Used Car Evaluation

Buying a Used Volvo 850/S70

from our May 2005 Newsletter

The 850/S70 series has been with us now for 12 years. There are scads of them around, because they sold very well. That’s a darned good thing too, because Volvo had a lot riding on their first front wheel drive car for the North American market. Now that these cars have reached the used car market in large numbers, and some with quite high mileage, lets take a look at just how good they really are, and get some advice on what to look out for when considering their used purchase.


(from a Road & Track promotional brochure of the 850 introduction) The seeds for a smaller, front-drive Volvo were actually sown in the late Seventies. After two world-wide oil crises caused severe supply disruptions, sent gasoline prices skyward, and distorted the auto market with a short-lived boom in minicars. Volvo began preliminary work on a small car that would serve as an “insurance policy” against another energy crises and down-market buyer shift. That work became known as the Galaxy Project, its main aim to determine what kind of cars people would be driving in the Nineties - more than a decade in the future. An overriding philosophy was that potential Volvo small-car customers wanted the same space as in existing rear-drive Volvo cars, but in a more efficient and fun-to-drive package. Eventually, the Galaxy Project split into two front-drive programs, a small car that became the 440/460/480 Series (not sold in North America) and the mid-size 850 GLT.

Early on in the 850 project, Dan Werbin, Executive Vice President of the Volvo Car Corp at the time, became a key mentor. Beginning in the late Seventies, he had strong feelings that the next new ground-up Volvo should be front drive, a position not necessarily popular within Volvo’s conservative ranks. Having lived and worked for several years at Volvo Cars of North America, Dan had a good sense of what would work on this side of the Atlantic.

Marrying Volvo’s sacred elements of roominess, structure and safety with the need for efficiency in size, weight and fuel consumption led to the development of an all-new front-drive platform, Delta-link rear suspension, transverse-mounted modular inline 5 cylinder (all aluminium) engine and ultra compact 3-shaft manual transmission. Rolf Malmgren, Design Supervisor, Volvo Car Corporation, said, “The 850 embodies a theme of strength and durability. It has evolutionary styling with revolutionary under-the-skin features.”

When they were new

In 1993 the 850 was ready for its introduction. At the time it had plenty of competition in the market place, even within Volvo itself. In ’93 you had the choice of buying a new 240, 940, 960 and 850. All but the 850 were of course, rear wheel drive. Fortunately for Volvo the fwd 850 proved to be very popular and continued in production to the year 2000, albeit with a name change to S70. Over the 8 years of production the car stayed basically the same, with detail changes and model expansion. It started as a sedan with naturally aspirated 5 cylinder engine. A wagon followed, and turbo charged engines and then performance variants like the T5 and “R” cars, all wheel drive in 1997, and minor styling changes with the 1998 introduction of the S70.

Used car assessment

To write this article I interviewed 4 people: Mike Handfield, with the used car division of Don Docksteader Motors, and an expert in the attributes of all Volvos from the PV 444 on up; Len Lee, service manager of the independent Volvo repair shop, Ed Schram Motors; Ken Witala, owner of independent Volvo Repair shop Scandia Motors; and Bob Cuthill, VCBC director and knowledgeable owner of an 850 (and 61 P1800) who does his own repairs. Thank you all for your help.

I asked them all a similar series of questions starting with, “What should I look out for when buying a used 850/S70?”. The initial comments of Mike, Len and Bob, were similar, “Well not much really, nothing sticks out being exceptionally bad, they are really pretty good cars.” I had to persist to get details. That was a good sign. With Mike, Len and Bob, I introduced the subject and asked the questions in the same conversation. I caught Ken Witala at a time when he was too busy in his shop to answer my questions immediately, and as such he had a couple of hours to consider the subject before I questioned him. Given the extra time, he came up with a very thorough list of service details.

Keep in mind that this type of article looks like a list of complaints. In fact you would get a similar list for any model you chose to examine in this way. Ultimately they all agreed that these are very good cars and excellent value for money, particularly now that they have enjoyed the inevitable depreciation in value.

ICBC Vehicle Claims History

For a very nominal fee of $20 (October 2005), ICBC will produce an Vehicle Claims History from their Vehicle Damage Repair Information Service. This record will list all claims known to the Corporation during the vehicle's insured life in British Columbia. All you need to do is provide the VIN of the vehicle in question and a charge card number, and you can have the information in minutes. A printed form will be mailed to you. This service is available on-line and by telephone.

