The front-wheel-drive layout is best when looked at in terms of efficiency. Compared to rear or all-wheel-drive vehicles, they use fewer parts, save more space, use less fuel, and offer safety advantages when in the hands of overzealous drivers. Treacherous conditions also favor a FWD vehicle over RWD, as the engine and transmission weight give the driving wheels extra grip. Many claim the RWD platforms to be superior in motorsports, and in many cases, that’s true, but the FWD platform shouldn’t be overlooked. There are more than a handful of exciting FWD vehicles out there to compliment the boat-load of family-oriented models. Whatever you’re after, there is a FWD to fit your needs.
Volkswagen GTI Mk7 (2015-2019) $15,000-$25,000
What more can we say about Volkswagen’s perennial hot hatch king? Since the mid-seventies, Volkswagen has dominated the small hatchback segment with the Golf and ruled the hot hatch segment with the GTI. Forty-plus years of innovation, design changes, Touring Car championships, and a bit of rally experience have produced arguably the most usable daily performance vehicle for under $25,000.
The seventh generation of GTI debuted in 2015 and carried the GTI’s legacy until late last year when the eighth generation was launched. Under the GTI’s hood is VW’s third generation of its EA888 engine, a 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-4. The EA888 was first introduced in the Mk5 GTI and has since become a gem of an engine. Its early problems have been taken care of, though there are still a few things to look out for, and its reliability has proven itself in stock applications. Tuners have also taken to it in force, with its direct fuel injection and turbocharger combination proving capable of nearly double its original power output with bolt-on modifications.
In 2018, VW updated the Mk7, making the previously optional Performance Pack standard equipment. That package included larger brakes, a bit more horsepower, a seven-speed DSG, and an electronically controlled TorSen-style differential. Non-drivetrain improvements included slightly updated bumpers, lights, wheels, and a larger infotainment system. Because of these improvements, sellers and aftermarket parts companies refer to the updated Mk7 as the Mk7.5.
The Mk7 GTI put out 258 lb-ft of torque and 215 horsepower in stock form, while the Mk7.5 received a bump to 228 horsepower. Both models came standard with a six-speed manual gearbox, while the DSG, VW’s double-clutch transmission, was an option. All Mk7 GTIs use the six-speed DSG, while the Mk7.5 received a seven-speed. That DSG is about as good as it gets, this side of a Porsche. The seven-speed DSGs on the upper trim levels, the SE, and the Autobahn, come equipped with an electronic limited-slip differential. That diff was also part of the optional Performance Pack on the Mk7, which included a ten-horsepower bump and larger brakes from the Golf R.
The GTI does everything very well, almost annoyingly so. Years of refined German engineering have led to a dominating product that continues to punch above its weight class. It’s quick, handles well, receptive to modification, and relatively fuel-efficient; qualities seldom found together these days. It is truly hard to beat for the money, demanding consideration from anyone with the right budget. So what do you get for under $25,000? It’s likely going to be a Mk7 with either the manual or DSG and around 30-60,000 miles on the clock. Look out for good options like the leather seats, performance pack, and lighting package. There are a few Mk7.5’s out there, too, but you’ll need to be alright with a rebuilt or salvaged title.
MINI JCW Hardtop (2015-2021) $20,000-$25,000
Unfortunately for a lot of us, the general population doesn’t love small cars. They’ve historically sold poorly in America, and because of that, the hatchback market seems to get smaller every year. Thankfully there are still a couple of European options, even if one hardly gets thought of. Formerly a British-owned brand now controlled by BMW, MINI continues to offer small and exciting hatchbacks to the USA. So what better MINI could you have under $25,000 than the range-topping John Cooper Works?
John Cooper Works is the division of MINI that handles all of the racing and in-house tuning for MINI, similar to BMW’s M division. Like the M3, the JCW Hardtop is a stiffer, louder, and faster variant of the standard Cooper S. Without looking too hard; it isn’t tough to see BMW’s fingerprints around the car. Optional is their Dynamic Damper Control system, a set of adaptive shocks that will stiffen or soften depending on the performance setting. Powering the spritely hatch is BMW’s B48 2.0-liter inline-4, utilizing a twin-scroll turbocharger to pump out 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is the standard gearbox, but a six-speed Steptronic unit is also available for those who prefer two pedals.
The JCW Hardtop differentiates itself from the GTI by being a little more boy-racer. Racing stripes, chrome accents, and bright colors adorn many JCWs on the used market today, while every model receives unique bumpers, skirts, and plenty of JCW badging. Keeping with the theme presented by the sporty exterior and powerful enough engine, the JCW also uses stiffened and re-tuned suspension and larger Brembo brakes to round out the hot hatch’s performance upgrades. Keeping you in place as you take advantage of all of that performance are cloth seats with lots of adjustable bolstering or the optional leather and Alcantara sport seats. The performance tech even spreads to the infotainment system derived from BMW’s iDrive. Like those M Division models, it allows MINI drivers to change their music or suspension settings in a flash.
