As you've probably deduced via the title of this post, the car I'll be reviewing today is a 1997 Volvo 850 wagon that I bought for a paltry $700. And that isn't even 700 real greenback dollars. I'm talking 700 maple syrup and bacon flavoured funny dollahs from the North yo! Hollah!
So ya, she was cheap as chips. Potato cheaps. I mean chips. Ugh... So anyhow, my boxy little Swede has at least 324,000km on her clock, but she stopped counting before I bought her. Perhaps her previous relationship included miles worth forgetting? Whatever the case, I've always been a "don't ask, don't tell" kind of guy when it comes to the details of a partner's past , so we'll just turn a blind eye to all of those extra miles she's not telling us about. Don't ask, don't tell, right?
Anyhow, she had a prep school upbringing, having been registered under a very large corporation as one of their executive's cars, so how hard and wet could all of those extra miles have actually been? One way or another, my Mama always told me to err on the side of caution and be safe in this day and age, so that's exactly what I did. Many frustrating hours under her hood trying to figure out her bits netted me a timing belt/tensioner change and an alternator rebuild. First time is always a bitch.
(Full Disclosure: I wanted to daily-drive my Volvo so bad, I bypassed the PCV system servicing and instead zip-tied a piece of a rag to the top of the oil dipstick so the crankcase could vent from there rather than force its way through an important seal somewhere. Soon, crankcase, soon...)
Now, let's get the awkward stuff out of the way.
Swede's are a beautiful breed of people. Attractive, articulate, and seemingly very pragmatic. And, as anyone whom has been out drinking with a Swede, or woke up next to one (or better yet both) can attest to, most of them also have a, ummm, let's call it eccentric side that is a big part of their charm. Clean, yet deliciously dirty. Practical, but with the ability to be batshit-crazy in a good way. Progressive, if not downright backwards.
So here's the thing. Some people like it in the front. Some people like it in the rear. And others enjoy it in the front and rear! To quote Jerry Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that!"... There is, however, a faction in the Swede loving community that believes stink-wheel-drive is God's way, and anyone that practices pink-wheel-drive is bound for Hell and should be exiled to the periphery of their group. How backwards is that? Well I fly the flag for equality to all, regardless of where you like to send your power. Besides, any port in a storm, right? Right?
Now to really disappoint you. There is not a turbo in sight guys, so get over it. Elle est libre d'escargots et autres morceaux gênants... Sometimes the fucking you get just isn't worth the fucking you get, ya know? Best in bed often messed in head? I chose to bypass the bunny-boiler in favour of the more stoic and reliable, normally-aspirated 20 valve mill. And it's an auto, how boring is that?
So, on with the review!
She's Lena Dunham cool, with all the quirky, throwback to high school-hotness of Helena Christensen. I may be a sick man, but I've loved the look of these wagons from the day I first saw one. The BTCC 850's sealed the deal. This one is graphite in colour and for the most part looks grey but can appear blueish in some lighting. She has perhaps three tiny dingleberries on her tailgate, but is otherwise rust-free, which is surprising for a well-used car from the snowy north.
Panel gaps are consistent and tight. Matte black trim was faded to grey but let me tell you, that "As Seen On TV" Wipe New is worth every penny! Save for a missing headlight wiper and a tailgate that only stays up on its own in hot weather, it has aged very well. The high quality steel that seems to stand up to corrosion so well was a huge selling factor for me. I see far too many cars falling victim to rot within a handful of years, so this speaks volumes of the 850's quality to me as I will not sink a dime into a rusty shell but will happily repair/maintain mechanical components in a solid shell.
At the end of the day, these are one of the last of the truly boxy boxes, and I can't state how much I love Swedish box (Mrs. SSM-One is Swedish too).
Mrs. SSM-One loves riding in this thing. And if Mrs. SSM loves riding in one of my chip as potato cheaps cars, I must be onto something. I'll just quote her...
