How much are our opinions of automobiles shaped by the fundamental aspects of mechanicals and architecture versus less concrete aspects of engineering, such as fine tuning of chassis settings and design? If you place more weight on these latter factors, you’d do well to make an example of the Volvo 850, a car which was tuned and shaped to emulate its evergreen predecessors.
Despite marketing campaigns which touted the new 850 as a sporty, new-age Volvo, the focus remained on the company’s excellent fundamentals: packaging efficiency, stability, comfort, and, of course, safety. While competitive power and dynamic abilities helped the new car helped shed the company’s dull-but-worthy image, it’s worth remembering that its predecessors weren’t exactly clumsy handlers, despite their reputation.
Being a small manufacturer in countries with high labor costs, new platforms were seldom seen, and any stodgy reputation Volvos may have acquired had more to do with use of sometimes old technology and a somewhat stodgy buyer demographic, but as many enthusiasts can tell you, the big, boxy sedans can be quite a bit of fun. It’s ironic when you consider that the “new, sporty” 850 shifted to a front-drive platform which erased some of this inherent virtue, but forced further and further upmarket, Gothenburg needed to establish and promote a more overtly dynamic image, so the 850 was thus advertised in the “sports sedan” mould.
In reality, the new car was a reimagined version of its predecessors, using entirely new architecture. In one of the biggest undertakings for Sweden’s industry as a whole, let alone Volvo, a new platform was launched with a new drivetrain. No more red block, no more rear wheel drive. Overcoming so much inertia isn’t cheap and ended up taking a bit away from the expected updating of the 700 series cars over their lifetime, until the decision was made to incorporate a number of the 850’s design features into what became the 940 and 960.
The need for a fundamentally new car was nevertheless a major issue that management and engineering saw coming for a long time. Volvo began Galaxy, a simultaneous project to replace the 200, 700 and 300 series cars, after the fuel crises of the ‘70s. The decision was made early on to rely on a front-drive platform and the smaller of the Galaxy cars was designed with a goal weight of 2000 lbs and target efficiency of 35 mpg and became the 440/460/480. The other–initially held to a 2500 pound, 30 mpg target–became the 850. As the ‘80s wore on, these targets were revised and the result was the over-3000 lb P1 platform.
Despite its enhanced size, this was at its heart a somewhat modest car designed to be sold as primary transport for thousands of families in a home market unlike that of the United States, where the car would follow in the 700-series’ footsteps as somewhat of a status symbol. Maintaining the marque’s core competencies almost by definition required an ordinary suspension. The need for a large cabin and ample crush space made bulky and/or complex multi-link systems ill-suited to the main design goals. The expected MacPherson struts held up the front end while a modified torsion beam located the rear wheels. Volvo touted the predictable handling offered by a beam axle’s constant camber, but it’s more likely the need to conserve space and cost was a bigger consideration. Not that it was of fundamental importance when many front-drive nameplates established a reputation for excellent ride and handling even with a simple rear suspension design (good handling is all in the fine tuning of geometries, spring rates, damping and bushing compliance).
For good measure, Volvo nevertheless split the rear axle diagonally, allowing rear wheels to articulate individually over pavement imperfections. Despite all the fanfare over the new configuration, called Delta Link, no other car has adopted a similar arrangement. More noteworthy was the 850’s continuation of of its forebears’ uncanny turning radii; while a longitudinally mounted engine and narrow tires made this an easy accomplishment in the past, an entirely new innovation was called for, and early on in the Galaxy program, a new three-shaft gearbox was devised. In designing a car simultaneously big enough for the American market and able to navigate older European cities, this trait could not be compromised and with a wide transverse drivetrain, the resulting 33.5 foot turning circle was a genuine achievement.
Hooked to this was an entirely new engine. The decision to use an aluminum block was made early on, around the same time that Volvo was using of the unloved alloy PRV V6 in its bigger cars. While Volvo (perhaps thankfully) never made use of that French engine’s four-cylinder “Douvrin” relatives, powertrain collaboration between the two companies was strong, making Gothenburg’s turn to Porsche all the more surprising when devising a way to replace its famed, high nickel content, iron block B-engine. With a strong upper-midrange and solid pull even without a turbo, it was one of the new car’s high points, and the major break from its predecessors in terms of character.
Naturally aspirated versions in particular were notable for their smooth, sonorous and even exotic exhaust note. Informally dubbed the “white block,” its modular design (allowing four, five and six cylinder configurations) was a basic necessity for perpetually cash-strapped Volvo, who used it in their larger and smaller car lines. As the company’s bread and butter, though, the 850 was also sold in Europe in two-liter variants, some with a 10-valve head, in addition to the 20-valve, naturally aspirated 2.4 and turbocharged 2.3 liter configurations seen in the US. As we see, the 850 was expected to be a jack of all trades, doing duty against the likes of the BMW 5-series in some markets and the VW Passat in others, while being like neither.
