Rallying’s recent restructuring stemming from the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC)’s meeting last week has effectively spelled the end of the road for a dedicated front-wheel-drive category within the World Rally Championship.
Front-wheel-drive cars have played a monumental role in giving drivers, teams, and cars a chance to crack the upper echelons of rallying, so the demise of this type of car will be sorely felt around the world.
It also introduced some of the most iconic (and best-sounding) pieces of machinery ever seen on a special stage and that F2 Kit Cars and Super 1600s remain feverishly popular as they do today speaks volumes of the regard in which they are still held.
DirtFish’s team of writers decided to give our front-wheel-drive favorites a final send-off by collating 10 of the best from over the years.
10. Hyundai Coupé Kit Car
Before Hyundai’s first proper assault on the World Rally Championship, the Korean brand’s flag bearer was the Coupé Kit Car in the FIA 2-Liter Cup. The car didn’t quite have the street cred as some of its F2 rivals, and this was partly down to the mechanical frailty of the Coupé which suffered anything from engine failure to fuel pump issues and regular clutch dramas during its two full seasons in the 2-Liter category.
Still, it’s a car which certainly looked – and sounded – the part. Alistair McRae and Kenneth Eriksson led the effort admirably and the latter’s full-gas attack on the 1999 Rally Sweden is perhaps how the Coupé Kit Car should be remembered: pedal flat to the floor in a full sideways drift and kicking up plumes of snow! It was never going to challenge the likes of the 306 Maxi and the Maxi Mégane in the popularity contests, but the Coupé Kit Car was still a fine-looking piece of machinery.
For much of the 1998 season, the Coupé struggled for power versus the other F2 competitors, and it wasn’t until midway through the following year that English company MSD launched a brand-new kit car with an upgraded engine specification and a wider track to boost the performance. Alas, the FIA 2-Liter Cup didn’t last much longer for the Coupé Kit Car to reap the full benefits, as it transitioned to the FIA Cup for Super 1600 drivers for 2001.
But all in all, the Coupé was a clever piece of kit – if you pardon the pun! – and having been pipped to the 2-Liter title by Renault by a mere seven points, proved that when reliability was sorted, it had the pace to challenge the top.
9. Fiat Punto S1600
Who doesn’t love an Italian rally car? While the Punto Super 1600 might not be the first one you envisage when you think of the best Italian – or even Fiat – machines to tackle world rallies, this is a front-wheel-drive list and although it may be a slight oddball choice, it’s a more than worthy one.
The Punto debuted in 2000 when the Formula 2 Kit Cars era was winding down and managed to win its home round of the WRC with Italian driver Luca Pedersoli at the controls. Fellow Italian Andrea Dallavilla repeated the trick a year later and in doing so became the only man other than Sébastien Loeb to win a round of the maiden Junior WRC season.
This was ultimately the peak for the Punto in the WRC, but it was steered by yet more Italian legends elsewhere, with Paolo Andreucci winning the second of his 11 Italian Rally Championship titles with the car in 2003 and Marcos Ligato and Giandomenico Basso also piloting the Punto to solid results.
The Punto was restyled in 2003 in-line with the roadgoing version – which in this writer’s opinion at least didn’t look as cool – before going out of production in 2005 to make way for the all-new Super 2000, four-wheel-drive version which would prove even more successful.
Perhaps a forgotten and overlooked choice for the best front-wheel-drive rally cars to grace the WRC, but its screaming engine was one of the best sounding in class and its Italian flare is easy to fall for.
8. Renault Clio Maxi
No rallying Renault can come close to the 5 Maxi Turbo, not only in terms of brute power and speed but in reverence. But the Clio Maxi was successful in recapturing a little bit of the 5 Maxi’s magic for the F2 era. Having Jean Ragnotti leading the line-up helped.
The Clio Maxi had moderate success, winning the Belgian championship in the hands of Bernard Munster. Philippe Bugalski also came close to winning the French title in 1995 before the Maxi Mégane took over as the factory car, only a year after the Clio Maxi had been introduced.
