Nearly a year ago, I impulse-bought a rather forlorn Volvo 850 R station wagon. With undiagnosed engine-electrical issues, and fairly scruffy cosmetics, it was on the edge of being a basket case. I didn’t even have much of an idea of what it was, but it was for sale locally, and I was looking for a cheap beater, so I went and took a look.
Things happened, and before I knew it, it was sitting in my driveway, with the title in my hand. A couple of new sensors fixed the electrical problems, and although it’s still a bit rough around the edges, a good clean and polish did wonders for its appearance. It has had the odd issue here and there over the past winter, but overall, it has proven to be far more than the cheap beater that I was looking for.
Full disclosure: Volvo wanted me to drive this car so badly that they leased it to somebody important enough to have a carphone, then sold it to somebody else who later sold it to a local attorney, who sold it to me for a very agreeable price after an unfortunate incident in which it broke down on a test drive. In the intervening 18 years, it had racked up 212,000 rather hard miles, lost several bits of trim, and accrued its fair share of dents and scrapes, as well as having its wiring harness hacked to bits by the addition and later removal of said carphone.
Introduced in 1993, the 850 was a great departure for Volvo – their first full-size front-wheel-drive offering, with an entirely new platform and a new five-cylinder engine, based on the 24-valve twin-cam straight-six that had debuted in the 960 a few years earlier. In true Volvo style, the 850 was packed full of safety features, with driver and passenger airbags, as well as seatbelt pretensioners, fitted as standard, and an innovative structure that transferred side impact forces into a deformable box section in the centre of the floorpan. Later, the 850 was the first car to be fitted with side airbags, receiving them as a standard feature from 1996 onwards.
As clever as all that is, the 850 is better known for its rather surprising role in motorsport history. Volvo partnered with TWR to enter an 850 station wagon in the 1994 British Touring Car Championship. While they only placed eighth, their unusual entry, along with a number of stunts (including placing life-size toy dog in the back of a car) led to a PR victory – just about everybody has seen that photo of a BTCC 850 wagon up on two wheels as it rounds a corner. Rule changes in subsequent years forced a change to the less-distinctive four-door 850, which actually did quite well, even if it wasn’t quite so iconic.
Image source: PistonHeads
In order to cash in on their newfound motorsport prominence, Volvo introduced a limited-edition high-performance 850. Sold in 1995 only, the T-5R took the regular 850 Turbo and turned it up to eleven, with sportier suspension and a more aggressive tune that upped the power output from an already-respectable 220 bhp to 240. The T-5R was a roaring success, and in 1996, it returned to their lineup with a few tweaks as the 850 R, continuing until the 850 was discontinued the following year.
The 850 was the last Volvo to be styled under the leadership of Jan Wilsgaard, who oversaw the exterior design of every full-size Volvo design since the 1960s. While it could never be called beautiful, its unfussy, minimal styling has its own appeal. Every line and curve is there for a reason, and unlike many station wagons, it looks as though it was designed to be a longroof from the beginning. I’d even go so far as to argue that it looks better as a wagon than as a four-door, especially with the wagon’s striking bumper-to-roof tail lights, which, although incongruously radical on such a conservative design, give the car a surprisingly modern look. Overall, I think that the shape has aged fairly well. While it definitely looks like a product of its time – a final gasp of the folded-paper design trends of the ‘80s – it carries its straight lines and sharp angles well, looking more like a timeless, well-pressed suit than a dated throwback to the years of shoulder pads and power dressing.
Befitting its sporting pretensions, the 850 R gained a few styling tweaks – gigantic-for-the-time 17" wheels with low-profile tires, discreet front lip and tailgate spoilers, and a square exhaust tip. Overall, they work well – anything more extreme would look a bit silly on such a staid-looking car, but they definitely make it look more purposeful and sporting.
While time and miles have not been particularly kind to my car – witness the front lip held together with zip ties and duct tape – the quality of the bodywork is quite remarkable. Despite having lived its entire life in Minnesota, where roads and cars alike spend half the year encrusted in salt, the only rust on the car was confined to a couple of small spots where parking damage had scraped the paint. Not bad at all, especially compared to most mid ‘90s cars on the road here!
As with the exterior, the interior is best described as functional and unadventurous, rather than particularly attractive or interesting. The ergonomics are excellent, with controls falling easily to hand, and the dash controls are all slightly angled toward the driver, BMW-style. The instrument cluster isn’t terribly sporting, with a large front-and-centre speedometer and a tiny tach off to the side, but it makes up for that by having a factory boost gauge.
