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It's been said that Swedes don't like to bet unless they're sure they're going to win. So when Volvo advertised an Accidental Loss of Life insurance policy for all '96 models, you can bet the Scandinavian auto maker had some data to back up the offer.
For example, Volvo will tell you that no driver deaths occurred in single-vehicle crashes or rollovers of the Volvo 240 during 1990-94. Not one. The insurance policy, by the way, pays $250,000 to the estate of any occupant of any '96 Volvo who loses his or her life in an accident, up to a total of $1 million. It remains in effect for 48 months.
It's a unique and phenomenal offer in a climate where safety features receive high marks with car buyers. And it's clearly geared to drive home Volvo's tradition of building cars designed to maximize your chances of walking away from an accident. While Volvos might not be the latest thing in the area of swoopy styling, they're built by folks who have been perennial pioneers in automotive safety.
But there's more to Volvos than safety. To the people who know them, Volvo's stable of sedans and wagons also deliver exceptional comfort, quality, durability and value.
The rear-drive 960 series includes a line of 4-door sedans and wagons built on the same platform as the now-defunct 760 series. Introduced as '95 models, they were significantly re-engineered, a makeover that included a new body and suspension. For '96, the big news--and the only major change--is the addition of side airbags for the front seats. Known as the Side-Impact Protection System (SIPS) this award-winning safety innovation was first introduced on 850 Turbo models and is now standard on every Volvo sold in this country.
Although the 960 sedan has a large number of attractive luxury class competitors--the Saab 9000, Audi A6, Lincoln Continental, Cadillac Seville and Mercedes E-Series, to name just a few--the wagon version stands almost alone in this price category. Which is one of the reasons for its strong sales. To find out more, we took a 960 wagon on a test drive.
The 960 wagon retains its sober Scandinavian heritage and still looks a bit boxy despite the more aerodynamic contours sculpted into the new sheet metal. It's a very traditional design that's driven by passenger considerations like plentiful headroom. Added were new front fenders and hood as well as flush headlights and integrated fog lights.
It's no secret that the traditional station wagon look isn't exactly de rigeur at the moment, thanks to the boom in minivan and sport-utility sales, but we found the 960's functional, roomy design appealing nonetheless.
Daytime running lights are standard equipment, as are front and rear fog lights along with a passel of amenities including a washer/wiper for the headlamps, heated power outside mirrors and a power glass sunroof with a sunshade and tilt/slide feature. A remote entry system with alarm is standard and new for '96 is a 2-step power door lock system that opens the driver's door first, followed by the other doors, the liftgate (or trunk) and the fuel filler door.
The 960 is powered by a 2.9-liter dual overhead camshaft 24-valve inline 6-cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission, the only powertrain offered. Last year, the engine was tweaked to produce more of its power lower in the rpm range, to improve acceleration and passing performance, a preference of American drivers.
Both the sedan and wagon have an EPA estimated fuel economy of 17 mpg city/25 highway. That's not bad, but we also found that our test car was able to improve a bit on both numbers.
Although these are big cars within, their exterior dimensions are tidier than a good many of their large car competitors. The sedan and wagon share the same wheelbase and overall length, though the wagon is a little taller and weighs about a hundred pounds more. However, both versions of the 960 are relatively svelte in the weight department compared to most cars in the luxury class.
Within its tastefully familiar--and nicely finished--exterior, the 960 shelters an interior that's as warm, gracious and comfortable as an upscale Scandinavian home. It's truly easy to enter this luxury cabin, where you'd find a squarish dashboard inlaid with rich walnut panels, a thoughtful control layout and good driver sightlines all around.
The nicely-contoured seats--always a strong point with Volvos--have tailored leather surfaces, and the steering wheel is also leather-wrapped. Other standard comfort/convenience features include automatic climate control, power everything, a premium AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system, power front seats with 8-way adjustability and a memory feature, cruise control and--yes!--cupholders.
Safety features? Of course. This is a Volvo. In addition to the front and side airbags, the 960's seatbelts feature adjustable upper anchors with lockable inertia reels, an integrated child safety seat--standard on the wagon, optional on the sedan--and child safety rear door locks.
Although this is a thoroughly equipped vehicle as is, there are five different option packages available, ranging from $395 to $1485. You can also delete the leather upholstery and walnut trim if you choose. Our test vehicle had everything you can add to a 960. We particularly appreciated the $485 Cold Weather Package, which includes heated front seats and an outside temperature gauge.
We found our 960 wagon to be a refined, well-mannered car with a strong body structure. (Even though it's a rear-drive layout, it was a real confidence-builder, dry roads or slick, city or highway, an impression that was enhanced by the standard limited slip rear differential.) Its antilock brakes worked well, the power rack and pinion steering system is precise--with good road feel--and the new rear suspension adds an element of handling precision that verges on sporty.
A favorite of our test drivers was the three driving modes programmed into the automatic transmission controls, selectable via a console-mounted switch. The Winter mode locks out first and second gear, to minimize wheelspin on slick stuff. Economy dictates earlier upshifts, to keep engine rpm down for better fuel economy. And the Sport model holds upshift points longer, keeping the engine at higher rpm for better acceleration.
Ride quality is just this side of sumptuous, with the confidence-inspiring feel of European suspension tuning. Like other European manufacturers, Volvo builds to wide-open German Autobahn standards, which places the highest possible premium on responsive handling and superior braking.
Wagon or sedan, the 960 has both. Although we tend to think of Volvos in terms of their outstanding crashworthiness, they're also thoroughly competent in terms of these active safety features as well. The 960 may not have the inherent athleticism of, say, a BMW 5-Series sedan or wagon, but there's agility to go with its comfortable ride nonetheless.
We were also impressed with how quietly the 960 goes about its business. The aerodynamic improvements entailed in the '95 redesign have quelled wind noise, and the smooth inline 6-cylinder engine is a model of civilized deportment. Its power isn't the kind that will pin you against the seatbacks, but there's enough to feel confident in all passing situations and it's utterly devoid of vibration.
The 960 Wagon and Sedan are a pair of elegantly furnished conservatives that will wrap you in an advanced security blanket and take you for a thoroughly pleasant ride, regardless of how many miles that ride may be.
Volvo wagons have long set standards for their maximization of interior room--with the rear seats folded flat, the 960 can swallow almost as much cargo as some minivans--and their all-around comfort.
And with every Volvo, you get the latest distillation of the company's ongoing leadership in the field of automotive safety. To some, that alone is worth the price of admission.
And the price of admission here is better-than-average news. Despite wild fluctuation in foreign currency exchange rates versus the dollar, Volvo's price increases for 1996 are modest at 3% across the board.
With an enviable record for quality, durability and safety, a Volvo is always an excellent automotive investment.
And from the safety point of view, it's so good that the Swedes are doing something extraordinary. They're betting on it.