At its best, the Clio Maxi wasn’t about being an all-conquering beast. In the hands of Ragnotti, it was a huge crowd-pleaser, as the two-time French national champion rang the neck of the little hatchback in a way only he knew how. Forceful flicks, big drifts, and arriving at hairpins backwards; Ragnotti made sure no-one would forget the Clio Maxi after it had sped past.
That’s not to say Ragnotti and the Clio Maxi were all show and no go; he picked up a 2-Litre WRC win at Monte Carlo in ’95, which combined with Bugalski’s Tour de Corse win gave Renault the runners-up spot behind Peugeot that year.
In terms of its status in the history books, it probably didn’t help that the Clio often wore generic silver paintwork covered in sponsor logos on the world stage. It lacked the unforgettable style of the subsequent Maxi Méganes; Team Diac’s striking blue, yellow and red in France and the light blue and yellow contrast livery for the British works team better captured the imagination.
But the Clio definitely made its mark. Figuratively speaking, it hinted at further success that was to come for Renault later in the F2 era. Literally speaking, Ragnotti and co. made sure there would be plenty of tire marks left behind after giving it full send.
7. Suzuki Swift S1600
Although the Ignis might be the Suzuki most people remember when you think of front-wheel-drive rally cars in the Junior World Rally Championship, for me, the Swift Super 1600 was a far more elegant (if less distinctive) car which was just as successful as its Ignis counterpart.
Debuting in 2005 with Per Gunnar Andersson at the helm, the Swift became the reference car in the JWRC over the next few years, albeit missing out on the title in 2006 to the Renault Clio S1600 of Patrik Sandell by the smallest of margins.
Estonia Urmo Aava finished just one point behind Sandell in the final standings, with Andersson another two adrift. Guy Wilks, in a third Swift, was three behind Andersson, meaning that three Swifts occupied the top four in the points.
The title came the following season with Andersson finally prevailing and Aava second. A second JWRC title came in 2010 in the hands of German Aaron Burkart.
And although the entries in this feature are ostensibly based on our favorites alone, it would be remiss not to mention the impressive strike rate of the Swift during its JWRC tenure. Of its 117 starts (in 39 events), the Swift won 17 rallies – almost 40% of all the events it entered – and scored 44 podiums, en route to two titles between 2005 and 2010. Not a bad résumé at all is it?
The appearance of the Swift, with its customary yellow livery is also a personal preference of mine, mainly because it harks back to my adolescent years which, for someone with an alarming penchant for nostalgia, is no bad thing!
6. Ford Puma
The Puma was Ford’s answer to the Super 1600 ruleset and it certainly was a sight to behold if not the most successful of rally cars in period.
The little coupé bodystyle was certainly distinctive up against the hatchbacks the likes of Citroën and Renault were competing with, but the Puma had an earlier start to life than the majority of its S1600 rivals as it was first born as a Kit Car.
Indeed it made its competitive debut in 1998 with none other than Stig Blomqvist at the wheel but it was Patrick Magaud, Juuso Pykälistö and then later Martin Rowe and François Duval that started to show what the car – the last to be born out of Ford’s legendary Boreham factory – could really do.
While ultimately the Puma and the men behind the wheel couldn’t quite match the French-built cars in the Junior World Rally Championship, the car did prove popular in the United Kingdom and it gave a certain Kris Meeke the Junior British title in 2002.
Low-slung and actually rather cramped to compete in, the Puma was nothing if not unique and had a satisfying growl to its exhaust note that also helped it stand out. And a fun and little-known fact for you: Colin McRae actually competed in one in 2001 – complete in Rapid Fit livery – on a national rally in the north of Scotland for some extra kudos.
5 Citroën Xsara Kit Car
Let’s not kid ourselves, this is the F2 Kit Car that had the biggest impact on the World Rally Championship. It also, unfortunately, played a big role in the FIA 2-Liter Cup getting canned in favor of the new-for-2001 FIA Cup for Super 1600 drivers given its prowess in ‘pulling down the pants’ of rallying’s top-tier following a pair of iconic giant-killing events in the summer of 1999.