It is important to know that this information may be incomplete for any of the following reasons (quoted from their form):

  1. Past damage to a vehicle could have gone unreported to ICBC if:
    • The vehicle was not insured by ICBC at the time
    • The owner repaired it at their own expense
    • The owner did not make a claim to ICBC
  2. The vehicle was insured under an ICBC fleet or garage policy. If so, repair information about the individual vehicle may not be avaialble.
Complete details can be found on the ICBC web site. This link was updated January 2008; the previous was 404.

Before we look at the 850-specific comments, here are some good-practice suggestions applicable to any used car purchase. Check with ICBC to see if the car has had serious accident damage. Try for a car with full service history. Have it inspected by a knowledgeable service centre prior to purchase. Generally low mileage is better than high mileage, unless the low mileage car has been abused. You are usually best to pay a premium for the very best car, as it will save you money in the long run. Bargains seldom are.

Now for specifics

These cars range in age from 5 to 12 years old and the mileages covered, vary widely. Len Lee and Ken Witala have seen 850s with as much as 350,000 km. and the engines were still original and un-rebuilt. At the other end of the scale, Don Docksteader’s used car division currently have a 1997-850 with just 26,000 km.

Cars from the first year of production, 1993 have earned a bit of a bad reputation. This is largely due to the teething problems inevitable with a brand new design and you will see references to these problems in the subjects to follow. The early cars do have a number of unique features that were changed in later years, but for all that they are still good cars and there are lots of owners of high mileage early cars that are perfectly happy.

Electrical Systems: In general, failed light bulbs seems to be common fault in 850 and S70 cars. To replace the dashboard illumination lights, the dash cap and air bag must be removed, about an hours work. Best to replace all five while you are in there. In the early cars (’93 and ’94) the little bulbs that illuminate the various dashboard switches are not replaceable and you have to replace the whole switch ($40) to restore the light. From 1995 the bulbs in the switchers are replaceable. Many of the light bulbs used in these cars are tiny and come soldered to a plastic housing. The bulb+base cost $8 each but Bob Cuthill discovered that the little bulbs with 2 wires are available from electrical supply stores for $1 and can be soldered into the existing bases. The remainder of the electrical system in these cars has not been a problem.

Body, Trim and Paint: The body, trim and paint seems to be extremely good. Mike Handfield sees lots of used cars and cannot remember seeing a rusty 850. The original paint is of exceptional quality with the possible exception of early red cars that are starting to fade and a few 1993 cars where the paint fails on the ribs that are formed into the roof. Trim pieces do not fall off these cars.

Similarly the interiors are very durable and comfortable. The leather is excellent quality and as long as it is fed with Lexol regularly will last a long time. The door panels, switch gear and other interior fittings are durable. The headliners stay up, unlike the saggy headliners in the 700 series. The interiors do not leak. The structure of the seats is good. Mike noted that in some high mileage early cars, the driver’s seat has become a bit “soft”. In Bob Cuthill’s ‘94 car with 157K the seat heater element had to be replaced. Ken Witala confirms that seat heater failure is common in most years and there is a recall for the 96 and 97 cars that get new relays and wiring. Some high mileage early cars, usually with dirty interiors, have trouble with the seat positioning motors.

Doors and Windows: The S70s seem to have more power door lock problems than the 850s and sometimes the door window rails break off and the window falls into the bottom of the door. The door “pin” switches that turn on the interior lights etc are part of the door latch mechanism and the whole unit must be replaced to fix the switch ($200 part). One odd problem is with the front door check strap that limits the door travel when open. Apparently these are quite weak and start to get loose. If this is not attended to, they can actually rip out of the “A” pillar requiring welding to repair.

Tires and Wheels: The 1993 cars have 4 bolt wheels and the rest have 5 bolt wheels. There are a variety of available wheels and tire combinations available for all but ’93. The bolt pattern 5 on 4.25” is the same as the rear wheel drive Volvos, but wheel offset is much different and the wheels are not interchangeable from rwd to fwd.

