It was the supercar you could take to Sainsbury’s – but, relates Andrew Frankel, it would scramble your eggs on the way back
The idea could scarcely have been more right; it was the execution that was found lacking. Back in the ’80s, Volvo decided it could no longer live by armoured personnel carrier alone. Its reputation for being one of the most safety-conscious marques on Earth had won it a loyal customer base but there was this feeling that the resulting cars, which possessed all the visual and driving appeal of an airport bus were perhaps keeping a few away.
The problem was that Volvo could not re-invent itself overnight. That would have been to abandon existing customers in pursuit of those swayed by the more sensual charms of BMW and Mercedes. They would need more than a little persuading that a Volvo really was the best to be seen in.
So Volvo decided to cater for both its old and its prospective punters. Its cars would still be built to withstand a nuclear strike, they’d still be angular, but just a few of them would also go like hell.
Far and away the best example of Volvo’s attempt to marry the wildly opposing interests of its traditional buyers and the younger, racier types it sought to attract was the 850 T5-R Estate.
From a distance, it looked sane enough: the reassuringly blocky shape of the ’80s big Volvo had been softened a little around the edges for the caring ’90s, but it wasn’t until you were much closer, close enough to see the rear wing, front chin and beautiful anodised 17in alloy wheels, that you realised this Volvo had things on its mind other than taking the kids to school.
It had something different under the bonnet too. There lurked a Porsche-designed 2.3-litre five-cylinder motor with 240bhp, 221lb ft of torque and enough acceleration to outrun from 50-70mph in top gear what was, back in 1994, the fastest Ferrari in production, the 512TR.
Was this not, then, the answer to everyone’s dreams, a Labrador-friendly Volvo that could talk turkey with the cream of Italy’s supercars, and on sale for not much more than a fully loaded Ford Scorpio estate? For some, undoubtedly. It has to be said that it was strong on novelty value. Back then, we were not used to seeing Volvos heading the pack at British Touring Car Championship races and, while Volvo had actually built some rather powerful versions of its monstrous 700 and 900 series, their performance was almost incidental.
In the T5-R performance was everything, and to prove this it came not simply with those gorgeous wheels but also radical 205/45 ZR 17 Pirelli P-Zero tyres and truly radical suspension settings. I can see why this might still seem like the ideal all-purpose motorcar, but for me the reality was rather different. The problem started with the fact that all that power had to be diverted through the front wheels and it simply spread from there.
Essentially, the engine was far too good for the chassis in which it found itself. It poured on the power so smoothly and quietly that you often found yourself bouncing off the rev-limit at the exit of corners as wheelspin took over where traction gave up. Nor was this a problem which limited itself to wet weather. The TS-R simply could not cope with its power and while Volvo was canny enough to make sure this never endangered its occupants — it suffered from remarkably little torque-steer and the handling was nothing if not stable — neither did it represent exactly the last word in on-limit finesse.
Certainly it would grip as hard as its tyre and suspension specification would suggest so long as the road was dry, but if the balance and adjustability you might have hoped for had been engineered into the car too, there was no sign.
Perhaps this is forgivable. No-one bought a Volvo back then with sky-high expectations of its handling. After its power and undoubted practicality, this was maybe not the highest item on the priority list. There was, however, something else about this car which was truly unforgiveable: its ride quality.
In the T5-R estate, the phrase ‘ride quality’ was an oxymoron. In nearly a decade of testing cars, I only drove one new car which rode worse. It was an Indian Jeep-imitation called a Mahindra Indian Chief, and for its utter inability to absorb anything which you might describe as a bump, it trumped the £28,000 Volvo. But not by much.
That Volvo rode like its suspension had been replaced by bricks. It’s very rare for any new car to have a single problem so severe that it completely undermines the rest of the car’s often impressive abilities. But that was the way it was with that Volvo. I didn’t like the wheelspin, and would have preferred slightly more indulgent handling but could easily have lived with them. No car is perfect and, in all other respects the TS-R was so incomparably better than any of the old-series Volvos that it would have been churlish to damn it for such faults.
But the ride was different. I knew within 100 yards of driving it that I could never recommend this car to anyone, even if in all other respects it turned out to be the finest estate car I’d ever driven. At the time, Autocar suggested drivers should make an appointment for every second Friday at the osteopaths. It was a statement made entirely in jest but I knew where its author was coming from.
Volvo did too. It did sort out the T5-R by the time its replacement, the 850R came along. And while that car would still win no prizes for its chassis’ abilities, no longer do they provide a reason for never even considering ownership.
The T5-R Estate was a rarity. The less powerful but equally fast T5 was both more common and comfortable and even the T5-R saloon was a marked improvement. All rode pretty terribly but none so badly as to poison your view of the entire car. Sadly, the same could not be said for the T5-R Estate.
Verdict: Rotten Apple.