In search of an identity?
VOLVO is but the latest company to join the turbo league, and judging by the performance of Thomas Lindstrom in the opening round of the European Touring Car Championship at Monza last month, is catching up swiftly on “the state of the art”. Whilst the turbocharged 240-series saloon shows its heels to the BMW 635 CSi models on the tracks, the similar power unit installed in the 760 has a surprisingly good turn of speed for public consumption. A 60 mph acceleration time fractionally inside nine seconds, and a top speed of 120 mph puts the 760 Turbo into good company, though competition is becoming increasingly tough in this part of the market. Since the Swedish company announced the 740 model at the Geneva Show (the 7-series with a normally aspirated 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine) we suppose that the 760 Turbo should really be the 740 Turbo, since the real 760 is powered by the 2.8-litre V6 engine shared by Renault and Peugeot. If that’s a sign of an identity crisis, so too perhaps is the fact that the power unit is relatively unrefined, and hardly does justice to the comforts of the 7-series.
We know that the Swedes make comfortable, reliable cars which are sound choices for private buyers, but there is no danger that they will ever win any styling awards. The 7-series, announced in 1981, raised a few eyebrows for its awkward, angular looks, the stepped-up C-post trying without success to meet the high line of the boot lid and the abundance of brightwork being quite out of keeping with modern trends. Since the average life of a Volvo is 19.3 years (as the manufacturer is proud to point out), what does not look right from the outset stands little chance of passing the test of time! Even so, we gather that the 7-series is intended to replace the 240 series eventually and the announcement of the 740— which is not yet available in Britain — is the first stage of the overlap. The 760 V6 with automatic transmission and the 760 Turbo with a four-speed box and overdrive are priced identically on the UK market at £13,648 and between them picked up 3,100 British sales in 1983, a surprisingly large share of this select market. Sales are continuing to run at the same level in the first quarter of 1984, though the competition is hotting up now with similarly priced models from Mercedes (the 190E with a high specification), the revised Audi 200 injection and the new Saab 16S joining established rivals such as the Jaguar XJ6 3.4, the Opel Senator and the Peugeot 604 GTI.
Volvo has always been a leading Continental supporter of the British parts industry, a sticker on the back window reminding us that “Volvo buys British — £125 million” which probably means that it has a higher British content than some presumed British products from Vauxhall and Ford, which is food for thought. To mention only a couple of items, the 760 Turbo has its four-speed gearbox equipped with Laycock overdrive, only on top gear though, and its Garrett turbocharger is made in this country, as is the intercooler. Apart from its performance, the Volvo 760 has a good deal of space and a high level of comfort to offer. Standard equipment includes soft leather upholstery, air conditioning, electrically operated wiindows and sunroof, a Volvo brand stereo radio cassette, central locking, electrically heated front seats, the power steering you would expect, and a wash/wipe system for the headlamps.
The seats are beautifully contoured for comfort and the red leather in the test car contrasted nicely with the metallic black paintwork, but although leather makes the interior look and feel sumptuous, it does not give much grip and even the driver finds himself sliding down, and forward, on the cushions. In the instrument binnacle (the surface of which reflects strongly in the windscreen on a sunny day) are a 140 mph speedometer, a tachometer red-lined at 6,000 rpm, even a boost gauge with yellow and red sectors, though try as we might we couldn’t get the needle to reach the red sector Just as well, we soon discovered, since the handbook tells the owner to take his car straight to a dealer if the needle did reach the red, as presumably the wastegate would be jammed! The handbook also warns the owner to let the engine idle before switching off, and not to race the engine from cold, in order to protect the turbocharger.
Contrasting with the very spacious interior, the boot area is fairly limited both by the high floor, accommodating the spare wheel underneath, and by the gargantuan 82-Litre (18 gallon) fuel tank. There is, however, a door between the boot and the interior, normally concealed by the wide armrest„ so that skis can be carried inside. The latest in Bosch Motronic electronic injection systems keep control of the big four-cylinder engine, codenamed the B23ET unit. Long stroked at 96 mm, with an 80 mm bore, and with an unusually high compression ratio for a turbo of 9.0:1, the unit develops 173 bhp at 5,700 rpm, and 25.5 kpm of torque at 3,400 rpm. An alloy crossflow cylinder head is installed with a belt-driven single overhead camshaft, and the Garrett T03 turbocharger is adjusted to give useful assistance from 2,000 rpm upwards, with a maximum boost pressure of eight pounds. Front suspension is the MacPherson strut design while the independent rear suspension uses conventional semi-trailing arms, and gas filled dampers are fitted, those at the rear being self-levelling. Disc brakes all round, ventilated at the front, and power assisted rack and pinion steering are part of the specification, the steering wheel being slightly smaller than in the 2.8 litre GLE. On paper, then, the Volvo 760 Turbo has an advanced specification to justify its substantial price tag, and although it performs as well as any of its immediate rivals – and better than most — it lacks the refinement and the aerodynamic appeal of the new trendsetters. The drag coefficient is 0.39, and while that may be neither here nor there for the majority of customers it is an indication that the Swedes will remain in the traditional school for the rest of the Eighties, ignoring the challenge laid down by the Germans. Volvo customers are, however, intensely loyal to the make and value the dependable qualities far above appearance. The front air dam, incorporating foglamps, is a concession to aerodynamics, and the stylish alloy 10-spoke wheels with Pirelli P6 tyres do no harm to the overall appearance.
Unlike most turbo cars the Volvo 760’s boost apparatus has a pronounced whistle which is very noticeable at low running speeds, though not offensive in any way, fading out at higher revs. In urban conditions the 760 is extremely impressive, rocketing away from the lights if required, though on damp roads the back wheels break adhesion rather sharply when the turbocharger is chiming in strongly, at 2,500 rpm. Restricted to 3,000 rpm there is no trace of the harshness coming from the engine further up the range, though on overrun some quite pronounced vibration comes back through the pedals.
Although the power unit is evidently a large “four” in the 3,000 to 5,500 rpm range, it settles down very nicely on motorways. With overdrive geared at 26 mph/1,000 rpm the legal cruising speed is reached at just 2,700 rpm, and even with the rev-counter creeping over 3,000 progress remains very serene. The overdrive unit can be engaged and disengaged smoothly if you judge the revs precisely, but a half depression on the clutch pedal makes sure of a clean change, remembering past experience with TR sports cars and the like … but they had overdrive on second, third and top gears, truly a ratio for every occasion. The Volvo does not need overdrive on second, but the availability on third during overtaking would have been appreciated. The 762 Turbo has a surprisingly sporting demeanour, finding just the right compromise between that of a luxury saloon and an enthusiast’s car. The ride is a little firmer than that of the 760 GLE V6, deliberately so, but remains extremely acceptable. The trade-off is a car that handles well approaching its limit, initial body roll not developing into anything dramatic. The steering is quite precise and not too light (though the steering actually creaked when asked for full lock at parking speed) and the car responds to quick driving on non-motorway roads.
Our overall fuel consumption of 21.2 mpg (two tanks, both in the 21 mpg bracket) was rather disappointing, though it included several journeys across London, and we suspect that a much better figure would be returned if we had not commuted across the capital. The touring range, therefore, is little better than 360 miles despite the enormous tank, and the last two gallons take an age to trickle in.
The Volvo 760 GLE left us with rather mixed feelings, well short of the admiration that an Audi 200 arouses. What it lacks in styling and refinement it makes up in travel comfort, quality and retained value, and, like the Peugeot 505 GTI that we appraised last month, it has to be judged more as the model with which Volvo hope to retain customers with sporting instincts than as an outright contender in the high performance luxury car class. — M.L.C.