Is it the best front-wheel-drive car there has been? Probably not, but the influence it had on the WRC cannot be denied.
It might not have the cult following of the Saxo S1600, the Maxi Mégane or the 306 Maxi, but it never needed to in all fairness. Two back-to-back overall WRC wins for Philippe Bugalski – in Catalunya and Corsica – and a second place for Jésus Puras behind Bugalski on the latter was quite frankly a sensational story for global rallying. It was veritable proof that David could beat Goliath, on the right surface and on the right event.
The most successful of all the Xsara Kit Cars was undoubtedly chassis number six, with which Bugalski won those two WRC events as well as another pair of French championship rallies. It only raced five times over the course of 1999, and it won four events. That’s a win record of 80%. Bugalski crashed out of the third WRC event, on the Sanremo Rally but had been running as high as third overall on the opening day, again showcasing that if things had gone to plan, the car was once more ready to give the World Rally Cars a good run for their money.
Many reflect on the F2 days competing toe-to-toe with the WRC runners as the glory days of the category and few would argue against that. It was probably inevitable that the giant-killing exploits of the Kit Cars were always going to be nipped in the bud, but boy was it good while it lasted.
4. Seat Ibiza Kit Car
If success is the metric to judge a rally car, they don’t really come much greater than the Seat Ibiza Kit Car in the front-wheel-drive ranks. The little Spanish rocket won three FIA 2 Liter World Cups on the bounce in 1996, ’97 and ’98 as Seat prepared itself for a full-blown World Rally Championship assault with the Cordoba WRC.
Perhaps the marque should’ve stuck to two-wheel-drive rallying however as the Ibiza proved to be miles more successful than the Cordoba – and it wasn’t like it was up against weak competition either.
The first of its world championship successes were achieved with Spaniard Jesús Puras – whose perhaps better remembered for his exploits a few years later in a Citroën – and German Erwin Weber.
The Ibiza then went through a substantial off-season upgrade and was unveiled in Evo2 spec for 1997 with Oriol Gómez and Harri Rovanperä at the wheel. It was like nothing had changed though as the Ibiza continued to win, keeping up the habit in 1998 with Toni Gardemeister and Gwyndaf Evans helping out Rovanperä.
Although the Seat wasn’t the sexiest of shapes and nor did its engine scream quite as beautifully as some of its rivals, it was an incredibly effective package and certainly stood out in its bright yellow paintwork.
3 Renault Maxi Mégane
When it comes to French Formula 2 Kit Cars, the Peugeot 306 Maxi is usually the one that hogs all the limelight. But why? In my opinion at least, the Renault Maxi Mégane is the pick of the bunch, which is why it topped my personal list of favorite front-wheel-drive rally cars.
The Maxi Mégane was something of a late bloomer on the world scene, often failing to match the Peugeots with the legendary Philippe Bugalski and Jean Ragnotti behind the wheel in 1996 and 1997.
However, the Renault was the car to have when the 1990s came to a close and the F2 era began to diminish – winning the final FIA 2 Liter Cup in 1999 by seven points over Hyundai.
However, while Hyundai stuck to the services of just Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae, Renault made use of a plethora of pilots from around the world including that year’s Belgian champion Kris Princen, that year’s British champion Tapio Laukkanen, 1998 British champion Martin Rowe and 1994 Spanish champion and former Seat driver Oriol Gómez.
Enrico Bertone also won the 1999 European Rally Championship (the first time a front-wheel-drive car had done so in 30 years) with the Mégane which, with its seven-speed gearbox and savage power, was recognized as the cream of the crop in its time.
Rather petit yet bulky in nature, the Maxi Mégane had a distinctive bark to its engine note that made it a real treat for the stageside fans as well as those lucky enough to drive it in competition.
