Road test: Volvo 480 ES

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Those too lazy to use their headlamps are putting the most vulnerable road-users to excessive risk, and as a cyclist myself I strongly resent that. The forthcoming “dim-dip” legislation is an unnecessary and half-hearted complexity entirely due to the carelessness of one section of the motoring public.

Another Volvo lighting oddity is the standardisation of a third high-level brake light to comply with regulations in the USA, where even convertibles must show one. The advance warning this gives through the screen of intermediate cars is a Good Thing, though anyone who has sat at the lights on a rainy day while the Volvo driver in front rests his foot on the brake pedal and dazzles him might disagree.

Amongst the list of standard equipment are tinted glass, electric windows, mirrors and locks, headlamp washers and a burglar alarm system, with leather upholstery coming in at £760 extra.

From behind, the 480 ES pays more than a passing acknowledgement to the lines of its predecessor of 17 years ago, the P1800ES. The proportions of the hatch and the little kick-up of the light treatment recall that gloriously Sixties chrome swage line running along the older car’s wing which became the door handle. It is as if Volvo’s stylists (for the car was designed in-house and not by Bertone which has been employed for many projects by the Swedish company) have quite consciously updated the styling of the P1800ES, for the proportions are very similar up to the A-post.

Forward of here, however, the shape loses its way, the swaged bonnet sweeping down to a slightly V-shaped nose with a blank central panel. Slim driving lights and indicators give the nose a flash of character, but the heavy bumper obscures the traditional Volvo grille which is submerged below it, and the rectangular pop-up headlamps look clumsy when raised. The bonnet line is commendably low for an FWD car, thanks to the backward tilt of the block, but the nose looks too heavy for this small vehicle.

Now that the car which started it all, the Reliant Scimitar GTE, has gone out of production, there are few cars which could be called sports-estates, though plenty of fullsized estates are fast enough to be called sporting. Yet the 480 ES has only mediocre abilities in these fields. Volvo says that it is not a sportscar, yet there are family hatches with more go, and certainly more engine refinement — the harshness of the Renault unit becomes tiring in time, although sound-levels otherwise are good.

Luggage accommodation is disappointing for a car as long as a Cavalier (despite the useful way Volvo has built various lockers and pockets into the boot sides), which makes a normal small hatch look like a better idea. Alfa has the attractive Sprint or the 33, or indeed its own fast estate, the Sportwagon, all with a more pleasant engine, while Citroen offer the Visa GTI with with more room and performance at almost £5000 less. Still, Volvo and Alfa customers are likely to be rather different in outlook; perhaps the most probable opposition, given the higher average age of customers of both makes, is Honda’s Aerodeck. Similar in concept, the longer Honda has a bigger boot, reasonable rear passenger space, if a little down on headroom compared to the Volvo, and a lovely free-revving engine of 122bhp. And there would be enough change left over to buy a fancy radio/cassette.

What you do not get with any other than a Volvo is a Lifetime Care Commitment. For years now, Volvos have headed the tables of expected useable life, now at astonishing 16-plus years, audits dedication to durability as well as to passenger safety is accepted by all. So on top of the expected 12 months unlimited mileage warranty on every new Volvo, the company agrees to honour any manufacturing defect at any age or mileage. This is obviously a very open scheme, and Volvo goes to some lengths in its promotional material to stress the idea of “joint responsibility, fairness and honesty” between factory and owner, who is tied to using Volvo dealers and parts only. But it indicates a real faith in the company’s products.

As one who learned to drive on Volvos, I have always had a soft spot for the marque and its reputation of safety and engineering integrity, and the company’s customer loyalty is envied by most other manufacturers. Volvo’s marketeers most be hoping for long-term owners to switch to the 480 ES when the children have grown up and the 245 estate is no longer needed, because it is not likely to make startling conquest sales from other makes. The 480 ES is a jack of all trades, master of none, and until the 128bhp Turbo is available to give it a little dash and exploit a basically decent chassis, it has much headway to make up. GC

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