It's fair to say that Volvo has one of the strongest, most clearly-defined images in the automotive industry.
Even if you've never driven a Volvo, what's the first word that comes into your mind when you hear this brand name? That's right. Safety. In particular, passive safety--elements designed to protect you when sheet metal starts crumpling and you no longer have control of the situation.
Along with its other strengths--durability and reliability--Volvo stood for safety when safety wasn't cool. The Swedish carmaker's pioneering work in this area has helped to make dramatic improvements in crash survivability, not only in Volvo products but throughout the industry at large.
This is an enviable record, but there's just one problem. Safety is obviously important, and it's increasingly high on the priority lists of today's car buyers. But safety isn't exactly exciting. Although Volvo's new 850 sedans and wagons measure up to European standards of stability and agility, their outstanding performance in the realm of occupant protection conjures up visions of amored personnel carriers.
All of which explains the 850R, the newest member of Volvo's front-drive 850 lineup. It has all the usual Volvo virtues, but it has something more compelling, something we don't usually associate with this brand: This here Svenska can scoot, ladies and gentlemen. It has the handling and brakes you'd expect of something wearing a BMW badge, and it can hustle from 0 to 60 mph in about 6 seconds.
The 850 is the first front-wheel drive Volvo offered in the U.S., an important break with tradition that pays benefits in the realm of wet weather traction.
Available in sedan and wagon body styles, the 850 is a midsize line that straddles the luxury frontier. The basic 850 sedan starts at $26,125, and the price range runs all the way up to $39,375 for the 850R Sportswagon.
That range embraces four main models--the 850, 850 GLT, 850 Turbo and 850 Platinum Limited Edition--plus the even more limited edition 850 R. There are station wagon variants at all levels, including the 850 R. Our test car was an 850 R wagon.
All models share a smooth 5-cyl. dual overhead cam 20-valve engine, mounted fore and aft, rather than transversely, which provides better weight distribution. That's a plus in a front-drive car, since all front-drive cars have a heavy forward weight bias.
Non-turbo versions are 2.4 liters, turbos 2.3. The non-turbo engine produces 168 hp and 162 lb.-ft. or torque, which provides respectable acceleration thanks to the 850's relatively low curb weight. However, with 222 hp and 221 lb.-ft. of torque, which
peaks at just 2100 rpm, the standard turbomotor lends real zeal to forward progress, and the 240-hp 850R is even quicker.
Transmission choices are the usual combination of standard 5-speed manual and optional 4-speed automatic. However, turbocharged versions are automatic only.
Although the 850 is a little rounder than previous Volvos, there's no mistaking its family heritage. While the squarish lines of the sedan look a little dated compared to the swoopier shapes of newer cars, the formal roofline provides plenty of headroom, front and rear. And on station wagon versions--a perennially popular part of the Volvo's U.S. offerings--the shape looks smart and functional.
Volvo has long been an industry leader in seating comfort, and the 850 continues this tradition. The front buckets, in particular, are well conceived for all-day comfort as well as good lateral support when the driver is generating lots of side loading, something that 850 R pilots are sure to do.
Our test car's seats were clad in leather with spiffy suede inserts, part of the 850 R package.
Something else that goes with these seats is airbags, which pop out of the sides of the seats. Volvo was first with this safety innovation, and it's extended across the entire Volvo model range for 1996.
Other standard safety features include dual front airbags, of course, side impact protection, daytime running lamps, a rear fog lamp, and outstanding antilock brakes. Station wagons include an integrated child safety seat in the rear. Traction control is an option on most models, standard on Platinum and 850 R versions.
Standard equipment ranges from compehensive to hedonistic. The standard 850 includes air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette audio, tilt/telescope steering, power windows, power locks and heated power side mirrors.
Standard equipment for our 850 R included a CD player, power moonroof, heated seats, trip computer and special wood trim. A word on the wood trim. Volvo uses walnut trim in other uplevel 850 models. The 850 R, however, comes with either light-colored Scandinavian birch or black walnut. Our test car had the birch. We think the black walnut looks much more in step with a luxury interior.
In addition to its inventory of standard comfort/convenience features, the 850 R includes Volvo's 850 stiffer sport suspension package, which reduces body roll in enthusiastic cornering and increases the driver's sense of control. It also includes low-profile Z-rated low-profile Pirelli P-Zero performance tires on handsome 7-spoke aluminum alloy wheels.
While these tires enhance handling, their ride quality is distinctly harder than the 16-in. 205/50ZR Michelin MXM tires that come with the regular 850 Turbo. Some drivers prefer the extra compliance that goes with the 16-in. wheel/tire combination, and Volvo will make the substitution on the 850 R at no extra cost.
Although the 850's exterior dimensions are tidy by midsize standards--over a foot shorter than a Ford Taurus, for example--the interior design affords enough room for five adult passengers. Legroom is plentiful up front, adequate in the rear, and the station wagon affords the additional benefit of extra cargo volume. It's surprising how much stuff a Volvo Wagon can ingest.
The 850 R comes in two colors, red or black. We always prefer dark colors when it comes to high-performance cars, and the station wagon bodywork lends an additional element of disguise.
We don't mean to advocate back road banditry here, but sooner or later the power of the 850 R engine will tempt drivers into occasional bursts of extra-legal speed. This is an realm to reach. Stab the accelerator and the car surges forward with a liquid rush that's positively habit-forming, as well as handy when you're passing slower traffic on some twisty byway.
The standard 850 is smooth and efficient, a pleasant engine to live with. The engines in the 850 Turbo and 850 R has those same traits, but its heady rush of power is addictive.
When it comes to ride and handling, the standard 850s comport themselves with dignity, comfort and control. The 850 R--and other 850s optioned up with the sport suspension package--lend an additional dimension to the foregoing. Response to driver input is quick and aggressive, with far less body roll than the standard car. Body roll equals weight transfer. The more a given car rolls in a corner, the longer it's likely to take to recover and make a quick change in direction.
Here's a situation where less really does equal more. The 850 R has far less body roll, and as a result, far more athletic capability than the standard 850.
Be it base 850 or 850 R, all members of this line provide excellent braking performance. In addition to ABS, the system features large discs at all four corners, and the rotors--vented up front for extra cooling, solid at the rear--are the same size for all models. However, there's more than enough power in this system to handle the extra performance of Turbo versions.
As noted, ride quality in the 850 R is distinctly firm. The standard and GLT models are significantly softer, providing a ride that verges on plush. Normally aspirated models are quiet at all speeds, Turbo versions only slightly less so.
The 850 line has fortified Volvo's U.S. fortunes, and it's easy to see why. They're comfortable, roomy, well-mannered, well-equipped and they deliver exceptional quality plus the latest advances in automotive safety.
And for anyone who thinks Volvos come up short in the fun-to-drive department, we suggest a test drive in a Volvo 850 Turbo or, better yet, an 850 R. If that doesnt blow the cobwebs out, your next stop should be at a Porsche dealership.