Road test: Volvo 480 ES

Jack of all trades

Somehow the 480 ES sits a little uncomfortably in Volvo’s range. If there is one manufacturer which has pressed the safety message home, making it the strongest selling point of all, it has been Volvo. Solid, safe, dependable — and that was just the styling. Higher performance crept in to refresh the old 200-series, with the GLT variant in saloon and estate form benefiting from the turbo version’s surprise race-track successes, while the big 760 Turbo churns out a healthy 173bhp.

Yet now comes the first sportingly-styled Volvo since the 1960s, when the stylish P1800 coupe found television fame as the Saint’s chosen transport and the later estate variant (built from 1971 to 1973) squared up to the Reliant Scimitar, and it is fitted with the lowest-power engine in the range. The official line is that the car should not be compared directly with out and out sportscars, if so, what sector is it aiming for?

Its concept is that of a small hatchback with vaguely estate-car looks, the flat roofline giving rear seat headroom in the same way as VW’s Polo or Honda’s Civic, and it is built on the floorpan of the soon-to-be-revealed small saloon which will replace the 340/360 series. Thus it acts as something of a taster for these new models, the first Volvos to be equipped with front-wheel drive.

Like the existing 300-series cars, the 480 is assembled in Volvo’s Dutch factory (ex DAF) and uses the four-cylinder 1721cc engine set transversely and mated to an end-on five-speed gearbox. The single belt-driven overhead cam unit has a Heron-type head, designed with some input from Porsche, and multipoint fuel injection linked to electronic engine management, and as both inlet and exhaust tracts open from the rear of the block, the two-valve-per-cylinder unit breathes through a cast inlet manifold which lies on top of the cam cover like a huge hand.

Output from this engine, which derives from Volvo’s collaboration with French giant Renault, is 109bhp at a noisy 5800rpm, together with torque which hovers somewhere around the 100 lb ft mark at a comparatively high 4000 revs — not impressive characteristics for a 1.7-litre injected engine. These figures are more comparable to a Ford Orion 1.6i than the sort of car which the Volvo seems to be aimed at, given its £12,000 price tag, and the unit is if anything less refined than the Ford.

Lacking urge at the bottom end, the revs need to be kept high in order to use what performance there is, and the penalty is noticeable roughness and an increasingly rowdy noise as the power peak is approached. That might be acceptable if there was some sparkle to be found somewhere in the rev range, but it feels bland and flaccid; Volvo claims 9.5 sec to 60mph, while at the same time stressing the car’s overtaking abilities rather than its standing start times, but I was unable to carry out any track-testing of my own. A pity, since the car felt as though it would be hard-pushed to turn in the right figures.

There was, too, an alarming characteristic in the test car: although it always started promptly, as one expects with an injection engine, the idle was very erratic, occasionally stalling even when warm, but much more often rushing up to over 2000rpm and staying there. More than once, after slowing for a hazard in second gear, I lifted my foot from the brake and the car rushed forward before I had touched the throttle. A sticking idle valve, I was told, quickly corrected after I had returned the car.

But there are good things to say as well: for a front-wheel drive car, the little Volvo turns in obediently, its speed-related power-assisted steering, taking the effort away, though it could benefit from a quicker ratio. And understeer is minimal — this could almost be a rear-wheel drive chassis while cornering within its limits. What sharpens it up is the carefully planned compliance of a little kidney-shaped bush in the wishbone at the bottom of the front coil-spring strut; this flexes by a small but significant amount as the steering is turned, cancelling out any lost motion and reinforcing the directional response.

As a result the chassis feels better balanced than many FWD cars, even if the adhesion is not dramatically high, and can be threaded through faster corners with spirit; it is also very stable in cross-winds.

A simple coil-spring beam connects the rear wheels, but Volvo’s engineers have chosen an unorthodox location method: two longitudinal Watts linkages plus a Panhard rod. The Watts system is more usually used as an alternative to a Panhard rod for lateral location of a de Dion tube as on the Alfa 75, but here the low position of the mountings means less intrusion into the boot-space.

And that is a vital feature, given how small the boot is. With the individual rear seat backs raised, there is room for a couple of modest suitcases and some odds and ends, which can be covered by a hook-on plastic blind. Folding the seats helps to a point, but they only lie on top of the squab, leaving an irregular floor. On the other hand, the backrests can be locked into one of three different angles for rear passenger comfort, and there are armrests and pockets in the side panels and in the centre — this is defintely not a five-seater.
Leg and headroom are just about adult-level, putting the 480 ES right on the borderline between a 2+2 and a full four-seater. A spacesaver spare tyre is squeezed in more-or-less vertically below the small all-glass rear hatch, so that it can be extracted without disturbing everything.

Volvo has long had a reputation for excellent seating comfort, and this small version seems to come up to the mark, including lumbar adjustment up front. A deeply recessed instrument panel carries a large speedometer, smaller rev-counter and the Electronic Information Centre, which is a much more practical device than its grand title might suggest. It allows the driver to select one of several readings (fuel consumption, average speed, range, plus oil, water and air temperatures) with a simple rotary knob, his choice being shown on a corresponding rotary display, which is automatically over-ridden by any urgent warnings. A neat approach, and possibly the easiest trip-computer to use currently available.

Also near to the driver’s hand is the radio, with a voltmeter and oil pressure gauge below , and a blank space which can only be for the boost gauge of the turbo version, due to make its American debut this summer, but not expected here until 1989. Tiny push-buttons operate the heat/vent system, but the vents are too distant to refresh the driver. Auxiliary switches in the off-side of the binnacle operate fog-lamps and heated rear window, with a rotary knob for the lights.

Like all Swedish cars, the 480 has permanent running lights, which gives Volvo and Saab drivers an edge over here while no-one else has them. But the dash panel should not be permanently lit, since that leads the Volvo driver to imagine that he need not bother with headlamps at night; London is already full of ignorant drivers who imagine that side-lights are enough in town. Wrong — side-lights are inadequate and dangerous to drive on even under street lamps. A dimly-lit car (or taxi, cabbies being amongst the worst offenders in this as in so many areas) is harder to see and to judge the speed of, and there are thousands of cyclists and motorcyclists who rely on reflective belts to make them stand out at night.