The First "New" Volvo
Volvo sedans have always been thought of as nice, comfortable, solid, durable--and rather dull--cars. And of course, safe. Volvo has been a leader in automotive safety for years and has always been respected for it.
But by the early nineties, it was clear that in today's hyper-competitive marketplace, Volvo needed more. So a plan was hatched to bring fun, flash, sportiness and performance to the Volvo line, while retaining their traditional virtues.
The first model to hatch from that plan arrived in 1992 as the 1993 850 GLT. Instantly familiar as a three box Volvo, it nonetheless was tighter, sharper, firmer and faster (in Turbo form) than any Volvo sedan before it. It got great reviews, and the public approved. Volvo has continued its makeover from that first 850 with stylishly sleek new models and slick engineering -- all the while retaining its acclaimed attributes for safety, utility and durability.
At the start, only one version was available -- a five-cylinder, GLT four-door sedan. Things got more interesting in 1994 with the addition of the wagon and turbo model. For 1995, a T5-R model really stretched the traditional Volvo envelope. The proliferation continued in 1996 with premium Platinum and performance "R" configurations added to the model lineup. Hyper turbos, stiff suspensions, racy wheels and even some rather wild colors adorned many of these models. An automatic transmission shifted all versions, and a manual was not available.
Can you say box? One area where Volvo did not stray from its tradition is in the way it looks. Updated and softened a bit, it still retains the boxy look of its predecessor 740. Despite its rather extreme angularity, its pleasant enough to look at and it pulls off the look pretty well. And it manages to be pretty aerodynamic too, with a .32 Cd.
The trademark chrome grille with the Volvo badge intersected by a full width diagonal line, a body length horizontal rub strip and on the wagon distinctive (and huge) vertical taillights add some eye-catching features. The performance models with their larger wheels and tires even manage to look rather aggressive. We think the spoiler on the rear of the sportier turbo wagons is a bit much, though.
A roomy and substantial looking cabin greets the driver and passengers. A low belt line and tall roof make for lots of glass and an airy interior. Despite some two-tone color treatments, in most models it remains a rather serious, even somber, environment. Once again, however, Volvo tried to liven things up with some off-beat upholstery and wood treatments on some of the performance models. Real birch could be ordered for the dash and suede seats could greet your backsides.
Although still full of angles, boxes and rectangles, the dashboard design has been rounded and softened in a few places. It is well laid out and ergonomically very good, but starting to look dated. One complaint -- the radio wasn't the easiest to fiddle with, but at least it was placed above the transmission selector. Fit and finish were always first rate on the models we sampled, from base model up to a turbo wagon.
At just under 184 inches (add 2" for the wagon) in length, the 850 is not a large car. Due to a boxy design and some clever packaging, it has lots of room for both passengers and cargo. The driving position is nearly ideal, and everything is within reach. Power adjustment was standard, except on some base models. Leather was optional on all but the Platinum and R models.
The seating position is high and chair-like for all. Legroom and headroom are generous front and rear. Four adults will find it easy to get comfortable for long stretches at a time. Even a fifth passenger in the middle rear will do reasonably well -- a rare claim even for larger cars.
Naturally, the wagon is tops in cargo-carrying versatility with a large boxy cargo section and split-back rear seats. A dealer installed third seat was available as well at a pricey $1400. The sedan is no slouch in the cargo department either. Split- back fold-down rear seats, a large flat trunk and even a fold-flat front passenger seat lets you carry those extra long items.
The 850 could be had in everything from mild-mannered family sedan guise up through some decidedly performance-oriented versions.
Non-turbo models all share Volvo's DOHC 2.4 liter 5-cylinder engine generating 168 horsepower, which is enough to move the 850 around adequately. The five cylinder configuration has always puzzled us, though there are some packaging/power advantages to it. It's not particularly smooth or quiet, but it's not objectionable in either of those categories, either. Stepping hard on the gas elicits a ruckus underhood. The five-cylinders generate a mellow but curious sounding exhaust note, which is neither better or worse than the sound from a four-cylinder motor, just different. The multi-mode transmission shifts smoothly.
Turbo models generate a whopping 222 horsepower and 221 ft-lbs of torque, and the 850's character transformation is startling. The car is very quick with little "turbo lag" (the tendency for the engine to wait a bit while the turbo builds rpms). The 1995 T-5R model went even further, tweaked to 240 horses.
Whether equipped with the base or handling suspension, the 850 rides well. Although not Lexus quiet, the cabin remains hushed under most conditions. Road noise is minimal.
The 850 was Volvo's first front-drive car, and with the expected understeer, it handles like one. Models equipped with the base suspension handle predictably, but not exceptionally. Body-roll is evident. A sport or handling package variously equipped with a firmer suspension setup, fog lights and a spoiler was available on most models throughout the model run at a nominal cost. You'll find many 850s equipped with this package, and we recommend it. Be aware that there is a slight penalty in the ride department (mostly harshness) compared to the base suspension.
From '95 on, all turbo models feature an upgraded and slightly firmer suspension with 16" alloys. As you would expect, handling is more precise and response is quicker on the Turbo models, with or without the optional sport suspension. With its low-profile 17" wheels and very firm suspension, the '95 T5-R model delivers lightning fast steering response and excellent handling, but with the drawback of an overly harsh ride. Unfortunately, we did not have the occasion to drive this model (they're hard to find), so this assessment is based on a compilation of contemporary reports.
Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control stopped the 850 with authority. Brakes were immediately noticeable as being unusually strong.
Volvo and safety are synonymous. All 850's include dual front-seat airbags, adjustable shoulder belts, five three-point seat belts (front with pretensioners) and an available three point integrated child seat in the rear. Depending on the model, front seat occupants got the added protection of side impact air bags in 1995 or 1996.
An ABS braking system, energy-absorbing crumple zones and a rigid passenger box round out the safety package. Traction control was optional, except on the Platinum and R models, where it was standard fare.
Government crash tests resulted in an excellent rating for the driver (5 stars) and a very good rating for the front seat passenger (4 stars).
The Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry funded group that evaluates vehicle safety, awarded the 850 an overall "Good" rating. It placed fourth of all cars tested.
Here is another area where Volvo's enjoy a stellar reputation. Although we had sensed a slip in performance during the late eighties and early nineties, it appears as though the 850 is living up to the tradition of a Volvo's longevity.
Even turbo models have few problems, although you should be aware that turbos do wear out and can be expensive to replace. Ideally, to maximize life, a turbo engine should always be idled for 30 seconds before shutting down (for cooling purposes), but no one we know of actually does this. This is not a Volvo problem, just a characteristic of turbos.
As an indication of the faith Volvo has in its cars, all 850s are covered by a 4yr/50,000 mile warranty.
Routine service includes the usual fluid changes intervals. Timing belt replacement is required at 70,000 miles, a little earlier than most other cars.
Volvo recommends premium fuel. Expect overall service and maintenance costs for be slightly higher that average.
The 850 was a hands-down winner for Volvo. It accomplished its goal of getting the public to rethink its perception of Volvo, and its recent stylish models have been enthusiastically embraced by the public. The wagon was (and is) especially popular with suburban housewives who didn't want to make a leap into a minivan.
Resale values remain strong even as the vehicle becomes an older model. We don't think that the recent purchase of Volvo by Ford (that's right folks, your Volvo is now a Ford!) will hurt any of Volvo's strengths. In fact, it will only serve to assure a bright future for this Swedish carmaker.
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