Suspension and Steering: The front wheel bearings cannot be replaced separately. Instead they come assembled into a complete spindle unit ($250) that seem to need replacement at around 100,000 km. The plus side is that the spindles install quickly and probably save significant labour charges over bearing replacement. Clicking noises from the front end during tight turning can mean CV joints need replacement ($500) Swaybar vertical link rods (with 2 little ball joints) fail and get rattly. These are easily replaced. Unique to ’93 the swaybar to cross member bushings are replaceable but both the bushings and the sway bars wear and cause a clunk in the suspension. Unfortunately as the bar wears, replacing the bushing may only cure the clunk for 6 months or less, before another replacement is required. The solution is to install the swaybar from a ’94 or later car with molded bushings but this is a $200 part. These cars steer and handle very nicely. This is not a surprise when you remember that Rikard Rydell won the British Touring Car Championship in the mid-ninties driving an 850. The suspension is smooth and stable. Torque steer is not evident in normal driving. The high powered turbocharged cars will exhibit torque steer in hard acceleration.

Transmissions and Differentials: The 4 speed automatic transmissions come with a switch that allows a choice between “economy” and “sport” modes. The effect of “sport vs. economy” is to change the shift points. The ‘93 cars do not work well in “economy mode” as there is an annoying hesitation on acceleration. The solution is to use only sport mode. After ’93 that problem was solved. 1993 and ‘94 cars seem to be more prone to transmission failures, although there are lots around that have not had any problem. Bob Cuthill gives their 94 transmission frequent transmission fluid changes and has not had any transmission difficulties, other than having to replace the drive select switch. He finds that the transmission is very responsive and provides smooth, positive shifts. Post ‘94 the transmissions seem to be less troublesome. In the last year of production 2000, the cars received a 5 speed automatic.

Very few of the 850 series cars in our market were delivered with standard transmissions. However these 5 speed standards are lasting very well and the clutches are pleasant and long lasting.

None of those questioned mentioned any problems with the differentials. Most 850/S70 cars are 2 wheel drive. In 1997 the 850 wagon with standard transmission could be had with all-wheel-drive. In 1998 you could also get AWD automatic wagons and finally AWD sedans in 1999.

Brakes work well. Volvo front pads cause lots of brake dust and accelerate front rotor wear. An aftermarket improvement is to use PBR brake pads up front, which dust less and do not wear front rotors. Continue to use Volvo pads in the rear. The abs/traction control computer fails and this costs $1200 for cars up to 1996 and $740 on later cars. Bob has had to replace this computer on his ‘94 850 at 95,000 km.

Air Conditioning: The AC evaporator is built right into the heater box, buried deep in the dash board. Everything forward of the front seats must be removed to make the replacement. Unfortunately these do commonly fail and take 8 hours of shop time to replace ($1000). In Bob’s 1994 car it failed at 85,000 km. They seem to fail because they get wet from condensation and then collect dust from the heater fan, which keeps them wet and eventually promotes enough corrosion to cause their failure. Apparently there is a kit that keeps the fan running after AC use, to help dry the evaporator. Also a pollen filter, that eliminates as much incoming dust as possible to the heater, would probably help.

Exhaust System and Pollution Control: The exhaust systems (including catalytic converters) are long lasting and sound nice as well. The ’93 cars have a unique exhaust manifold and some of these crack and have to be removed and replaced. Symptom is a ticking sound on acceleration. Bob’s ‘94 car still has it’s entire original exhaust system even after 157K. Chromed tail pipes on early cars rotted off, but were replaced on later cars with stainless steel. Don‘t forget to replace you gas cap as this can lead to fouling of the two O2 sensors and each one costs over $300.

