Volvo sells more cars in America than anywhere outside its home market, Sweden. The two primary reasons for this popularity - reliability and safety - also happen to be two of the most important purchase considerations for new-car buyers.
Volvo's attention to these key factors has created a loyal following, to be sure, but Volvo planners saw the need for a model that could attract a younger, perhaps less conservative crowd to its showrooms. The model that did it, the 850, was Volvo's first front-drive sedan and wagon line, and it accomplished its primary task with great success.
Volvo wasn't content simply to offer well-packaged family transportation - it offered the 850 with a turbocharged powerplant that instantly rocketed the model onto the wish lists of those who aspire to own a European performance car.
This doesn't mean traditional Volvo values have been ignored. In fact, the 1995 850 Turbo is the first car in the world to offer side-impact airbags.
Standard on the Turbo and a $500 option for the base level 850 and 850 GLT, the side bags join dual front airbags, Volvo's SIPS (Side Impact Protection System) and new Daytime Running Lights as the most comprehensive passive safety package yet available from any carmaker.
This should come as no surprise to Volvo loyalists, who might be aware that the 3-point safety belt was developed and patented by a Volvo engineer and installed in Volvo cars as early as 1959. Those same loyalists, however, might very well be pleasantly surprised by the performance parameters of a car that pays so much attention to safety.
The Turbo's in-line 5-cylinder engine puts its 222 hp to work in such a dynamic fashion that the car's occupants may expect to see a German or Italian badge on the dash. And though this willingness to run with the wind seems to be utterly contrary to the staid pace often associated with the Volvo lifestyle, the Turbo's balanced platform, forgiving suspension, excellent brakes and well-filled wheel wells make the driving experience entirely controlled, no matter the rate or road conditions.
Volvo couldn't expect to play the highline performance game with raw horsepower alone. Such a performer typically comes equipped with more creature comforts than most royal palaces, and the 850 meets that challenge with an impressive list of standard equipment.
The lineup begins with the standard 850 sedan and wagon, which is hardly a base model when it comes to amenities: dual airbags, air conditioning, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, power windows and mirrors, 6-speaker stereo system, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and velour upholstery.
The GLT models add a remote keyless entry security system, power glass sunroof, upgraded 8-speaker stereo and 8-way power adjustable driver's seat with 3-position memory.
At the top of the line, the Turbo package adds the side-impact airbags, split leather upholstery and electronic climate control.
All the bells and whistles are integrated in a readable, though unexciting, dash panel, which does its best to avoid taking the driver's attention away from the road.
The seats are wonderfully spacious - wider and more plush than the typical German performance sedan - and they offer good levels of support during hard corners.
Optional burled-walnut instrument-panel trim and full-leather upholstery can be ordered for an opulent look, but the 850 Turbo presents a pleasingly upscale interior in its standard form.
One minor irritation is the presence of the Daytime Running Lights. Though they without doubt add to a car's visibility during marginal conditions, we think it should be left up to the car's driver whether to run with lights on during the day. During the course of our test drive, we spent too much time waving off the polite flashings of fellow drivers warning us that our lights were on.
Getting the turbo engine's considerable torque to the ground through the same wheels that also steer the car presents difficulties. What's known as torque steer (the tendency for the front wheels to pull strongly to one side or another during acceleration) can happen when you tramp on the accelerator - but often it's not overwhelming, even to the inexperienced driver.
Volvo's optional traction-control system (TRACS) smooths this process considerably, allowing the driver to apply the throttle fully without having to worry about front wheelspin or torque steer.
Once under way, the car is a paragon of smoothness. Its 4-speed automatic transmission has three selectable modes of operation: economy, sport (holds rpm longer before shifting) and winter/wet, which keeps the transmission in the gear that has been selected to help takeoffs or towing on slippery surfaces.
The gearbox also offers virtually seamless upshifts and nice, crisp downshifts. A manual transmission really isn't required for sporty driving. The Volvo 850 is plenty fast with the automatic.
Much of Volvo's appeal is in ride quality, and the 850's road manners come pretty close to impeccable. Body lean is very evident during tight cornering, but the vehicle sticks beautifully without the wallowing that afflicts most cars with suspensions tuned toward the comfort zone.
Extra-firm shocks and a larger stabilizer bar can be ordered as options, but there is little reason to want a car that races through the bends any faster than the stock 850 Turbo.
Its wheel-and-tire combination is one of the best original engineering setups offered, and that contributes as much to the car's sporty demeanor as the turbocharged engine.
The power-assisted steering is also among the best in the business. However, although the brakes perform admirably, a certain amount of nosedive during panic braking can lead to a moment or two of uncertainty. Compared with its competitors, the 850's underpinnings rank just below those of the best German makes.
The 850 can feel choppy over freeway expansion joints, and extremely rough road isn't absorbed with quite the aplomb of a BMW, Audi or Mercedes. However, the 850 offers the sort of chassis feedback that the Europeans excel in and that the Japanese seem eager to engineer out of their suspensions.
We were pressed to find any surprises in the 850's behavior; it consistently goes where it's pointed, carrying itself through the sharpest of corners with ease.
The $30,000 to $35,000 market segment is one of the toughest around. There are so many competent automobiles from each of the three automotive continents that special qualities are required of cars in order for them to stand out in the crowd.
Volvo achieves this lofty status with the 850 Turbo by offering class-competitive performance parameters while retaining all those values that have made Volvo a significant marque in America: passenger security and prime comfort, a compliant ride and a purchase price that seems to be consistent with the desires of discriminating shoppers.
And the car's profile is decidedly distinctive. With all the swoopy, soft-edge sedans running around, the 850's chiseled, rakish exterior is a statement that the Volvo owner doesn't blindly follow trends.
So, to Volvo's traditional values perhaps we should add exclusivity as another reason to visit the Swedish company's showroom.
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