The 850 won’t ever match the 700/900 series as my favorite Volvo, and to me, the 200-series delivers fun beyond its cloying anti-car image (both offer good road feel and are a few modifications away from genuine performance), but it is easily one of the most impressive out of the box. The early-to-mid nineties was the heyday of the Japanese entry-level luxury in the US market, an era when all the efforts undertaken in engineering out NVH and designing elaborate quad-cam V6s were met with near universal approval, before decontenting and aggressively promoted German compact executive sedans took away their shine. In this context, the 850 stood out as a car designed with much greater care and consideration for fundamental Volvo values, with superior passive safety, interior packaging and comfort, while simultaneously offering better, decidedly European road manners and, in turbo form, class-leading performance. It’s rare that such a small car company so successfully fulfill the task of creating a sedan meant to be all things to all people.
Some questionable interior plastics, mediocre fuel consumption and an occasionally lumpy ride announced very clearly that this was still a Volvo, with all the same vices and virtues the name implied. That impression was carried through to the handling. While the 200/700 understeered a lot for RWD cars, the 850 was better balanced than a lot of the large front-drive competition. There was no mistaking it for a rear-drive sedan, and Volvo wasn’t interested in the sort of throttle-adjustability that characterized the likes of the Peugeot 405, but next to cars like the front-wheel drive Audi 100 or Saab 9000, it was more than competitive. Unlike the live-axle sedans it replaced, there was no hammering over potholes, but as a front-drive car, of course, firmer settings were required in front than in a rear-drive sedan. The different balance along with the inability to let all the power loose in a tight turn constituted the most significant dynamic differences between the 850 and the rear-drive cars it replaced (in stock form), but all in all, a remarkable job was done keeping the established Volvo feel intact.
Like a good Volvo, the 850 made the best impression in its most evolved, turbocharged forms. If Volvo always had a hot-rod streak, their newest sedan showed they were finally ready to make the most of it. Introduced in 1994, the blown 2.3 made the most of the car’s sport-sedan pretensions, with 222 horsepower, large 16-inch meat-slicer alloys and a rather firmly sprung suspension. Sixty was achieved in seven seconds flat, despite very tall ratios in the four-speed automatic that saw 44 mph in first gear, 84 mph in second, and 127 in third, but much more telling were its 147 mph top speed and very quick passing times. The 850 T5-R and 850R turned up the boost and were fitted with a genuinely stiff suspension and aggressive rolling stock, but the limitations of the 850’s architecture and the company’s insistence on safe at-the-limit behavior meant they would never threaten an M3 on a twisty road. Volvo’s family-friendly modesty was a difficult thing to overcome.
Like the 700-series before it, the 850 was designed by Jans Wilgaard as a wagon first, and a sedan second. Unlike the 700, however, aerodynamics were (finally) a consideration when penning the new sedan’s shape. As a car meant for a long production life, dramatic design was not a priority, even if there was a certain athleticism conveyed by the fender flares and tall deck. Volvo was at a financial low point upon the 850’s introduction in 1991, but a facelift was executed for 1994, the car’s third year on the market (second year in the US). One might wonder if the narrower headlights, and redesigned fascias and taillights were planned for a year earlier, but Volvo had enough trouble getting the Turbo and wagon variants online without having to worry about an early update. That makes our featured car a rather rare sight, with wagons and post-facelift sedans being much more common.
Ultimately, although the 850 was hailed as a major change for Volvo, a more appropriate way to think about the car would be to compare it with GM’s switch from the B-body to the H-body. It was an honest, well-engineered effort which found success in the marketplace, but much like GM’s premium sedans, it came to market soon before rear-wheel-drive cars began making a comeback. With Volvo’s distinctly premium image, this proved to be a problem in later years and all the while, Gothenburg remained cash strapped. Ford assumed stewardship of the company just as the 850 was facelifted and renamed in preparation for its replacement by the even more luxurious P2 platform-based successors, which in this author’s opinion, were much less impressive. They lost the 850’s superior turning radius and gained ZF’s famously numb Servotronic power steering while packing on width and weight, thus also losing their predecessor’s impressive packaging efficiency.
In the meantime, the sedan variant (now the S60) was shrunk in a misguided attempt to create a 3-series competitor and soon turned into lease fodder. The V70 wagon, which still offered a fair amount of utility, continued to sell until its redesign in 2008, which apparently left buyers cold. If Volvo’s sales to well-heeled, private customers had always been a source of redemption, much of this audience was jumping ship to crossovers, or premium small sedans. It didn’t help that when the 850 was introduced, it could lay claim to being one of the safest cars on the road, but by the time the P2 came around, a lot of cars were nearly as safe. Volvo has yet to fully shed the legacy of its ownership under Ford, which ended in late 2009, with all its current models built on two (very good) Ford platforms. The upcoming XC90 will see their first indigenously developed chassis since the P2 went out of production, but the company still risks irrelevance in today’s market.
Unlike the 850, which could convincingly capitalize on its predecessors’ strengths while avoiding most of their weaknesses, subsequent cars have been lacking any definable character while making numerous concessions to style and luxury, making them unviable options for the families for which their engineering makes them an ideal choice. The company has since become one of the blander near-luxury brands, with few unique qualities. That makes Volvo’s first front-wheel-drive car one of the last to clearly carry forth its brand identity. Despite all its then-novel technology, by being the final Volvo to wear its boxiness with pride, this twenty-one year old 850 shows the importance of genuine character and functionality.