Take five

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Volvo’s five-cylinder 850 was always noted for its smoothness. By adding a turbo, the Swedes have endowed it with scintillating performance: enter the 150 mph Volvo . . .

Ping-ping! The noise comes as something of a surprise. Hitherto, the Volvo 850 Turbo the Swedish marque’s fastest ever production car has been a paragon of uncanny quiet. Even when running at maximum speed on an unopened motorway, hired specially for the occasion so that Volvo’s claims could be verified, more of which anon, the sound of the turbocharged, five-cylinder, 20-valve, 2.3-litre engines never rises above a pleasing hum, even at 6000 rpm.

Now, suddenly, progress is interrupted by a tinny bell.

Puzzled looks all round. Where’s that coming from? The bell chimes in again, and suddenly you are aware that the music you had been listening to has been replaced by a monotonous, Swedish voice, and the word ‘Alarm!’ has appeared on the LCD display of the radio/cassette/CD unit. No matter what you do, you can’t get rid of the Swedish voice. The tape player no longer works, the waveband selector no longer works and the volume control no longer works. Even if you turn the unit off, the Swedish soliloquy continues.

The only solution, it transpires, is to switch the car off altogether. Fire it up again, and normal operation resumes until, five minutes later, there is the unmistakable rattle of that threepenny bell once again, quickly followed by the ‘Alarm!’ message and the booming monotone of the aforementioned Swedish broadcaster.

This time, it was deemed prudent to pull over, just in case. Check the driver’s manual, and there’s the answer.

In Swedish.

Eventually, an English version was sourced and at last an explanation was forthcoming: welcome to the Swedish RDS system. A shame that it’s not actually working 100 per cent just yet.

Elsewhere in Europe, RDS will interrupt in-car tapes and CDs with traffic bulletins. It’s supposed to do the same in Sweden, but a little fine-tuning is still required. According to the Volvo handbook “It will warn drivers of a catastrophe, such as the breakdown of a nuclear power plant or a collapsed bridge.”

Keen to test the system, the local nuclear processing plant about 30 km away from Frankenberg, southern Sweden, where the 850 Turbo test was based sends out occasional dummy broadcasts . . . like six in the space of 25 minutes. And once it’s done so, the only way to restore normal radio operation is to switch off. Bet the locals love that when they’re on the motorway. UK customers will be pleased to learn that RDS will only interrupt your musical entertainment to alert you to fresh traffic jams. Also, you won’t have to switch off the car to reprogramme the set. It shouldn’t be long before the Scandinavians have disposed of that particular irritation factor, either.

All in all, the radiophonically-induced bewilderment proved to be an amusing interlude during one of the most pleasantly surprising car launches of recent times.

Imagine, a couple of years ago, when the words ‘realistic’ and ‘insurance premium’ could still feasibly be juxtaposed, being given a straight choice: you were in the market for a new car, and you could opt for something with the devilish vim of a Ford Sapphire Cosworth 4×4 or anything from the top-end of the comparatively sober Volvo range, for instance the lusty 960 24v, whose brilliant engine and rear-drive chassis were marred only by the compulsory fitment of an automatic gearbox.

To anybody for whom driving is a sensory pleasure, and not just a means of getting up and down motorways to and from business appointments, the decision would be easy. Forget the harsh ride and criminal magnetism of the Ford; its telepathic chassis would win the day. Could anyone have imagined, at the turn of the last decade, that Volvo, today, would offer something with the pace and driver appeal of the now departed Sapphire Cosworth? Or that it would be seriously considering a works effort in the British Touring Car Championship?

The latter point is, Volvo admits, presently under discussion. It won’t be drawn on the depth of its interest, nor on speculation that Tom Walkinshaw Racing, whose Rovers were the Swedish marque’s archrivals during the early 1980s European Touring Car Championship battles between the Vitesse and the 240 Turbo, will be involved in the project. Suffice to say that it is a serious proposition, which, if it comes to pass, will be centred either on the 800 or, more likely, the 400, its contender in the lucrative medium-saloon sector, where its rivals include established BTCC hardware such as the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Cavalier and Peugeot 405.

