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Volvo’s new, turbocharged 850 may look like any other of the Swedish manufacturer’s products,
but its meek exterior conceals quite a kick . . .

“Who’s got that tank in the car park?” Not again, surely? The question is as wholly predictable as it is misguided. Preconceptions, preconceptions. . . Do any of these people know what it’s actually like to drive a Volvo nowadays? Antique dealers’ delight . . . ideal for the school run . . . loads of room to exercise a couple of labradors . . . blah, blah, blah. Heard it all before.

Strike all the old jokes from the record book, pronto. Volvos suffer in the same way as Lancias. Despite what bar stool scholars may believe, Volvos are no more staid or boring than modem Lancias are prone to rust. Fact.

Volvo’s new-found dynamism is the result of a gradual evolution that has taken place over the past few years.

Prior to the launch of the 850 T5, there have been some close calls, cars which offered classy touches but which, overall, didn’t quite nudge the saliva glands into overdrive. Take the 480 Turbo, for instance. Being a Volvo, it wasn’t tuned for ultimate performance, but rather had a torque curve that peaked almost as you unlocked the door and remained static all the way into the upper reaches of the rev range. Much like the T5, in fact. It was perky, comfortable and efficient, but few people seemed to notice, or to remark upon anything bar a certain curiosity of styling for something that purported to be a coupé. And then there was the 24-valve 960, with its wonderfully smooth, and highly potent, six-cylinder engine . . . but compulsory automatic gearbox. Its engine and gearbox were harmoniously matched, and the driveshafts were where most purists would prefer them to be – at the rear but it still wasn’t exactly a driver’s car.

No, the 850 T5 is the first real tornado in Volvo’s range, and the marketing people have rightly seen fit to make a song and dance about it. Whereas the Swedes’ previous advertising strategy concentrated on the fact that you might survive if you drove your 440 out of a window on the 15th floor, attention has now been turned to the performance parameters of the one true sports saloon now on Volvo’s books.

There will doubtless be those who feel uncomfortable about the marriage between 225 bhp and front-wheel drive. Perhaps this would have been the perfect engine for the rear-drive 900-series, or maybe even the ideal excuse for Scandinavia to enter the world of mass production four-wheel drive? (Given that Sweden has one of Europe’s traditionally snowier, icier climes, it’s a trifle odd that neither Saab nor Volvo produces an all-wheel drive car. Is there a lesson there somewhere? Only Rover and Citroën, amongst other mainstream European manufacturers, have similar voids.) Whatever, Volvo’s optional electronic traction control, TRACS (which can be switched on or off via a switch in the cabin), is recommended at £305. We have tried the car both with and without, and while the front end has been admirably tamed for dry weather usage, the non-TRACS version is less well behaved in the rain. It doesn’t do anything unduly alarming: there’s no pedestrian threatening torque steer, just overly accessible wheelspin.

While Volvo’s technicians might have moved forward with all the speed of an Ayrton Senna qualifying lap, its stylists have not. Outwardly, the large, jibe-inducing frame remains. A few of the sharper, more angular aspects of the awkward old 700 have been rounded off, but the ancestry is obvious. Considered objectively, the 850 is actually not a bad looking car, and the neat boot spoiler on the T5 adds a pleasing touch of balance.

Until the T5 becomes widely recognised, its unmistakeably Volvoid silhouette will doubtless cause it to be under estimated by the world at large. The test car’s rather unsporting metallic maroon paintwork and beige trim didn’t exactly cause the world to stop and yell “Look, there goes a 150 mph Volvo” either.

And, as previously reported in Motor Sport (October 1993), this really is a Volvo capable of over twice our national speed limit. And if you think that’s a rather pointless achievement in the UK, you should see how speed limits are monitored, and observed, in Sweden . . .

At the launch, the T5 zapped along an unopened stretch of motorway, hired especially for the purpose, at an indicated 154 mph (Volvo claims a top speed of 149). And it did so with little apparent strain. For those living outside Germany, it’s somewhat academic (unless you’ve no objection to having your licence put through a shredder).

Now cast your mind back for a second to the aforementioned 480 Turbo. Remember the Volvo philosophy? Tuning for driveability rather than land speed records?

