The Right Angle

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It looks like a Volvo. It feels like a Volvo. But Simon Arron found that the 850TDI also has a hidden agenda

This all looks very familiar. The comprehensive switchgear. The spacious, comfortable cabin. The clear, analogue dials. Big. Old-fashioned. Reassuring in a Volvo kind of way. Instant, happy recollections of the thundering 850 T5 estate which served as a long-term test car what now seems like all too long ago.

But this isn’t quite like the much missed, and fondly remembered, T5.

It looks much the same, inside and out. If anything, its perhaps more aggressively styled than ‘my’ T5, with its rear roof spoiler and the five, softly-rounded spokes of the attractive alloy wheels.

In many respects it feels the same, too. The sheer brute acceleration of the T5 is-absent, sure, but for a large steel cage capable of swallowing a modest wardrobe it is still plenty fast.

One thing it has, which was conspicuously absent from the MOTOR SPORT T5, is Volvo’s anti-front-wheel-frenzy device, TRACS traction control, operable via a cabin switch. From time to time, this proves to be just as well.

Perhaps this is the most remarkable thing of all about this particular Volvo, that the traction control system is not superfluous.

For this is a diesel.

Welcome to the Volvo 850 TDI. The manufacturer describes it as ‘sprightly’, which is tribute to the natural modesty of Swedes. In the past, Volvo’s four-cylinder turbo-diesels have been worthy and reliable; a tad noisy perhaps, and generally unremarkable. The TDI has gained a cylinder, however, and the result is astonishing.

This is right up there in the BMW ‘I can’t believe it’s not petrol’ class. Only at ignition do you get a faint aural hint of ‘Taxi!’ Once mobile, the turbocharged, 2.5-litre unit loses any obvious signs of harshness. It’s smooth. It’s quiet. It’s quick. It’s remarkable.

Consider the following data for the estate: weighs between 1412-1567 kg (according to specification); accelerates from rest to 60 mph in around 9.5s; has a top speed of 125 mph; is capable of returning almost 40 mpg in urban conditions, rising but not much to about 45 mpg at legal motorway cruising speeds…

Given that it has a 16-gallon tank, it is theoretically possible to travel from London to Glasgow and much of the way back quite quickly, too on a single tank of fuel. And it’s fun to drive.

As with any 850, it needs to be coaxed gently through the slower stuff. The steering is communicative enough, if mildly inert, but the basic laws of physics dictate that this is not a car which cares to change direction with the alacrity of a politician. In quick, sweeping corners, however, the 850 feels balanced and composed, even with the estate variant’s slightly mushier suspension.

At elevated cruising speeds, there is little intrusive engine noise. It is fast. Serene. Comfortable. Ridiculously unlike a diesel.

Its eagerness to spin an inside front wheel under firm acceleration from slower corners is similarly atypical of the species.

The TDI’s greatest satisfaction comes from the sheer vim of its mid-range acceleration. Despite the increased sophistication of diesel technology, there are still oil-burning cars in which overtaking manoeuvres have to be planned weeks in advance. In the 850 TDI, throttle response is as prompt as it is efficient.

The key is a huge reserve of torque. While 140 bhp/4000 rpm may not be that remarkable a statistic in terms of outright punch, its 221 lb ft of torque leave it only slightly short of the T5 in terms of pulling power. And that level of gusto is maintained in a typically flat Volvo torque curve stretching from 1900-3100 rpm.

A typically flat Volvo torque curve? Yes. A typical Volvo engine? Well it feels that way, as the marque has always favoured tuning its engines for torque rather than explosive top-end performance. Hence the surprising fact that it’s not actually a Volvo original at all…

Ever the pragmatist, Volvo has turned to Audi and acquired a supply of Ingolstadt-bred turbodiesels. It’s a straightforward customer deal. It simply wasn’t viable to invest in a fresh engine development programme, for while the market for the TDI is likely to be buoyant in the UK and most of mainland Europe (diesel is still at least 30 per cent cheaper than unleaded in some countries), it will be virtually non-existent at home in Sweden, because of the cold (no one has yet brewed a diesel fuel which is immune to freezing in Scandinavian temperatures), or in the USA, where conventional petrol is so cheap.

Longitudinally mounted in the Audi A6, the engine has been moved through 90 deg in the 850, simply for packaging reasons.

This marks a rather less remarkable turnaround than that in Volvo’s image. British Touring Car Championship front-runner: tipped to be putting its name to a new, Tom Walkinshaw Racing-developed Formula One V10 engine (the rumour has been hotly denied, but it says much that the trade is prepared even to speculate about once staid Volvo becoming involved in F1): still building angular road cars, but they are nowadays interesting angular road cars; coming up with funny advertisements I haven’t heard a Volvo joke in ages, I haven’t heard a decent one in even longer. For now, the joke is on the opposition, Volvo is building some seriously good cars, and you don’t have to pay the earth to own one.

The most basic 850 TDI saloon costs £21,550 (estate £22,550), and that includes SIPS side Protection bags, driver’s airbag, remote alarm, high-quality six-speaker stereo, ABS, deadlocks, numerous electrical aids and the usual thoughtful Volvo touches (height adjustable front’ belts with pretensioners, heated front seats and mirrors and so forth). Opt for the CD trim basically Claridges spec, but with added wood, leather and a compact disc multi-system and the price rises to £27,350 for the estate, or £1000 less for the saloon.

That ought to send a sharp warning message across German bows. Of the Teutonic quality car makers, BMW can probably rest easiest. There is nothing yet in the Volvo range which can quite match anything from Bavaria for sheer poise and driving enjoyment, but you’ll have to spend a lot more if you want to have as much fun driving a Mercedes. If you want the same engine in an Audi chassis, the choice is more difficult, the price span being similar to Volvo’s.

Verdict

Struggling to retain your foothold in the slippery, congealing mess that lurks by the diesel pumps at every service station in the country, it is hard to get your head around the notion that diesel could in some way represent the fuel of the future. No question, slippery forecourts apart, diesel does still have a PR problem, borne partly of smoky buses and aural pollution, partly of ignorance.

In the past decade, the stigma of diesel has receded in the automotive arena, hence the development of ever more impressive new engines.

In the past, you had the choice: power or economy?

Now, you can have both, and the Volvo 850 TDI is one of the best illustrations of that fact.

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