Maybe the biggest downside to the F56 JCW is that many of the accouterments you’d want are optional extras. Optional extras include heated seats, keyless entry, a Harmon Kardon sound system, and touch screen navigation. Finding one under budget isn’t too difficult, but it’ll get tougher once you start looking for specific options. Examples within the $25,000 budget can vary pretty wildly but expect between 30-50,000 miles on the odometer. The earlier 2015-2017 models appear the most, but many are optioned nicely. They aren’t as common as the GTI, and their prices reflect that, with the scuzziest examples still commanding over $20,000. Their relative obscurity can make finding your perfect car tricky. Still, when you do, you’ll have the best European counterpart to the GTI available in the US, wrapped up in a historic and unique-looking package.
Mercedes-Benz CLA250 (2014-2019) $17,000-$25,000
Even the baby Benz deserves some consideration. Mercedes-Benz, since 1997, has offered a subcompact hatchback in a variety of markets, but never in America. However, its third generation finally became available to us through the CLA sedan and GLA crossover in 2014. The small, front-wheel-drive platform was a first for Mercedes in the US, but sales boomed right out of the gate, with 80 percent of buyers being first-time Mercedes customers. Seven years on, and used examples of the baby Benz sit in a curious place in the market. So what is the CLA all about?
Mercedes’ original small sedan, the C-class, had grown too large and too expensive for younger buyers by the mid-2010s. BMW offered the 1-series and Audi the A3, so Mercedes needed a competitor. With the debut of their third-generation A-class imminent, they built the CLA and GLA to compete with their rivals in the US. The CLA became an instant hit, with the new subcompact sedan littering dealerships and the streets alike. According to Mercedes, 80 percent of their CLA owners were new to the brand, showing how vital their small and relatively affordable models were.
The CLA250 is built on the A-class architecture, sharing its floor, suspension design, drivetrain, and interior bits, but comes very close to its bigger sibling, the C-class. Powering the four-door coupe is Mercedes’ M270 engine, a turbocharged 2.0 liter inline-4 that pumps out 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Sending the power through the front wheels is the only transmission available for the CLA250, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. While efficient and torquey, the M270 engine has a couple of faults. First, the camshaft adjuster, integral to the variable cam timing system, commonly wears out by 60,000 miles. You’ll begin to hear it as it fails; listen for a clacking sound on cold start-up. The other main issue is reasonably serious and revolves around the timing chain wearing out around 80,000 miles. Replacing the timing chain is a very involved job that could cause catastrophic damage if done wrong.
Inside the cabin are typical Merc materials. A large wood or piano black accent covers the face of the dashboard, while the soft surfaces are treated with leatherette and leather. Standard features are pretty slim, however, to keep the starting price down. Earlier models used a chunky infotainment screen for the standard and optional packages, though that was to change. 2017 brought a modest update to the CLA, adding different exhaust tips, bumpers, wheel styles, paint choices, and a larger and slimmer standard infotainment display. The standard features list grew, too, with automatic emergency braking and a rearview camera for added safety.
The CLA was designed to bring luxury to the masses, and it has done just that. Since its initial offering, Mercedes has sold over 750,000 examples, an evident success for the brand. That’s even better news for buyers of used examples as their popularity provides plenty of options. The facelifted 2017-2019 models command between $22,000-$25,000 with around 30-50,000 miles on them. Earlier models can be had for even less; $16,000-$21,000, but will have well over 60,000 miles on their odometers. Check for any engine work done to alleviate the engine of its two major faults, and listen for any clicking, clacking, or knocking noises on start-up on the higher mileage examples, too.
Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2016-2018) $19,000-$25,000
Putting off the rising electric car segment is foolish. For the foreseeable future, rechargeable battery-powered vehicles are the answer to some of the world’s issues. So why not embrace it like so many automakers have? Well, fully electric models seem to be debuting every day, but range, charging, and quality issues still plague the silent runners. Plug-in hybrid powertrains, on the other hand, offer both the buzzy mechanical feeling of internal combustion engines and the instant and soundless acceleration of electric drive. Wrap that up in a stylish and sporty-looking hatchback, and you have yourself the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron.
The A3 e-tron was only offered for a short time in the states, between 2016 and 2018, and represented their first foray into plug-in hybrid vehicles in America. The standard A3 provided at the time was a sedan only, so it also represented the only hatchback in Audi’s lineup. Powering the unique vehicle was a 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder that produced 150 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The electric motor used an 8.8kWh lithium-ion battery pack that helped it produce 102 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque. Power output rose to 204 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque when they were used simultaneously. All of that furious electro-mechanical horsepower was sent through a six-speed “S-Tronic” dual-clutch gearbox, powering the front wheels only.
Because it’s a plug-in hybrid rather than a conventional hybrid, the e-Tron can operate solely on electric power. The maximum electric range is 16 or 17 miles depending on the wheel size; the larger wheels cause the reduced range. With both engine and motor working together, the A3 achieves a combined 39mpg in testing with 16-inch wheels and 35mpg with 17-inch wheels. Consider those as soft averages as many owners have reported much better mileage. Get behind the wheel, and you’ll find the driving experience is closer to the standard A3 than an S3. All the electric components add around 750 lbs to the A3’s weight, ridding any possibilities of extreme sportiness. That’s alright, though, as it wasn’t supposed to be a GTI competitor. The A3 e-tron was supposed to test the waters for Audi in America and did just that. As a second-hand buyer, you’ll have the privilege of driving the A3 e-tron with its teething issues worked out. Many early owners had problems with the infotainment system and some parts of the charging system, though just as many reported trouble-free driving. These days, dealership service records will show how well the car has been maintained and can give a good insight into how reliable that example is.