The fact that the five-cylinder turbo is capable of propelling you to 150-odd mph is, frankly, incidental. It’s not what it can do, but the way it does it. The singularly most impressive aspect of the T5 is the manner of its power delivery. While the power peaks at a lofty, but impressively quiet, 5,300 rpm, maximum torque (221 lb ft, but limited to 191 in first gear to counter wheelspin) is attained at just 2,000 rpm. . . and retained all the way to 5,200. The result is excellent throttle response. The drivetrain offers no clues that this is a turbocharged car. it will pick up cleanly from low revs in a high gear, and is consequently extremely relaxing to drive. If you want extra acceleration, just drop a cog or two. When you do, the 850 reacts with impressive urgency. Caravans and trucks can be despatched on short, straight B-road sections in a matter of seconds. Such dynamics are every bit as much a component of the car’s safety as the airbag (standard on the driver’s side; a passenger version is under development) and the Forth Road Bridge-specification steel cage that lurks within all Volvos.

Dry weather handling belies both the car’s size and the location of its driveshafts. The steering is communicative and sharp in equal measure. As a result, the 850 turns in positively and can be threaded along with all the verve and accuracy of a performance hatchback. In medium- and high-speed corners it is commendably neutral. Push hard on tighter roads and it understeers mildly, tightening its line with similar restraint as soon as you ease the throttle. In short, it behaves like any well-sorted front-drive performance car. That may not be to everyone’s taste, but it adds an element of idiot-proofing.

To contain all of this kinetic energy, Volvo provides powerful, fade-free brakes with discreet ABS.

An uprated suspension pack is available for those who want it. Such is the extraordinary quality of the ride/handling compromise of the original, though, that we can’t see there being too many takers for the 20mm lower ride height. The 850 soaks up sleeping policemen and potholes with aplomb. It might have the aerodynamics of a small chateau, but it also has some of the creature comforts.

Whether the sporting benefits of the stiffer suspension will outweigh a possible deterioration in ride comfort is something we hope to be able to test in the spring.

Volvo’s interior design team hasn’t quite kept pace with the mechanical engineering division. Here, the 850 looks a touch dated. The cabin isn’t unpleasant, just a little quirky. The square numerals on the instruments within an otherwise neat dash panel could have come from a badly designed 1970s LP sleeve. The heating and ventilation system is neat and effective, but one wonders whether air conditioning shouldn’t be standard on a car of this class, reasonable though the sub-£24,000 price tag is? The trip computer is neat, but is there anybody out there who actually uses one?

Those who don’t opt for the £664.18 ICE update kit may be confused by the gargantuan stereo which monopolises the centre console. We spent a fair bit of time wondering how Volvo had managed to conceal the CD player so cleverly. Despite what the buttons on the control panel suggest, digital sound is an extra. Even without CD, the unit has a few neat tricks, such as being able to source particular types of radio entertainment at the push of a button. You can ask it to find classical music, jazz, sport, rock, current affairs and pretty much anything else. It also features the increasingly commonplace, and useful, RDS system, which can be programmed to interrupt whatever you’re listening to whenever there’s a traffic information report.

It’s unlikely that this particular piece of sophistication will appeal to passing ne’er-do-wells, as you’d need an industrial chisel to hack it out and something the size of an Astramax van to haul it away. . .

The velour seats, with leather trim, are comfortable per se, though if you press on you’ll find them a little short on lateral support. The seats and steering wheel are height adjustable, which makes for easy achievement of a good driving position. One particularly neat touch is the integral child seat which folds down in the rear. Not every
household needs to accommodate toddlers, but those that do will appreciate this neat, thoughtful touch that others would do well to ape, if only via the options list.

Verdict

The last time my company Ford was subjected to an attempted theft, the attendant police officer tutted and recommended that I switched to something like a Peugeot or a Volvo, neither of which are apparently particularly popular with the criminal fraternity in the capital’s suburbs. Perhaps this perceived ‘undesirability’ explains why this 150 mph saloon is granted Group 15 insurance, the same rating as an Astra SRi, while the Ford Escort RS Cosworth is in Group 20.

With this class of car, ‘economy’ might be a relative term, but the fuel returns should appeal as much as the insurance premiums. At motorway cruising speeds, Volvo anticipates better than 30 mpg. Over the course of a week in mixed conditions, we returned a respectable 27, give or take a couple of tenths.

Priced realistically, at £23,995 (the similarly swift estate costs an extra £800), the 850 T5 might not look like the car which could overturn Volvo’s reputation overnight, and as it will only be imported in small numbers the chances are that its considerable merits will remain a secret known only to a well-informed few.

One the one hand, that means the marque could still be open to abuse from the ill-informed; on the other, it could be that the impending alliance of Tom Walkinshaw Racing and Volvo in the British Touring Car Championship will prove to be the catalyst which rejuvenates Volvo’s image on a broad scale.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the 1990s. Those preconceptions should have been locked securely away in a drawer many moons ago.

The T5 represents the ultimate proof. S A

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