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April 2014 Road Rage - Is FWD Performance Dead?

Aaron Bonk
Mar 18, 2014

They say that front-wheel-drive performance is dead. That the proliferation of rear-wheel-driven and all-wheel-powered factory-turbocharged marvels all but assures as much. That there's simply no place left for sub-200hp compacts with transaxles nestled in between their front tires.

They are wrong. And, as it turns out, they were likely never fans of the front-wheel-drive platform to begin with. Even during the mid-1990s, at the undisputed peak of Honda's sport compact reign, the competition was relentless. Mitsubishi had its AWD and turbocharged Eclipse GSX, Toyota its RWD and also turbocharged MR2, and there was also Nissan's 240SX and Mazda's Miata—neither boosted but both driven by their hind-ends. Despite any of those, though, Honda believers then did exactly what you think they did, which was to buy, drive, and modify Civics and Integras, Preludes and Accords. It's true; some jumped ship, running into the arms of some sort of factory-boosted ride or one of European heritage, but true Hondaphiles stuck around.

Some 20 years later and nothing's changed much. The players are different; Mitsubishi's got its Evo, Scion and Subaru have picked up where Toyota left off, Nissan's quietly walked away from the segment altogether, and the Miata, well ... is still a Miata. The truth is, true Honda loyalists have never really cared about which end's powered by what or whether or not a turbocharger was or wasn't a part of what some factory engineer says is supposed to go underneath the hood. Civics and Integras weren't sought after by the Honda devout under any delusion that in factory form they'd do everything we'd want them to. What sub-$20K car does? No, Civics and Integras were and continue to be sought after because of what often seems like limitless possibilities among them and the thrill of obtaining all of that. I don't need to tell you the merits of the fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-generation Civic's double-wishbone suspension or the sort of abuse a B-series engine block can withstand. In stock form, a Civic DX might not turn much of a time nor pump out any more power than what's bestowed upon a single wheel of an Evo, but simple chassis revisions and any time-honored engine swap takes care of all of that in a hurry.

They say that FWD performance is dead, but they say so as they acknowledge Honda's current new-car lineup. To be fair, Honda hasn't made rebutting any of this easy as of late. The ninth-generation Civic Si is not the Civic Si longtime Honda fans have been hoping for, despite its barrage of revisions. Its curb weight, form of i-VTEC, exhaust manifold layout, and suspension configuration make sure of that. A fine car it surely is, but it's a far leap from the nimble and potent hatchbacks of the 1990s.

Look beyond whatever sits on Honda's new-car lots to understand that FWD performance is alive and well. Decades-old chassis like the '88-'91 Civic and CRX are often resold for nearly as much as they did from dealerships more than 20 years ago. Businesses still exist because of those very cars, offering little, if any, support for anything manufactured post millennium change. And, to be sure, there are arguably more pre-2002 Civics and Integras in commission than just about any other similarly aged car from just about any other make. (How many Mercury Sables have you seen lately?)

They say that FWD performance is dead but it's likely the cynics were never proponents of any of this to begin with. To say that such a layout is inferior only demonstrates a level of ignorance. Honda may not fly the performance flag in the same way it once did, but its pre-owned fleet continues to flourish, and if you have to be told that, then maybe you were never really a fan to begin with.

By Aaron Bonk
405 Articles

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