"This fucking car is so damn comfortable I want to sleep in it. I want these seats in our living room for fuck's sake. I just sink into them, dammit. And the leather is so perfectly worn and soft. Fuck. I want to make clothes with it. And it smells so fucking good in here too. Fuck."
So there you have it.... And I'd have to agree!
She ain't quick.... She gets there. Eventually. But she ain't quick.
Kind of the same as above but the opposite of above? She's slow at slowing down, so it's the same as being slow at going fast, but opposite because going, stopping.... I'm getting dizzy...
The feeling of heft while driving this car belies its size. It feels like it's made of lead....
Much like my old W126 Mercedes-Benz, the 855 feels like a barge around town. I would feel perfectly comfortable turning my morning coffee run into a demolition derby and smashing into every other vehicle in my path. Like bringing a hammer to a fist fight...
But like the W126 again, the 855 is in its element at highway speeds. It is a fantastic car for highway commutes, and probably cost less than the Walmart mountain bike you bought your kid for Christmas. It is impossibly smooth and quiet at speed for something as aged as it is.
Like I said, she isn't a big girl, but she's dense. Who are we kidding though? Anybody that buys a front-drive (sorry, pink-wheel-drive) base-model station wagon with handling in mind, is probably losing said mind to a dose of the syph. If you want handling, the Volvo 855 isn't for you.
It's a slusher, so it loses 4 points right off the bat. It still gets 6 points for working flawlessly and shifting so smoothly given how many notches she has on her belt, though.
Hmm. The speedometer often decides not to work, I think because of an issue related to the ABS control module, but it makes for a fun game guessing your speed based on the tachometer! It also has a cool cargo net divider between the rear cargo hold and rear seats which makes it look even more practical and tricks our dog into thinking it is a one hella crate to hang out in! Oh, and it has a child seat built into the rear armrest! And heated seats!
Surprisingly, the factory premium sound system is a welcome addition to an already comfortable cruising environment. The sound quality is decent and provides nice low frequency notes. The controls are as basic as those on my Father's restored Quad II Mono Blocks/Conrad-Johnson PV4 set-up, and the cassette player is a nice conversation piece when company is along for the ride. There is a factory 6-pack CD player mounted in the glovebox, however it only plays proper CD's and won't read anything home made. There are no auxiliary inputs, which blows to no end, but I've seen some tutorials on setting the factory system up for it without replacing the head unit which is what I'll likely do sometime down the road.
If you are someone that doesn't mind getting your hands dirty, I can't express how much value these cars are. You can't buy a rotted out, half dead Corolla or Civic for this kind of money. And any of the 855's contemporaries of the time seem to average twice the price at least. You can't find a better, more practical or reliable car for the money.
The kicker is that come the weekend, my lady and I do everything in our old Volvo, while our 2011 Nissan sits at home in the driveway! She fits like an old glove (the car) and is simply so comfortable and easy to run errands in, that which car we are going to take isn't even a conversation we have anymore. Bags of mulch, trays of plants, cases of beer, bags upon bags of groceries, you never have to plan on how you're going to get it in. You open the tailgate and the 855 swallows it whole.
It really isn't all that terrible on fuel, either. Given its size, weight and age, it does really well with the dino-juice. $30/week gets be back and forth to work all week (approx 32km round trip) and allows for some errands around town without seeing the low fuel light.
I have owned many, many cars since I started driving. Much like dating and relationships, you learn as you go and your tastes develop accordingly as the years pass by. Every one-night-stand, every date, every failed relationship plays a part in shifting our window of perception and further crystallizes what is important to us in a partner.
To the same degree, the 855 found its way into my driveway not for what it is, but for what it is not. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. It's practicality.
It isn't fast and loud and dressed up like a whore vying for everyone's attention. It doesn't try to impersonate the personality of anyone else. It is what it is and doesn't apologize for it. The 855 truly is a car I have come to love and would happily drive for the rest of my life, and it cost me no more than a Sunday overtime shift. Once. That's it. Payment free!
And if there were ever the perfect car/personality pairing ever, it is that of Gustavo Fring and his Volvo wagon. That's reason enough on its own to buy one....