking in character, most found the hot hatch I-4 a poor fit for the 200-pounds-heavier Mustang. “The engine is the barest minimum you could stick in a Mustang and still sorta pretend it’s a performance car,” Lieberman said. “After 5,000 rpm, the engine is out of breath, torque is waning, and I just keep thinking, ‘How much more for the V-8?'” That said, Reynolds described the brakes as “unexpectedly good” at reining in the Mustang.
An even shorter final drive might help liven things up some; the Ford’s shifter has great, meaty throws, and the pedals are properly spaced for heel-toeing, but you unfortunately don’t end up using it all that much. “The Mustang is geared long and tall and has more midrange torque than top-end power, so you spend most of your time in fourth,” Evans said. “It takes some of the fun out of a manual if you never shift.”
Who shall be crowned King of Compacts?
After running up and down Angeles Crest in three front-drive hot hatches, an all-wheel-drive pocket rocket, and 2019’s best-selling rear-drive coupe in the U.S., we’d answered two questions for ourselves: Which sport compact is best? And is rear-wheel drive inherently superior to front- or all-wheel drive? Here’s how our near-unanimous rankings shook out:
In last place, as I’m sure you’ve figured, is the supremely disappointing 2021 Mini Cooper JCW GP. Although we love the idea of a lighter, track-focused, Mini, this one falls victim to the old high-power, front-drive performance car stereotypes. The JCW GP looks great standing still, but driving it in anger is an exercise in frustration. You’re fighting torque steer, a cinder block-stiff suspension, and an underwhelming automatic transmission. “This can’t be what John Cooper would ever have wanted,” Reynolds said.
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In fourth place, proving wrong my theory about rear-drive superiority, is the 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost. “The Mustang is pretty good in its own right, but it’s not a standout in this crowd,” Evans said. The Mustang feels bigger and heavier than the compacts placed above it, but it’s more than capable of hanging with this crowd. It says a lot that this essentially base Mustang isn’t out of place in a group of high-performance specials, but due to its engine’s lack of top end and the lack of precision in its suspension and steering tuning, it’s a car more 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 love about the Veloster N—especially its torque-rich engine, the balanced chassis, and the amount of customizability the computer allows—but it’s going to take some serious polish to overcome our top two finishers. Its flinty ride is the most obvious issue, but its lack of a heel-toe-friendly pedal setup is more telling of some of the systemic issues that Hyundai needs to overcome in converting a $19,000 economy hatchback into a world-beating sport compact.
Our second-place finisher has no economy car roots to overcome. The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is a seriously impressive performance car. Looking at it purely as an engineering exercise, that Mercedes has created a 2.0-liter engine with nearly 400 hp, a transmission capable of keeping up, a drivetrain that can put the power down, and a sorted chassis that makes the CLA as much a threat to purebred sports cars in corners as it is in straights is worthy of praise. So what holds it back from the crown? Evans captured the group’s sentiments: “As good as it is, the CLA neither rewards nor punishes. It just handles everything itself. The only reward for driving it well is raw speed. There’s no emotional payoff. Bad driving isn’t punished, either. The car just sorts it out.”
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Our first-place finisher, the 2020 Honda Civic Type R, is the one full of emotion. The notes speak for themselves. “The gold standard,” Lieberman said. Reynolds: “So much faster than anything else here.” Evans: “This car is just fantastic. I don’t know what more you can ask of it. I’m just dumbfounded.” Yekikian: “No other car during this test made me feel so confident in my abilities and then backed them up so stoutly. Powerful, poised, profoundly entertaining, this is a driver’s car in every sense of the phrase.”
The Civic Type R proves that a front-drive performance car can be as engaging as its rear-drive counterparts—or even more so. Like all the best driver’s cars, this Honda pushes and prods you to learn more about both its limits and your own. Must be why it’s the highest-finishing front-driver in BDC history, an honorable fourth place in 2018—a sub-$40K car finishing right on the heels of a $340,000 Lamborghini, a $330,000 Porsche, and a $375,000 McLaren. And that was before all the updates made for 2020. So much for wrong-wheel drive.
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