Canary warp

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108

Thought Volvo’s T-5 was a touch extreme, perchance? Enter the T-5R…

Just when you thought it was safe to re-emerge. Volvo lets rip with another big gun. It might for all the world be called Terminator II, but T-5R will do. Motor Sport’s hard-to-please editor was so impressed with the 850 T-5 (first tested in February 1994) that he’s holding on very tightly to the estate version we have acquired as a long-term test car.

For Volvo, a maiden British Touring Car Championship assault in 1994 was valuable for the publicity it generated, if hard work at times on the track. Consistent race results failed to materialise. despite the occasional banzai qualifying effort, but overnight the 850 estate became a familiar sight to every motorsport fan with a TV.

Not that the T-5R needs to capitalise on such publicity (though an estate version is available). The T-5 was already selling faster than Volvo could supply them, and most of the 200 UK-bound T-5Rs (of the limited 2500 production run) were already spoken for as we closed for press.

Available in custard-cream yellow (or black, if you’re a bit serious), this mammoth of a performance saloon with wheels the size of Jodrell Bank has a performance specification that makes the T-5 look comparatively vin ordinaire. Power output from the 2.3 straight five is up from 225 to 240 bhp, thanks to reprogramming of the turbo, while the flat and potent torque curve is the same, 221 lb ft being available all the way from 2000-5600 rpm. This, claims Volvo, is enough to propel a T-5R from 0-60mph in about six and a half seconds and to a top speed that has been artificially restricted to 155 mph.

Add a more aggressive front spoiler. Pirelli P-Zeros with a profile barely deeper than the tread, lower and stiffen the suspension, chuck-in a bit of leather upholstery and a walnut dash and voila! Not only is this a rare production performance saloon, but in its dubious shade of yellow it’s one of the most conspicuous. Volvos aren’t noted for attracting the attention of yob culture, but the first two test cars both managed to be stolen within days of being put on the Volvo fleet. Chances are that the boys in blue might just spot you, too, were you to practise some of the T-5R’s more outrageous tricks on the public highway.

You can choose a manual gearbox, as fitted to our test car, or an automatic.

On paper, there are few differences between this and a standard T-5. The MacPherson struts at the front and Delta links at the rear ensure a ride in keeping with the sobriety of this distinctive and surprisingly aerodynamic shape. The T5-R is a touch firmer, but loses little of the suppleness. In this respect it is right up there with the likes of BMW’s M5 and the Mercedes 500E.

Where it simply cannot match the competition is in the cabin. Granted, the seats are reasonably supportive and with the adjustable steering column you’ll find a decent driving position. But they aren’t a match for Recaros. Elsewhere, as with it lesser brother, the T5-R’s interior is positively geriatric. The combination of flat angular dash with insipid dials and slab-like door panels is at odds with its dynamic persona. The scattered minor switches have only a velvet-smooth action to recommend them: the leather steering wheel, with a commendably small air bag, is the only sporting clue.

Surprisingly for a car manufacturer which prides itself on, and promotes, safety measures, there is no passenger air bag. SIPS (Side Impact Protection System) bags are, however, standard.

As you’d expect with this type of car, equipment level is substantial: cruise control, electric seats and roof, air conditioning, an efficient stereo system and a trip computer whose fuel consumption readout (erm, 18.4 mpg) said much for our enthusiasm to make the most of our short tenure.

If you could close your eyes while driving the T-5R, you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in an Audi. The clutch action and familiar thrum of the five cylinders, whose revs fade slowly with each knobbly gearchange is uncannily redolent of Ingolstadt’s finest. It’s just a shame that the motor seems so distant, such is the sound deadening’s effectiveness. You really need to be in the vicinity of the red line for passengers to sit up and take note. For them, it is an excellent car in which to slumber and dream of far away places. For the press-on driver, it is almost annoyingly quiet.

No turbo installation will ever quite match an equivalent normally aspirated engine for seamlessness, but the T5-R’s flat torque curve ensures progressive delivery. Mid-range punch is relentless, addictive and satisfying.

Though no saloon with a wheelbase of minibus proportions is going to have razorsharp handling, the T-5R defies its Belgrano proportions and is reasonably agile. Naturally, understeer is predominant, particularly in the wet.

Otherwise, the T-5R, like any other 850 chassis has a fail-safe neutral stance through bends, the stiffer suspension helping balance and almost eliminating body roll. Though ridges can use up all the suspension travel, they never throw the chassis off line. Neither does violent lifting of the throttle or braking mid-bend.

The T-5R can be as docile as a baby whale, but there’s always a barracuda waiting.

There is a forfeit for its killer performance. Two hundred and forty glorious horses it may have, but stampeding through the front wheels? It almost sounds too ridiculous to be true. So immense is the low-down torque that full power can never be applied in first gear, and rarely in second. Even in the dry. On a straight road… The exit of a second gear bend will have you feathering the throttle for longer than is normal. Either that or bouncing off the rev-limiter. Mr Pirelli goes to all that trouble making those nice, chunky tyres and Volvo insists you do this to them… Even the traction control (TRACS) is powerless to resist.

As we reported last month, when discussing the standard T-5, the only sensible solution is to assess a corner, work out which gear your brain tells you to use, and then add one… Let the torque pull you through. It is safer, quicker and more comfortable. Save the power for when the car is settled. Self-restraint is difficult, but recommended.

Of course, none of your efforts to curb your enthusiasm are helped by the pleasingly distinctive five-cylinder bark, particularly in the higher part of the rev range. But even with its histrionics, the T5-R is a safe saloon to drive. You can fee/what it is doing via its generally communicative steering, and it holds no nasty surprises. It stops almost as impressively as it goes, which is a rare thing even today. In truth, the T5-R is almost unstoppable. It urges you not to go for a cruise or a spin down to the shops, but to drive long and hard. Get past its frantic low-speed behaviour and it won’t disappoint.

The T-5 notwithstanding, this is the most exciting front-drive car since Renault’s 21 Turbo, though the T-5R’s performance is in another league. It takes you just that little bit further, that little bit faster, gives you a little more of a thrill. Drive a T-5R the way it should be driven and it’s debatable what will wear out first: your licence or the front tyres.

Verdict

The T-5R has a ragged charm, and a certain rarity value. You might consider the Safrane Biturbo as an alternative, but that’s not available at all in the UK.

If you can afford a T5-R, you may have qualms about such power being fed through the front wheels. Or it may be that you haven’t woken up to the 1990s, and are still stigmatised by the marques unjustly staid image.

Could you live with a Volvo?

I could.

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