The 400 range has been facelifted for 1994, and was available for trial in Frankenberg. The show was stolen, however, by the 850 Turbo.

Its potential benefits are substantial.

Here’s something that looks pretty much like any other Volvo, subtle boot spoiler notwithstanding. Therefore it shouldn’t attract the attention of other motorists, the police (hands up all those owners of performance Fords who have been stopped on spurious grounds, whilst the local constabulary checks that the car isn’t stolen) or, most pertinently in this day and age, car thieves.

What’s more likely to be nicked from your drive? An Escort RS2000 or a Volvo?

For all its anonymity, however, the 850 Turbo is seriously fast. Volvo admits that the B5234T engine has greater potential than has been realised, but that the objective was to provide smooth, usable performance. Thus, as is usually the case with Volvo turbos, it has been tuned for torque rather than outright power. The results are astounding. The 221lb ft peak is delivered at 2000 rpm . . . and maintained all the way to 5300. The torque graph, as one engineer pointed out, looks a bit like some of the company’s car designs. As a result, the 850 Turbo is endowed with enormous flexibility. On tight, undulating B-roads it was possible to make rapid, comfortable progress using only third and fourth gears.

The amalgam of huge amounts of power and front-wheel drive has always been reckoned, for obvious reasons, to have its limitations. Look how early Saab or Montego turbos used to torque-steer, for instance. On paper, Volvo’s 225 bhp/5300 rpm looks a mite ambitious, but the chassis’ composure is absolute. In first gear, torque is limited (to 192Ib ft) to prevent excessive reaction. Furthermore, traction control is fitted as standard. You can switch it off, but we wouldn’t. Under hard, second gear acceleration, you can feel the front end starting to squirm a little, and on one, rutted corner there was even a hint of wheelspin from the inside front. By and large, however, it is all utterly civilised. Whether that impression holds true on poorly surfaced British roads (the car is due here later this year) remains to be seen.

The 850’s pleasing manners are borne of sound chassis dynamics. From the cabin, this doesn’t feel like a large saloon. The steering is well-weighted for a powered system. It doesn’t tell you everything that the front wheels are up to, but you always feel in control. It turns in well, and maintains a steady line, even under firm acceleration.

We’re not going to pretend that this is an out-and-out, seat-of-the-pants racer. It’s not, nor does it pretend to be. For one thing, it rides far too well.

For all that, it is a remarkably fast, wellbalanced sports saloon. Even at top speed, it feels docile. Thundering down the aforementioned closed motorway at an indicated 248 km/h (154 mph), the wind generates far more noise than the engine which sounds, at 5750 rpm, no more stressed than it does at tickover. You get the impression that it would keep it up all day long (German residence permitting). Officially, Volvo is claiming a top speed of 240 km/h (149 mph) and 0-60 mph acceleration in around 7.5 seconds. The same running gear will also be available in the 850 estate which was going to be promoted as the world’s fastest, until Volvo learned about the Avant RS2, an Audi/Porsche joint venture which tops 160 mph and accelerates to 60 mph about two seconds faster . . .

Despite the short, sharp nature of the test run, which included over 30 km of running flat out, the 850 returned an impressive 28.2 mpg.

The cabin is nicely finished, and Volvo makes all the usual noises about safety features. “Adding an air bag to a car doesn’t make it safe,” stresses marketing man Stephen Hollings, “but adding one to an already safe car makes it very safe indeed, and that’s what we have done.” For the moment, however, Volvo customers will have to wait for passenger air-bags to be translated into right-hand drive; this is presently under development. Driver airbags are, naturally, standard.

The price? That remains undecided, but we hear it’s likely to be launched in Britain for around £24,000.

That equates to a lot of car for the money, not to mention ample reserves of performance. It also appears to mark the first step in a process of image rejuvenation that will be enhanced further by the impending BTCC crusade. S A