All of that technology comes wrapped in an objectively good-looking hatchback body style with aggressive angular lights and pronounced wheel arches. While not too crucial to the A3’s performance and efficiency, the wheel size under those arches can help determine which trim level is fitted. The base trim, known as Premium, came equipped with 16-inch wheels, LED daytime running lights and taillights, a panoramic sunroof, keyless ignition and entry, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, a rearview camera, and front and rear parking sensors. Moving up to the Premium Plus trim equipped 17-inch wheels and heated seats, among other features. Lastly, above that was the Prestige trim, which included an upgraded infotainment system, Bang & Olufson speakers, and its own WiFi.
Owning an early plug-in hybrid is a risk. New technologies pushed to the limits of their day always run the risk of expensive or complicated repairs. Thankfully, the A3 e-tron is essentially a luxurious Golf with an electric motor. Engine service parts are on par with the standard A3 and Golf of the era, and servicing is just as straightforward. On the electric side of things, computers will be expensive to replace if needed, but the battery pack carries an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty. Within the $25,000 budget, an A3 Sportback e-tron can be acquired with around 30,000 miles, though the majority sit in the 40-70,000-mile range. The lower the mileage, the better condition the battery pack will be in. Prestige trims aren’t out of the realm of possibility here either, you’ll just have to wade through the multitude of Premiums.
Volvo S60/V60 (2011-2018) $18,000-$25,000
The Volvo S60/V60 is the sensible ride on this list. It isn’t particularly fast nor sporty, and the level of luxury is behind the BMW and Mercedes by a small margin. However, what you get is a sedan or wagon with plenty of space to sit and carry cargo, a comfortable ride, and a wide variety of trims wrapped up in a stylish package. That isn’t to say the Volvo is the boring choice, however. The Volvos do their job without excess flash or panache, just the way some of us like it.
Both models were offered with more than a few engine options and trim levels throughout its nine-year run, making shopping for one a bit confusing. Volvo presented the pre-facelift models between the 2011 and 2013 model years in T5, T6, and T6 R-Design packages. The base model T5 used a 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-5 good for 250 horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission to drive the front wheels. The T6 and T6 R-Design used a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6, though those were only equipped with all-wheel drive. The drivetrain options received a shakeup for the 2015 model year. The base model became the T5 Drive-E, which featured a 240 horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 mated to an eight-speed automatic. Above that was the T5 AWD, which kept the 2.5-liter inline-5. The T6 Drive-E received a twincharged 2.0-liter inline-4, while the T6 R-Design retained the 3.0-liter inline-6.
The S60 and V60 received extensive body updates for the 2014 model year. Externally, everything forward of the A-pillar was new, including the bumper, lights, hood, and fenders. Inside the cabin, a larger instrument cluster, new seats, and various trim changes were fitted, along with a host of new safety tech like updated blind-spot monitoring. With the optional Technology package, additional safety features like the IntelliSafe automatic braking system, rear cross-traffic alert system, and electronic warnings for driver inattention, lane departure, and impending collisions.
Both P3 variants received Cross Country models after the 2014 update, too. Those use lifted suspension and plastic cladding on the wheel arches and skirts to go with the off-road/adventure theme, similar to Audi’s allroad. These didn’t follow the standard S60 and V60 engine updates to make it just a bit more confusing. The 2015-16 V60 Cross Country used the 2.5-liter inline-5, while 2017-18s used the 2.0-liter inline-4. The S60 Cross Country, on the other hand, only used the 5-cylinder for its first year in 2016, while 2017-18 got the 4-cylinder. Oh yeah, there was a long-wheelbase S60 as well. Dubbed the S60 Inscription, it was built with a three-inch longer wheelbase, giving its back seat occupants all of that extra room. The Inscription was only offered with the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder.
There is a lot of variation in the P3 S60/V60, clearly. But that just means that there are more models out there to fit your needs best. Many of these models came with all-wheel-drive, too, and while not the point of this piece, that may work better depending on your environment. Regardless of what you need, the S60 and V60 both offer a luxurious and relaxed way of getting to and from your destination with unrivaled safety technology and an inconspicuously stylish body, no matter the trim. Who couldn’t use that?
The FWD platform has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, and for a good reason. As safety and emissions efficiency have needed to increase, the FWD drivetrain layout has proven to be up to the task. We know the platform isn’t for everyone, trust us, but there are a lot of great FWD vehicles out there that shouldn’t be cast aside because of their driving wheels. In the end, only you know what criteria a new vehicle has to fit, so which fits you best? Let us know in the comments, as always, and be sure to follow along with the blog for more great content!
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.