When a car’s front wheels are tasked with both steering and putting engine torque to the ground, there are clear limitations for both handling prowess and outright acceleration. For example, under acceleration, a car’s body squats on its rear wheels. In front-drive vehicles, this unloads the powered front axle, reducing launch traction. Ditto when trying to accelerate out of a corner while steering. But that hasn’t stopped automakers from pushing the front-drivers’ performance boundaries, particularly in terms of acceleration. So what exactly can they do?
We dug through our archives to find the quickest front-wheel-drive cars we’ve ever tested, ranking the vehicles by their zero-to-60-mph times and breaking any ties with quarter-mile results. (Hence, if you see several cars in a row with the same time, know that they’re in order based on their quarter-mile performance.)
This article is updated whenever a new model or models merit inclusion. It was originally published in July 2018.
See the Quickest Cars of the Decade
2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Sedan Manual – 5.5 seconds
Chevrolet’s forgettable Cobalt compact sedan was never much to write home about, but the SS variant that it spawned sure was. The Cobalt SS originally used a supercharged inline-four engine that made a decent 205 horsepower, but this sport compact really came to life when GM installed a 260-hp turbo four-cylinder. The powerful engine (and the Cobalt’s surprisingly good chassis) helped earn the scrappy little Chevy an LL1 class lap record at our annual Lightning Lap track test for a (long) time. In a 2009 comparison test, a Cobalt SS placed third behind a VW GTI and a Mazdaspeed 3 but tied the winning Mazdaspeed with its 5.5-second run to 60 mph and quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 102 mph (an even quicker Mazdaspeed is found elsewhere on this list).
*This result does not reflect our revised acceleration procedure.
2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Automatic – 5.4 seconds
There’s a running joke in our Backfires comments section that nearly any car can be beaten in a straight line by an Accord V-6. Not true. One example—next to, yes, several muscle cars and exotics—is Honda’s own 10th-generation Accord sedan, which ditched its longtime V-6 option for a turbocharged four-cylinder. A 2.0T sedan beat the quickest example of its six-cylinder predecessor at the track. Sadly, the Accord is no longer offered with a six-speed manual—our transmission of choice, even if it was slower than the ten-speed automatic.
2007 Mazdaspeed 3 – 5.3 seconds (tie)
The Mazdaspeed-fettled version of the Mazda 3 was widely known as one of the most raucous sport compacts of its day. A big part of that reputation was its wild turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four, which combined with a six-speed manual transmission to make for eye-popping acceleration numbers. This particular first-generation example, which won a 2007 comparison test, was the most impressive Mazdaspeed of all thanks to its monstrous 5.3-second run to 60 mph and quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds at 101 mph.
2015 Volvo S60 T6 Drive-E FWD – 5.3 seconds (tie)
With two forms of forced induction at play, Volvo’s turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder worked hard to propel this S60 to 60 mph in such a short amount of time, with a quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds at 102 mph. The same T6 version of this engine remains in Volvo’s lineup today, but it’s now paired exclusively with all-wheel drive in the S60, S90, V90, XC60, and XC90, making this front-wheel-drive T6 version of the old S60 something of an anomaly.
2004 Dodge SRT-4 – 5.3 seconds (tie)
It may have had humble roots, but for years the Dodge Neon–based SRT-4 was considered the king of sport compacts. It had big power for its time, with a punchy 2.4-liter turbo four that propelled it from zero to 60 mph in a scant 5.3 seconds with a quarter-mile time of 13.9 seconds at 103 mph. That was for a 2004 model, which benefited from an extra 15 horsepower and 5 lb-ft of torque for totals of 230 and 250, along with a standard limited-slip differential to help put that power to the ground. Even today, its high placement on this list speaks to the endurance of its impressive performance.
*This result does not reflect our revised acceleration procedure.
2013 Volkswagen Scirocco R – 5.1 seconds
It may seem unfair to put a car on this list that was never sold in the United States. But this Europe-market Scirocco that we strapped our test gear to in 2013 was a fully production-spec example, and it laid down some undeniable numbers, including a quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds at 101 mph. A bit less practical but a bit more stylish than the Mark VI Golf hatchback it was based on, this Scirocco in top-spec R trim came powered by a 261-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, but it routed that power through the front wheels only, as opposed to its all-wheel-drive Golf R contemporary. The lighter Scirocco thus outsprinted the equivalent Golf R by a significant margin in our testing, which only made us yearn for this shapely hot hatch even more.
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line – 5.0 seconds
The latest evolution of Hyundai’s mid-size Sonata sedan is a looker, and in N Line form it’s a performer, too. With a 290-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four and an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, it rockets to 60 mph in five seconds flat, putting it at the top of the family-sedan heap. Even without an aggressive launch, the Sonata’s 5.2-second five-to-60-mph result proves that this engine has little turbo lag.
2020 Honda Civic Type R – 4.9 seconds
As other automakers have transcended into ever higher realms of sport-compact performance, nearly all of them have turned to all-wheel drive to achieve new handling and acceleration benchmarks. Not Honda, which chose to stick with front-wheel drive for the latest and greatest version of its venerable Civic, the Type R. This Honda does not suffer from its relative lack of drive wheels, either, providing staggering acceleration—with a quarter-mile time of 13.4 seconds at 108 mph—plus rock-solid handling and a thrilling driving experience. We previously named this 306-hp hatch to our 10Best Cars list, and we’ve picked it as the winner in multiple comparison tests, proving that front-wheel drive done right can truly measure up to the best.
2020 Type R Driven
2021 Hyundai Veloster N DCT – 4.8 seconds
While we still prefer the driver engagement of a good manual transmission, it’s getting difficult to argue with the performance potential of today’s dual-clutch automatic transmissions. The raucous Veloster N hot hatchback’s acceleration results speak for themselves: equipped with the eight-speed DCT added to the lineup for 2021, it outperformed the six-speed manual car by several ticks to 60 mph and through the quarter mile. Not only did it leapfrog the manual-only Civic Type R on this list, it came close to taking the top spot.
2021 Mini JCW GP – 4.7 seconds
The hard-core GP version of Mini’s JCW Hardtop is an odd machine. With silly-looking carbon-fiber fender flares, a rear-seat delete, and loud red trim inside and out, it shouts about its performance-oriented mission. But the 301-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four gets the job done, getting the little hatchback to 60 mph in a scant 4.7 seconds and through the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds at 110 mph. You’ll pay the price for FWD bragging rights, though, as the JCW GP starts at a heady $45,750.
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