Stuffy image blown away by 850R

Tony Whitney
Friday, May 10, 1996

Volvo has a long-standing reputation as a manufacturer of ultra-safe, roomy,
reliable, family transportation.

Only recently has the Swedish company begun to move more aggressively towards performance-oriented products, although I owned a pretty quick 240 GLT a few years back that was a good match for contemporary BMWs.

For the past couple of seasons, Volvo has been successfully contesting the British Touring Car Championship, one of the most important series of its type in the world.

Test Vehicle Specs
1996 Volvo 850R 4-door sedan
Body style: Four-door sedan.
Engine: 2.3 litre, 5-cylinder turbo.
Transmission: 5-speed manual.
Performance: Zero to 100 km/h in approximately seven seconds.
Fuel economy: Not listed by Transport Canada.

Surprisingly, Volvo started off in this race series with an 850 wagon, possibly wanting to shed that family hauler image once and for all.

Main beneficiary of all this competition experience right now is Volvo's 850R sedan, a race-bred machine if ever there was one, with its hunkered-down looks and ultra-low-profile tires on skinny-spoked wheels.

This car is based on Volvo's widely-praised 850 front-wheel-drive sedan, this maker's entry-level product, originally designed to replace the long-lived 240 model.

Although it looks a lot like a basic 850, there are many upgrades to turn it into the swiftest Volvo ever.

Its astonishingly responsive powerplant is : based on Volvo's trusty five-cylinder 2.3-litre unit, but turbo-charging is employed to create a front-runner in the super-sedan class.

Horsepower is an impressive 240 - enough to kill forever Volvo's stuffy image if it still lingers.

Turbo 'lag' is just about non-existent, thanks in part to minimal turbo-charger size.

Only transmission available is a five-speed manual as it should be for a car like this.

Naturally, with such a speedster, first-class brakes are essential and this Volvo delivers. Thanks to those spoky wheels, the four-wheel ventilated discs can be admired every time you stop the car. Naturally, ABS is standard.

Tires have an exceptionally low profile and perform well during fast driving. At city speeds, though, I found they 'tram-lined' and didn't have a very reassuring feel.

I got the impression that handling would be as good with more conventional rubber and, there would be the bonus of an improved ride.

Vehicle Verdict
I liked:
  • Wonderfully responsive performance.
  • 'No-nonsense' styling.
  • Agile handling.
  • Comfortable, attractive interior.
  • Fun to drive I didn't like: Ultra low profile tires.
I didn't like:
  • Ultra low profile tires.

But tires apart, this Volvo proved tremendous fun to drive and lacked for nothing by way of luxury either.

Seating was wonderful, with plenty of lateral support for exceptional comfort on long runs. Trim was a combination of leather and suede, which looked good and provided a 'grippy' surface.

All Volvos have excellent cockpit ambiance with (mostly) intelligent control layout and a nice 'feel' about everything. Window lift switches are not located on the door panels, my preferred location, but I suppose owners get used to this. Visibility was very good for driver and passengers, a worthwhile consideration in a touring car. Headroom is, if anything, better than in Volvo's bigger 960 cars.

Like other 850 models, this car has side-impact airbags, in addition to the usual pair up front. Other makers have followed Volvo with side bags, but where will it all end? Perhaps occupants should wear inflatable suits.

One thing about a Volvo having so much power and handling capability is that there's always a feeling of safety and solidity. There's never aany notion that things are about to get out of control.

This is not a cheap car, but it packs in a huge amnount of performance technology.