Friday, April 22, 2011

True Swedespeed: Volvo breaks its boxy shell for a new, boxy shell

The Volvo 850 was introduced in 1993 to replace the 740-series cars. There were many differences between the models, chiefly in the drivetrain. The 740 series cars were powered by longitudinally mounted, inline, iron-block four cylinder motors, either single or dual overhead cams, some turbocharged. These motors were mated to a live rear axle, rear wheel drive layout. The newer 850 cars featured all-alloy, twin cam, inline five cylinder motors mounted horizontally. These were mated to front wheel drive transmissions. The 850 has an all-new independent suspension, front and rear, as well as the first side-impact airbags on the US market. The styling continued Volvo's boxy design, with key edges softened for the 1990's. The shape was striking against the many jelly bean shapes popping up on the landscape (the Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable is my favorite example of the lozenge school of auto design).

The 850 wagon was introduced shortly thereafter, in 1994. The wagon was powered by either a 2.4 liter naturally aspirated five or powerful high-pressure 2.3 liter turbo five (T5 in Volvo-speak). Producing 222 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, the T5 powerplant easily propelled the rather heavy car to surprising speeds. At the very end of its life the 850 would receive a 2.4 liter 'light pressure' turbo. The LPT also found its way into the 850 AWD cars never sold in the States. The press was impressed by the haste that the wagon could achieve, and also commented on the competent handling.

The story of the 850 wagon gets interesting right from the start. Volvo wanted to use the new 850 platform to compete in the popular British Touring Car Championship series, which pitted (heavily) modified versions of everyday (touring) cars against each other on the track. Competition included the BMW 3-series, Alfa Romeo 155, Renault Laguna, and Ford Mondeo. Volvo decided to use the wagon version of the 850 as the basis of their touring car program. The choice was rather controversial, as every other team used 'saloon' cars as the building blocks of their racing machines. Volvo joined with Tom Walkinshaw Racing to construct the 850 touring cars. The motor was a 2 liter unit developed specifically for competition. The motor was also mounted lower and far back in the engine bay to create a more favorable center of gravity. The 850 'estate' racecars did reasonably well, competing in the 1994 BTCC season but never securing any points for Volvo Racing. The next season, race officials changed the rules governing aerodynamics, rendering the wagons noncompetitive. Using the sedan version of the 850, the Volvo Racing team went to to finish third in the manufacturers points standings in 1995 and third again in 1996.

The success of the 850 touring cars helped create a new 850 in 1995, dubbed the 850 T5-R. Painted in 'T-Gul,' a pale yellow, the T5-R sported motorsports badging, special 17 inch wheels, a deeper chin spoiler, a more aggressive rear wing on the sedan, two-tone black leather and suede seats, stiffer springs, and larger swaybars. The 'rest-of-world' models got a full 247 horsepower put down through a five-speed manual with a viscous limited slip differential; the North American market got only automatics and no rise in power (some sources claim that the US-spec R computer allowed an overboost, yielding 240 horsepower). The 'R' model continued until the 850's demise in 1997, relabeled the 850R. The famous yellow was gone, replaced with black, white, red, and dark green. The two-tone seats reversed there arrangement on the 850 R, with the suede now on the inner seating surface.

The early R cars have attained a bit of a cult status, especially so within Volvo communities. However, it is the 'base' 850 Turbo that really made an impact on the market. The original Volvo turbo wagons were quite popular and complete with the Countach-comparison ads, a little controversial. The 850 Turbo was a genuinely fast car when it debuted. In 1994, the Volvo's 222 bhp compared favorably to other European competition: BMW's M3 only mustered 240 bhp and the king-of-the-luxosedan-hill 540i made 262. Today, Volvo 850 owners can turn to firms like IPD to quickly increase their 222 bhp to closer to 300 with simple upgrades.

What I remember most about my '97 was the overall feel of the car. It had a solid, vault-like quality to it. The overall structure was stiff, the doors closed with a satisfying thud, and the steering had an agreeable heft to it. Sure, the stock suspension was too stiff on the little stuff and wallowy when the pace quickened but the overall composure was good for a wagon of that size.

The motor was a great one too. It had tons of pull, and a satisfying rush when the boost came on. The original Volvo setup was more than ample for everyday enthusiastic driving, never feeling out of breath. On the racetrack, the system was quickly overwhelmed and the heatsoak sapped power. The Swedes who put the car together never really intended it for hard-core abuse; even the later S/V70R cars are unhappy when really flogged at the track. These are supremely livable, practical road cars with just enough performance to satisfy drivers who might be used piloting 2-seat sportscars.

The 850 wagon really was a practical car. The cargo area on those traditional Volvo wagons truly maximized space. Compared to the newer V70's or my current Passat, the overtly square opening and flat load floor swallowed 10 bicycles at once.

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