Front-wheel drive cars have become hugely fast in recent years; here’s the cream of the crop

Modern front-wheel drive hatchbacks are now considerably faster around a track than some of the supercars we used to drool over in the 1990s. The proof is their lap times around the fabled Nurburgring Nordschleife - times that just keep on dropping with every new hardcore hot hatch that bursts onto the scene.

The front-wheel-drive record for the Nordschleife seems to tumble every time a manufacturer that knows hot hatches releases a new model. The most recent one is the new 2019 RenaultSport Megane Trophy R, the lightened, stiffened, hardcore version of the Megane RS that took the record away from the latest Honda Civic Type-R. But that’s not to say cars that previously held the record aren’t blisteringly fast in their own right, even if they are now in third or fourth position, or even lower.

Here are the six fastest front-wheel drive cars ever made, rated by their lap times worst to best

2015 SEAT Leon Cupra - 7:58.4 (time comparable to a 2015 BMW M2 and 2009 Cadillac CTS-V)

No SEAT had previously held any kind of Nurburgring lap time record, so when the then new Leon Cupra established a new record in 2014, this was quite unexpected.

The Leon Cupra was the first hot hatch to dip below the eight-minute mark, thanks to a combination of a great engine, good chassis, and the sheer driving skill of touring car driver Jordi Gene - its time was around ten seconds faster than that of the vehicle it beat (the more powerful, all-wheel-drive, Ford Focus RS).

The 2015 SEAT Leon Cupra has a 2.0-liter engine with 276 horsepower at 5,900 rpm and 350 Nm (258 pound-feet) at just 1,700 rpm, as well as an all-important limited-slip differential. It also had an impressive claimed sprint time to 100 km/h (62 mph) of just 5.9 seconds, making it the fastest accelerating car of its type back in 2014 (cars equipped with the automatic gearbox slashed the sprint time down to 5.6 seconds). Top speed was 250 km/h (155 mph).

The car used to set the record was actually a camouflaged pre-production example with all its badges and branding covered in order to at least try to fool the many spies that reside on the sidelines of the ‘Ring. But, it was snapped during the record run and we already knew that SEAT had attempted this months in advance.

Read our full review on the 2015 SEAT Leon Cupra

2016 Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy-R - 7:54.4 (time comparable to a 2014 BMW M5 and 2005 Ferrari F430)

The SEAT Leon Cupra’s record was quickly whisked away by a hardcore Renault, the Megane RS 275 Trophy-R, a lightened, stiffened track special with a bare interior and sticky tires of the kind you get on supercars. It slashed another four seconds off the Leon’s time, and this record stood for a few years.

Why was the Trophy-R so much faster?

Well, it was about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) lighter than the regular Megane RS Trophy, tipping the scales at just 1,280 kilograms (2,822 pounds).

It rode on special 19-inch Speedline Turini wheels (that could have been ordered in red for a dramatic contrast), it had adjustable Ohlins dampers, composite front springs, a lightweight titanium exhaust, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, and the all-important limited-slip diff.

Its engine was a 2.0-liter turbo with 271 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 360 Nm (266 pound-feet) of torque at 3,000 rpm. Power was sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and the obligatory limited-slip differential. Its claimed sprint time to 100 km/h (62 mph) was 5.8 seconds and top speed was rated at 254 km/h (158 mph), although it was geared for a little bit more than that.

It was quite an extreme proposition, not necessarily an everyday hot hatch: it didn’t have a back seat, a radio, infotainment, or air conditioning, and the one-piece Recaro seats further aided with the weight shedding. You could have a radio as an option, but the option you probably would most have liked to have, from an enthusiast’s standpoint, were the larger performance brakes and even a lithium-ion battery (that alone saved 16 kilograms or about 40 pounds).

To this day, it is still one of the most extreme vehicles of its type and, with a bit more power extracted from its engine, it could realistically still be about as fast as more recent hot hatches.

This Trophy-R has future classic written all over it.

Read our full review on the 2016 Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy-R

2017 Honda Civic Type R - 7:50.6 (time comparable to a 2007 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and 2008 Porsche Carrera S)

The Trophy-R was knocked off its pedestal by the then-new Honda Civic Type R in 2015. It was the first turbocharged Civic Type R ever, and it blew its competition away thanks to a super stiff and sorted chassis and an engine that pulled so hard it made your face muscles ache as they tried to keep it from peeling away.

The engine was a 2.0-liter with a big turbo strapped to it to make 306 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and a very impressive 400 Nm (295 pound-feet) of torque.

According to Honda, it could sprint to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 5.7 seconds and on to a top speed that until then was unheard of for a hot hatch - 270 km/h (168 mph). It required a lot of aero to keep it stable at those speeds, which is why the car looked like it had driven through a tuning shop and only the biggest spoilers and wings stuck to it.

