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Going Dutch with the Volvo 480 ES

It might be easy to dismiss the 480 ES as a pretty Volvo from the land of windmills, tulips and Gouda cheese. It would also be a mistake, for the Limburg designed and built coupe is a model that breaks a mould, offering fairly high performance, accommodation that is quite adequate for four adults, and absolutely superb handling that will only be tested, fully, when the 128 bhp turbocharged version comes along in 1987. That, we are absolutely confident, will be a giant killer.

The history of the 480 ES is interesting, for the protect started off in 1979 as a curtain-raiser to a new family of saloons, driven by the front wheels for the first time in the company’s history. In 1981, when the project was well down the road, the Dutch government acquired a 70% shareholding in the Helmond branch of Volvo, but allegiance there is still firmly with the Swedes. Renault supply the 1,721 cc four-cylinder engine, which is mounted transversely. Porsche is developing the future turbocharged version, and Lotus was consulted on fine-tuning the suspension. Truly, then, the new Volvo is a European car.

Volvo’s own styling department, led by Rob Koch, “won” the contract to design the exterior and interior packages against competition from Volvo’s Swedish stylists, Bertone and Coggiola, and the team had the rare luxury of being able to start with a clean sheet of paper, the platform for instance having a wheelbase 10 cm longer than that of the 300 series saloons.

In spirit the 480 ES recalls the P1800 coupe, a cross between sports, saloon and semi-estate, and devotees of the Reliant Scimitar GTE for instance will be taking a close look at its specification. The 109 bhp engine is strong enough to take the Volvo to 60 mph in 9.5 sec, and on to a maximum speed of 118 mph, perfectly respectable figures. But, of course, a good chassis always needs more power and the 128 bhp Garrett turbocharged version due in 1987 will offer 60 mph times in the low eights, and a top speed of over 125 mph. This is a target that the next VW Scirocco will have to match, and it must be this market that the Dutch are really aiming for.

The route chosen for the driving launch, in the Haute Savoie region of France, was interesting but traffic infested. Nearby some snow-capped mountains, Mont Blanc the tallest, beckoned, and we responded, rolling back years of mundane traffic-plodding!

The 480 ES rides almost as well as a heavier 700 series saloon, taking high-speed bumps without flinching. It also handles as well as most pedigree sports cars, flicking through tight turns and hairpin bends like a rally-tuned Mini of yesteryear. But it would not understeer. Volvo’s first fwd model truly feels like a rear-drive, which is exactly what the engineers intended.

Much has been heard about the new Mazda RX7’s compliant rear suspension, but quietly the Volvo engineers, initially led by Frans Campman, performed the same trick with the 460’s MacPherson strut front suspension. Compliance has been built into the bushes of the lower control arms, while at the rear two degrees of roll have been introduced to the “dead” beam axle, which is located by two longitudinal Watt linkages and a Panhard rod.

The secret of the kidney-shaped mounting pads for the lower links is to increase the turn-in effect, making the little Volvo almost impervious to crosswinds, and lose the understeer feel. Allied to speed-sensitive power-steering the set-up really does work…. the 480 understeers as it must, yet the driver is not aware of it, since the messages that come through the steering wheel and the driving seat are of neutral to oversteer characteristics, and the driver will tend to release the turning moment, not increase it.

That may sound a little strange but, almost to a man, the engineers have race and rally backgrounds to draw upon, though Mike Kimberley’s engineers at Hethel provided the finishing touches. With the power available the suspension was absolutely ideal, not merely good advertising copy, and we suspect that it will remain so when turbo power comes on stream, for a principal goal was lo eliminate torque steer.

Our visit to the mountains was memorable. Heel-and-toe gearchanging, vital in the circumstances, was difficult until the tilt steering wheel was raised, but this did not spoil the driving position. The Renault 5-speed gearbox was delightfully slick and quick, and a ZF 4-speed automatic will be offered early in 1987. The all-wheel disc brake system remained firm (Volvo BV are still working on a suitably compact electronic ABS system), and the nicely weighted power steering took all the hard work out of the exercise.

The Volvo 480 ES is built to Swedish standards, of course, and on the British market at least will carry a lifetime bodywork warranty. The list of standard equipment is comprehensive including power windows, central locking, a burglar alarm, and a more than usually useful on-board computer with a seven position dial to display ambient temperature, oil temperature, oil level, water temperature, fuel range, and instant and overall fuel consumption.

The model is already on sale in the Benelux countries and 1,500 480s will be imported to Britain during 1987, out of 35.000 scheduled for production (no fewer than 25,000 will go to the USA. Holland’s first motor exports across the Atlantic)

According to the experts the last Dutch sports car was the Spyker built in 1910. Three-quarters of a century is a long lime to wait for a successor, but we’ll be surprised if it is not immediately popular. M.L.C

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