F2 was glorious for making rather ordinary cars absolutely stunning, and this statement could not be truer for the Renault Maxi Mégane: an absolutely gorgeous and devastatingly quick rally car. I’ll take mine in the jaw-dropping blue and yellow paint scheme as seen in the UK, please…
2. Peugeot 306 Maxi
This car simply is F2. The Mégane may have been king in the UK but in France, and the wider world, the 306 Maxi was the quintessential Kit Car.
Peugeot Sport had found all the right puzzle pieces to build not just the car but the entire program into a winner. The drivers were Gilles Panizzi and François Delecour; charismatic, enigmatic, and rapid in equal measure. The livery was iconic, white with tasteful splashes of blue and red, adorned with Esso Ultron and Clarion branding.
And then there was the engine. All the F2 cars were naturally aspirated, but none could hit the high notes like the XU10 engine in the 306 Maxi, screaming its way to 11,000rpm.
The car did more than simply look the part and bring the pizzazz; Panizzi won back-to-back French titles with it in 1996 and ’97. The first was a tooth-and-nail battle with Philippe Bugalski’s Mégane; the second time around he dispatched Patrick Magaud’s Saxo with aplomb.
France had learned how good the 306 Maxi was; the rest of the world would find out on the ’97 Tour de Corse. The agile little Pugs went straight to the top of the times early on and were running 1-2 more than once during the event. The WRC regulars were up in arms.
In the end, Colin McRae edged it with a stunning final stage push, as the rain came down and the four-wheel-drive cars gained the upper hand. But the 306 had made its mark.
Away from the stages, the 306 Maxi was the most culturally relevant kit car. Taxi 2, the sequel to Luc Besson’s original film about a Marseille cab driver with a need for speed, was largely forgettable but for the opening sequence.
Jean-Louis Schlesser flings a 306 Maxi through some hairpins while chased by a souped-up 406 V6. It sounds a tad silly – and it is – but still, it was a 306 Maxi front and center. Not a Xsara, not a Mégane, and not a Saxo.
When it comes to F2 fame, the 306 was truly Maxi.
1. Citroën Saxo Kit Car/S1600
This car ticks all the boxes; it’s not just an icon but it had success and longevity, spanning both the F2 and Super 1600 eras in different iterations.
In its initial guise it was forced to live in the shadow of the Xsara to an extent. While Patrick Magaud nearly won a French title with it, it was the combination of Bugalski and the Xsara which led the line once the works Peugeot 306 Maxis had departed. Both he and Jesús Puras piloted the Saxo in select WRC rounds, but it was the Xsara doing the heavy lifting in the F2 era.
What makes the Saxo special? It’s the Subaru Impreza of front-wheel-drive: one driver and one instantly recognizable livery combined to create a permanent imprint on the collective imagination. The legend of Sébastien Loeb in red and white began in the Saxo.
Loeb swept the Saxo Trophy in ’99 (albeit in an orange Saxo), scoring four wins from six, and there were further French national podiums with the F2-spec Saxo a year on.
But 2001 would cement the Saxo’s legend. F2 was out, replaced by Super 1600. Adorned in trademark red and white, Loeb’s Saxo wiped the floor with everyone in the first Junior WRC season, winning every round he entered.
The Saxo was a true win on Sunday, sell on Monday sort of carAlasdair Lindsay on the Saxo
While the entire Kit Car formula was near-universally revered by rally fans, it’s the S1600 Saxo that made a real mark. Why?
The Impreza had STi; the Saxo had VTS.
Despite its diminutive stature compared to WRC-spec rally beasts, the Saxo VTS was a true win on Sunday, sell on Monday sort of car. Imprezas and Lancers were beyond the budget of boy racers dreaming of being the next McRae; a Saxo VTS was not.
And that, ultimately, is the sign of a successful rally car; so good on the stages it makes you want to buy one for the open road. Citroën shifted plenty of Saxo VTSes. Many of them ended up in hedges.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to find a red Saxo VTS in the used car ads. Preferably one that’s not got bits of foliage in the engine bay.