But, even if you may not have liked the way it looked, there was no denying its sheer capability. The car was very obviously designed to be taken on track and driven hard, so it suffered on the road due to its hard suspension that resulted in quite an unforgiving ride when you put the car in its sport mode. The fact that it was able to complete a lap of the North Loop nearly four seconds quicker than the hardcore, barebones Megane stood testament to just how effective all its engineering solutions were all added up.

Read our full review on the 2017 Honda Civic Type R.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport S - 7:47.2 (time comparable to a 2004 Porsche 911 GT3 RS and 2007 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano)

Eventually, the time came for a German to briefly step in to take the front-wheel-drive ‘Ring lap time crown on home turf.

The VW Golf GTI Clubsport S was the most extreme and track-focused Golf ever made. Based on the seventh-generation Golf GTI, only 400 units were made for the entire world, and it was quite a special thing to behold.

VW fitted it with an uprated version of its EA888 2.0-liter turbo-four that provided 306 horsepower flat between 5,800 and 6,500 rpm and a hefty 380 Nm (280 pound-feet) of torque between also delivered flat, but over a very wide rpm range - 1,850 to 5,700 rpm. Its claimed sprint time was 5.8 seconds and top speed was 265 km/h (165 mph) - these figures made it much faster than any other front-wheel-drive Golf.

The automaker also put the Clubsport S on a diet by ditching its rear seats, fitting it with an aluminum front subframe, and they decided against a DSG dual-clutch gearbox because it would have added an additional 20 kilograms (45 pounds). But even so, reviewers who tried it out said that it was still usable as day-to-day transport and far more civilized on the road than any other hardcore hot hatch track special before it (or since).

Read our full review on the 2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport S

2017 Honda Civic Type R - 7:43.8 (time comparable to a 2010 Nissan GT-R and 2009 Audi R8 V10)

Honda took back the FWD Nurburgring crown in 2017 when its all-new Civic Type R cut yet another four seconds off the Golf Clubsport S’ time.

The new Civic Type R was a larger and more grown-up car than the one it replaced (and far better on the road), yet with only a little bit of extra power, it proved to be a lot more capable and outright faster.

It was motivated by a development of the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-pot whose output was upped to 315 horsepower (the previous car had 306 horsepower) at the same 6,500 rpm and the already impressive torque figure of 400 Nm (295 pound-feet) remained the same and it arrived at the same 2,500 rpm.

Sprint time to 100 km/h or 62 mph remained the same (5.7 seconds) and the top speed was increased to 272 km/h (169 mph).

So on paper, it wasn’t really a huge leap forward. However, out on track, it proved considerably faster and better in every way. If you check out its hot lap video linked above, you’ll notice just how much grip it has and how much speed it is able to carry through the corners - you almost think it’s not going to make some corners, but the driver can fairly easily correct its line and keep it on the blacktop.

Read our full review on the 2017 Honda Civic Type R.

2019 Renault Megane RS Trophy-R - 7:40.1(time comparable to a 2010 Merceds-Benz SLS AMG and 2004 Mercedes-Benz SLR)

The Civic Type R kept its crown for nearly two years, until 2019 when Renault revealed the new hardcore Trophy-R version of its latest Megane RS. This car relies on a smaller 1.8-liter engine with 296 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 390 Nm at 2,400 rpm, hooked up to a six-speed manual gearbox.

Like the others on the list, it too has a mechanical limited-slip differential that helps it put the power down out of corners, but it has an additional trick up its sleeve.

Renault calls the system 4Control and it is the company’s proprietary name for its all-wheel steering setup. It comes as standard on all sporty Meganes (even the 205-horsepower GT model), but in the case of the Megane RenaultSport, it is calibrated in a more aggressive manner and the manufacturer says it not only improves low-speed maneuverability but also high-speed stability. At lowers speeds, the wheels turn in opposite directions and as speeds build they start to move in the same direction to keep the car planted to the road.

To top it all off, it reuses the formula of the old Megane Trophy-R: Ohlins dampers, Akrapovic exahust, beefed up Brembo brakes, and sticky tires - this time from Bridgestone

If you watch the recently released full Nurburgring lap, which it completed in just over 7 minutes and 40 seconds, you’ll see just what effect the more aggressive 4Control calibration has.

The car is frisky and feisty, and the driver often has to wrangle it under control. Compare that to the more secure handling of the Civic and it’s pretty clear that the Megane Trophy-R is the more entertaining of the two to drive around a track.

Read our full review on the 2018 Renault Mégane R.S. Trophy.

FWD Nurburging Lap Time Records
Lap Time Horsepower Torque (lb-ft) Curb weight (lbs) power-to-weight (hp:lbs)
2019 Renault Megane RS Trophy-R 07:40.1 292 295 2815 0.10:1
2017 Honda Civic Type R 07:43.8 306 295 3150 0.097:1
2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S 07:49.2 310 280 2998 0.10:1
2014 Honda Civic Type R 07:50.6 306 295 2910 0.105:1
2014 Ranault Megane R.S. 275 Trophy-R 07:54.4 271 266 2859 0.09:1
2014 Seat Leon Cupra 07:58.4 276 258 3075 0.089:1
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