Visibility is amazing, and the cabin has a lovely airy feel to it, which is helped by the light-coloured trim. The dashboard’s birch-veneer finish is somewhat unusual, but it has grown on me, and definitely reinforces the car’s Scandinavian origins. The seats – unique to the R model – are supremely comfortable, with decent-but-not-excessive bolstering and alcantara seating surfaces, which work together to provide excellent support through all but the most spirited cornering exercises. Both front seats are heated, with memory power adjustment, and manual lumbar support controls. The back seat offers plenty of legroom, but headroom is a bit limited thanks to the sunroof mechanism. Due to the shape of the doors, the rear windows can only be lowered halfway, which is a bit of a shame.
With the back seat up, cargo space is excellent, and with the seat folded down, it becomes utterly cavernous. There’s a lockable compartment under the load floor, and a handy retractable cargo barrier that extends from the seat back. The back seat folds down in a 60/40 split, and it is possible to fold the back seat squabs up (or remove them completely) to give a completely flat load floor. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite long enough to sleep in the back, but it’s close, so there must be only slightly less than 6' of load space. For particularly long loads, the front passenger seat can also fold flat, making it possible to, at a pinch, carry 8' lumber with the tailgate closed – who needs a truck?
Unfortunately, interior quality doesn’t quite match that of the bodyshell. The alcantara seats don’t hold up terribly well to wear, and end up looking filthy no matter how hard you try to clean them. As with almost every car of its era, the interior plastics, while they still look good on the surface, have gone brittle, and crack if you look at them funny, leading to countless annoying rattles. Still, it’s a nice place to be.
Off the line, the 850 R is not particularly quick – even a bit sluggish – thanks to a high first gear, and the stock ECU limiting boost at low road speeds in order to keep the driveshafts and tires in one piece. As a result, the 0-60 figures aren’t as stunning as one could expect – figures vary, but they seem to come in at around seven seconds. Not bad for the time, my partner’s ‘11 VW Golf is definitely quicker off the line, and isn’t far behind up to 60, either.
However, there is an awfully large gulf between the numbers, and how the car actually feels. Once on the move, acceleration is swift and brutal. Despite the turbocharger being tamed by a fairly modern engine-management system, there is a raw brutality to its behaviour that harks back to the Swedish turbo-monsters of old: planting your right foot yields an initially disappointing result, but a few moments later, the turbo hits its stride, and you find yourself pressed into your seat and wrestling torque-steer as the speedometer needle arcs rapidly towards the license-losing half of the dial.
The sharp contrast between on-boost and off-boost behaviour gives the car a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde feel. Around town, with gentle usage of the throttle, it feels entirely benign and mild-mannered, but as soon as you let the boost gauge creep into the white, it becomes a snarling monster, shredding tires and torque-steering all over the place. It’s always a little bit unpredictable when the change will take place, and to me, that’s part of the fun.
Volvo have used all-round discs since the 1960s, and the 850 is no exception, with ample stopping power on tap. On the other hand, there is a lot of car that needs to be stopped, and it is generally held that the 850 R is somewhat under-braked for its power output. Fortunately, 302mm front discs from a later V70R are a bolt-on swap, and are a popular modification for those that drive vigorously. That’s not to say, though, that the brakes are inadequate for day-to-day use – mine still has the stock 280mm discs, and it has never felt short on stopping power, but I can definitely see why a brake upgrade is high on the list of the performance-minded.
The regular Volvo 850 was often criticised for a harsh ride, and the low-profile tires, lower suspension and stiffer damping of the R have not improved matters. The ride is shockingly bad, with every single surface imperfection making itself known. Potholes and even manhole covers must be dodged for the sake of the passengers’ spines, and even on the smoothest pavement, seams between slabs can be surprisingly jarring. Self-levelling rear suspension ensures that ride quality remains the same whether the back is empty or filled with bags of cement, but that just serves to maintain a constant level of awfulness, rather than improve things at all.
Unfortunately, the ridiculously stiff suspension does not automatically translate into top-notch handling. It is by no means bad – the fat tires offer plenty of grip, and body roll is minimal. However, it still doesn’t feel particularly sporting – rather heavy, understeery, and a just a bit dull – definitely no BMW.
Under hard acceleration, it becomes a bit of a monster, with brutal torque steer yanking the wheel away from you, and the open diff always wanting to light up the inside tire. Sure, it’s not as glamorous as wrestling the power of a RWD sports car, but it’s still an awful lot of fun, even if it lacks the clinical efficiency of AWD and the grin-inducing mayhem of RWD.
