Before you get too agitated by this headline, let’s get it out of the way: Front-wheel drive is much older than 50. The Citroën Traction-Avant and 2CV, Saab 92, and the original Mini all had its front wheels doing the work well over 50 years ago. And in America, the avant-garde Ruxton of the ’20s, the Cord 810/812 of the ’30s, and even R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car all flirted with FWD. But it wasn’t until October 1965 that General Motors released the Oldsmobile Toronado and legitimized front-wheel drive on a scale big enough for Mr. and Mrs. John Q. America to take notice. In the subsequent half century, the front-engine, front-wheel drive layout has become the standard in nearly every segment, relegating rear-wheel drive mostly to luxury and sports cars.
For the majority of drivers, FWD does have its benefits over RWD. With the entire drivetrain under the hood, the layout offers better traction, and without a driveshaft going to the rear wheels, more interior space. But for millions of gearheads out there, hearing the terms “front-wheel drive” and “automatic transmission” in a car’s description is enough to permanently check out. For them, torque steer, understeer, and a slushbox are more reasons to stay away.
As a result, front-wheel drive’s steady climb to dominance hasn’t always been pretty, but it sure has been interesting. While the history of this layout could probably be told better through a series of groundbreaking cars from Europe and Japan, we’ve chosen to focus on America’s rocky relationship with it instead. Here’s a brief history of American FWD cars, from the Toronado to today.
1. 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
In the 1960s, General Motors was the largest automaker in the world, and it was willing to take some risks. The original Toronado was the first front-wheel drive car to roll out of an American factory since the 1936-’37 Cord 810 and 812, and GM was committed to doing it right. Dubbed “GM’s most ground-breaking production car” by Hemmings Daily, the Toronado was designed from the ground up, and with its pop-up headlights, huge flat-floored cabin, and unique barrel speedometer, it was unlike anything else on the road. Oldsmobile sold 40,963 Toronados in 1966, winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award and Car and Driver’s Best All-Around Car award in the process. Olds’ trailblazer went on to become one of the most popular Personal Luxury Coupes of the ’70s and soldiered on until 1992.
2. 1967 Cadillac Eldorado
Cadillac had been at work on its compact “Personal Coupe” since the late ’50s, and once the Toronado was green-lit, GM’s brass decided that it’s FWD architecture would be perfect for Caddy’s groundbreaking two-door. Its crisp, modern lines were penned under GM style chief Bill Mitchell, and with its cutting-edge drive train, the ’67 Eldorado was unlike anything to ever wear the Cadillac crest. With a 429 cubic inch V8, the Eldo made 345 horsepower, a whopping 480 pounds-feet of torque, and astonishingly, never suffered from torque steer issues. The Eldorado disappeared unceremoniously after 2002, but the forward-thinking engineering and clean styling of the ’67 model make it a true forebear of Cadillac’s “Art & Science” design ethos.
3. 1977 Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon
While the Toronado and Eldorado continued to preach the gospel of front-wheel drive into the ’70s, the rest of the industry was resistant to the layout. Then came the gas crisis, economic recession, and rise of compact import cars — many of which were FWD. In response, the Big Three began to slowly make the switch, with Chrysler the first out of the gate with its Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon hatchbacks. Starting at $2,500, the cars quickly became Chrysler’s best-selling models, and won Motor Trend’s 1977 Car of the Year Award. Despite a reputation for woeful build quality and weak safety features, the Omni/Horizon sold strongly throughout the ’80s, with production lasting until 1990.
4. 1981 Ford Escort
By the ’80s, the Big Three looked at the automotive landscape, decided “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” and committed to converting the majority of their lineups to FWD. Unfortunately, that meant Detroit spent the better part of the decade unleashing dreadful cars on the American public like the Chevy Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Chrysler K-Cars, Ford Tempo, and for 1981, the Escort. Based on Europe’s best-seller, the U.S.-spec Escort originally used a four-banger borrowed from the recently-departed Pinto, and was Ford’s first attempt at a European-style FWD small car in America. Escorts weren’t cheerful, but they were cheap and reliable. The nameplate hung on in the Ford lineup until 2002, when it was replaced by the Focus.
5. 1989 Ford Taurus SHO
There may not have been much excitement on the front-wheel drive landscape for most of the ’80s, but that all changed when Ford launched the Taurus SHO in 1989. Powered by a 220 horsepower 3.0 liter Super High Output Yamaha-built V6 mated to a five-speed manual, the SHO could scramble from zero to 60 in 6.7 seconds and top out at over 140 miles per hour, making it the fastest American sedan of its day. It may have been the exception to the rule, but the SHO proved that American FWD cars didn’t have to be boring.
6. 2005-’10 Chevrolet Cobalt SS
Just a decade on, the early Aughts are already seen as the nadir of the General Motors product line. But the Cobalt SS is that rare bright spot. Available with a supercharged 205 horsepower inline four from ’05 to ’07, or a turbocharged 260 horsepower four from ’08 on, the Cobalt SS was a true contender, good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the Volkswagen GTI, Mitsubishi Evo X, and Subaru WRX. Today, due to the awful reputation of the car its based on, Cobalt SSs can be found for cheap on the used car market.
7. 2014 Ford Fiesta ST
Debuting in 2014, it seems like Ford’s ST cars are solely intended to slay front-wheel drive’s boring reputation once and for all. The smaller of the two, the Fiesta ST, has 197 horses powering the front wheels, which is more than enough to take the subcompact from zero to 60 in 7 seconds. With power going solely through a six-speed manual transmission, and suspension tuned for the track, the Fiesta ST is one of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road at any price.
8. 2015 Ford Focus ST
For those who want the fun of the Fiesta ST but need a little more room, the Focus ST is the car to get. Ford’s answer to the Volkswagen GTI, the ST’s six-speed manual transmission is mated to a 252 horsepower turbocharged inline four, which can take the hot hatch from zero to 60 in a mere 6.3 seconds. While it’s a hell of a performance car, the ST is about to be overshadowed by the mighty all-wheel drive Focus RS in early 2016.
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