Engine: The engine was brand new for this car. It is an all aluminium 5 cylinder with 4 valves per cylinder and the whole works is mounted transversely. It is basically a 5 cylinder version of the 6 cylinder engine first seen in the 960 cars. It’s a modular design and lends itself to being a 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 cylinder. The 5 cylinder engine has proven to be very durable. Some have as many as 350,000 un-rebuilt km now and still climbing. We don’t know what mileages they will ultimately attain. Timing belts must be replaced at the recommended intervals (80Km for ’93 cars and 112K for 94 and later) If you ignore the timing belt replacement intervals you do so at your peril. These are interference engines, meaning that if the belt breaks while the engine is running valves will hit pistons. These are 4 valve per cylinder engines so the valves are quite small and they lose the battle in the collision with the pistons. This is good because it means usually only the head has to be replaced rather than the whole engine, but it will still cost you plenty, certainly a hell of a lot more expensive that just replacing the timing belt. If you are considering a used car with no service records, replace the belt immediately. The rear engine oil seal (between the engine and transmission) sometimes fail and it is difficult to get at, and consequently expensive to replace ($800). Top and bottom engine mounts also fail infrequently. Ken Witala at Scandia, has not had to rebuild a complete engine yet and Len Lee at Ed Schram Motors has only rebuilt one. Higher mileage cars can start using some oil between changes, but it isn’t dripping or noticeably burning and they still pass aircare just fine, so just add oil and otherwise ignore it. Scandia has had one severe oil burner and they suspected the head. When the head came off it did not look particularly bad, but it must have been, because after it was serviced and reinstalled the oil burning was gone. Turbocharged cars can develop some leakage due to the turbo drain tubes (just like any of the turbocharged engines), but otherwise handle the turbocharging well.

Engine cooling system: The system is effective, and it needs to be, because the last thing you want to do is overheat an aluminium engine. Ken Witala recommends always replacing the thermostat at the 96K service because they fail at about that mileage and usually fail closed, which causes rapid overheating.

How are these cars as do-it-yourself (DIY) candidates. Bob Cuthill has replaced the dash lights, timing belt and front spindles himself on his 850 and says that with a reasonable mechanical aptitude, and good workshop manual, many jobs are within the scope of the owner. Ken Witala says it takes a somewhat higher skill level than servicing the 200 and 700 series cars, and some special tools, but generally agrees with Bob. The later the cars, the harder it is for the do-it-yourselfer to do fault tracing of the engine management system. On the ‘93-‘94 cars you can still read diagnostic codes. 1995 and later you need an OBD tester or Volvo Scan Tool. In 1999 the S70 changed to the “multiplexing” system where instead of hardwiring all the systems (which required miles of wire) they went to multiple computers which could poll many systems using just interconnecting wiring). Fault tracing these cars takes Volvo’s Vadis system which requires software downloads with many repairs. The 1999 S70 were Vadis system forward of the firewall and the last year 2000 S70 was full Vadis.

Models and values: These cars span 7 years and some have very low mileage and some very high. Their values can range form $4000 for a high mileage 93 to $28,000 for a 2000 S70 R turbo wagon. Mike says wagons carry a premium. Loaded non-turbo cars with leather, nice wheels and sunroofs are popular. The turbo charged cars, especially the T5 versions are very fast.

I asked Len and Ken, to compare the cost of ownership of the front wheel drive 850/S70, to the rear wheel drive 240/740/940 Series cars. Generally the front wheel drive cars will be somewhat more expensive to maintain. However the rear wheel cars are getting quite old and won’t be competing directly with the 850/S70 in the used car market.

At the end of the interview I asked each fellow the same question. If I were to give you a choice of a 240, 740, 940 or 850 all in excellent condition and in the specification you most prefer, which would you choose? Mike, Bob and Len all chose the 850. Mike because he likes how they drive and the fact that there is not always something that needs to be fixed. Len because they are quiet, smooth and he likes how they drive. Bob owns one and has no regrets. Ken, (like me) prefers rear wheel drive and would choose a 940 Turbo Wagon, however he qualified that by saying that he can see himself changing to a 850/S70 turbo wagon at some point.

All the people interviewed agreed that the 850/S70 models are high quality, well designed cars and are excellent value for the money on the used market. As with all cars they have their share of maintenance needs. The list of potential repairs should not scare you. Remember that not every car gets every problem. In fact having this list should be extremely valuable in searching for the right 850/S70. It will be a great help in assessing a car and in negotiating for the best price.

For me, this article confirms the huge value of a comprehensive service history on a used car and the wisdom of having the car inspected by a knowledgeable service centre. Happy shopping.

As a footnote the latest ipd flyer included an article by Scott Hart about his 98 V70 wagon with 272,000 miles (that’s 435,000 km) and it is unrebuilt and running well. His article on the car can be found on the ipd website.