An unusual semi-independent rear suspension setup provides passive rear-wheel steering. It manifests in high-speed cornering as a tendency to crab ever so slightly in the direction of steering, which while initially very disconcerting, actually lends a feeling of stability once you get used to it. Sure, I wouldn’t want it for driving right on the limit (and it is possible to defeat it with stiffer suspension bushings), but for the rest of the time, it is quite welcome, if a bit surprising to begin with.
With a good set of snow tires on, the 850R is just about unstoppable in the winter. The traction control system is brake-only, so at least it doesn’t surprise you by cutting power at the worst possible moment, but as a result, it only really works at low speeds and small throttle openings. Still, I was impressed at how sure-footed it felt, even in the slipperiest of conditions. The snow tires also go a way to mitigate the terrible ride quality, too.
The four-speed automatic in my car was the only option for the US-market 850R. It is definitely one of the better slushboxes of the era – the ratios are a bit on the high side, but well spaced, shifts are smooth, and the switchable sport mode actually does a decent job at feeling genuinely sporty, holding onto gears for longer, and unlocking the torque converter to allow the engine to rev (and therefore build boost) more readily. Unlike the infamously-delicate automatic fitted to the early V70s, the 850's automatic is remarkably robust, and unless horrendously abused or neglected, copes with the R’s increased power output just fine.
For the rest of the world, the 850R was also available with a five-speed manual transmission – a package that also gave a small horsepower boost and a much-needed limited-slip differential. I am tempted to build my own manual package for my car with the ‘box from a manual base model 850 and an aftermarket diff, but honestly, I don’t mind the automatic all that much.
The 850R came loaded with nearly every factory option. By mid-’90s standards, it has everything – remote locking, wood trim, trip computer, heated leather seats with memory adjustment, headlamp wash/wipe, fog lights, power sunroof, traction control, CD player, and even dual zone climate control. Sure, you’d find most of that on a base-model econobox these days, and modern cars offer a whole bunch more, but for the time, that was a pretty serious specification, and there’s honestly nothing that makes me think “gee, I really wish I had that.”
The climate control system deserves special mention, since it’s the first automatic climate control system that I’ve come across that really works. The whole time I’ve had it, I’ve touched the controls only once, and that was only because the heater core started leaking and was blowing steam into the cabin. The rest of the time, it’s been set at 72º on full-auto, and it’s just magically done the right thing. There are no silly digital readouts and buttons – all it is is the ‘traditional’ three-knob heater control adapted to dual-zone and automatic control. Simple, intuitive, and well-designed.
The characteristic warble of an inline-five brings a grin to the face of many a motoring enthusiast, and the 850R does not disappoint. Around town, it is muted, with only a slightly offbeat idle and a deep purr on acceleration marking it as carrying an odd number of cylinders. Just like the rest of the car’s character, there is definitely a split personality – as soon as you hit boost, that purr builds to a magnificent snarl, accompanied by spine-tingingly good intake and turbo noise. With the stock exhaust, it’s never loud – in a good or a bad way – but it definitely puts a smile on your face.
The factory stereo system is pretty good, with a CD/Radio/Tape head unit and a separate amplifier feeding eight speakers. It won’t play CD-Rs, which is a bit of a pain, but a previous owner wired in an auxiliary input, and it sounds good enough that it isn’t worth it to hack the dash up to fit a more up-to-date system.
I can’t really speak for the car’s value back in the day, although I suspect that it would have been a rather expensive proposition. However, for what I paid for it, even including what I’ve spent on it since, it has been unbeatable value for money. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m definitely under $1000 all-in. It isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as a cheap, fun, practical car, I don’t think that I could do any better.
Engine: 2.3L DOHC 20-valve B5234T5 turbocharged inline-5 – 240 bhp @ 5400rpm, 220 lb ft @ 2100 rpm
Transmission: Four-speed Aisin-Warner AW50-42LE automatic transaxle
Drivetrain configuration: Transverse front-wheel-drive
Weight: 3,200 lb
0-60 mph: 7 seconds (roughly)
Top speed: 150mph (electronically limited)
Seating: five, plus two in optional rear-facing jumpseat (not fitted).
MSRP in 1996: $38,862 (roughly $57,886 today)
Purchase price in 2014: $850
Richard Halkyard a.k.a. halkyardo is a New Zealander living in Minneapolis, MN with an unhealthy car-hoarding habit, and an undying enthusiasm for oddball vehicles. When he isn’t getting his hands dirty on his collection of various decrepit European cars, he works as a system administrator, writes about cars, technology, history, and the intersection thereof, and occasionally tweets as @halkyardo.