Flagship enterprise

More car for less money? Volvo defies the laws of economics to bring the 960 out of the shadows

Think of Volvo a few years ago, and chances are that you’d conjure up images of a showroom dummy driving a 400-series saloon out of an 11th floor window. Think of Volvo now, and you think about the 850, which has long-needed its sturdy construction just to survive the heaps of praise which have been bestowed upon it. The 850 wins touring car races; there is a road-going 850 which can top 150 mph; the 850 has probably got a PhD in nuclear physics; the 850 has claimed so many headlines that most people have forgotten that, at the back of your local Volvo dealer, there lurks a powerful reardrive saloon of the old school.

Volvo has not only reduced the price of the flagship 960 (which now starts at £19,795, rising to £26,885), it has refined the product considerably. The angular exterior has been lightly softened, the interior has been reworked and both chassis and suspension have been revised. There is also a new 2.5-litre engine which, unlike the familiar 24-valve, three-litre straight six, is available with manual transmission.

We recently tried the 3.0 saloon in GLE trim, £23,030 including leather, air conditioning, burr walnut, 16 in alloy wheels, integrated child seat and remote anti-theft alarm. That’s on top of the ABS, central locking, driver’s airbag. SIPS lateral protection and full complement of five three-point belts which come with all 960s. In the traditional Volvo idiom, it’s a lot of car for the money.

Although the strut/damper set-up of the front suspension has been retained, it has been re-engineered in a bid to bring the handling ‘feel’ closer to that of the 850. This works up to a point, but in fast, sweeping corners you can’t help but notice that this really isn’t an 850. It is by no means as precise, and there simply isn’t the same degree of body control, even though roll is said to be 35 per cent less than that of its predecessor.

It all makes you realise just how much of an advance for Volvo the 850 was.

Not that one should simply dismiss the 960 on those grounds. It is a different type of car altogether to the 850. It is relaxing to drive, exuding the long-standing Volvo attributes which have been appreciated by those in the know, and laughed at by those too image-conscious to bother taking a look beneath the brick-like surface.

It is also an admirable cruising companion. The 204 bhp (at 6000 rpm) engine is as smooth in operation as anything you will find in Bavaria, though the effects are slightly offset by the four-speed auto’s tendency to ‘hunt’ gears when you don’t really want it to. This doesn’t affect motorway travel, but it can be bothersome on B-roads. There is a broad spread of torque, of course, and 90 per cent of the 197 lb ft peak (at 4300 rpm) is available from little more than tickover. Such flexibility is enhanced by the three-mode (sport, economy and winter) transmission, which allows you to hold on to gears for longer in the first-named mode, to facilitate B-road progress.

We used the 960 to go to the Nurburgring: we wouldn’t have wanted to take it around the Nurburgring, perhaps, but it’s none the worse a luxury saloon for that. Similar money would only buy you a Mercedes-Benz E200, and that’s without the bits and pieces. That’s worth thinking about if you want somewhere comfortable in which to stretch your legs.