COAL: 1996 Volvo 850R Wagon – Swedish Rhapsody Pt. 2 (A Love Song in Three Movements)

After the untimely demise of my 1990 Volvo 240 wagon, in the summer of 2010, I decided I wanted another try at owning a Volvo wagon.  While I had been focused on the classic RWD Volvo model (200/700/900) series, I wasn’t finding anything available that worked in my price range.  I then saw a Craiglist ad for something a bit different – a 1996 Volvo 850R wagon being sold by a younger Volvo enthusiast guy in northeast Minneapolis. I hadn’t considered looking at something “newer” (or at least, more modern), but the opportunity to own one of the legendary sleeper wagons of all time seemed too good to pass.  What followed was the automotive equivalent of one of those troubled romantic relationships where, despite knowing better, you keep coming back for more abuse because everything always seems on the verge of being great (until it wasn’t).

Aside from the iconic brick profile, the 850 shared nothing with the much older 240. Indeed, the 850 was Volvo’s first FWD model in 1993, and was designed to be Volvo’s answer to the growing performance profile of other European manufacturers. As new model platforms across the automotive world migrated to front-wheel drive, Volvo decided to use this as an opportunity to flex its engineering muscles.  The 850 featured a new five-cylinder engine, a completely different suspension, upgraded (in theory) materials, and greater attention to aerodynamics (despite the boxy look) – all with the goal of moving the brand upmarket to better compete with the likes of BMW, Audi, Mercedes, etc.

The 850 tested out well with the automotive journalist crowd and even Consumer Reports (bastion of sensibility) thought it was one of the top luxury cars of the era.  True, the ride could be a little too firm and, with the higher pressure turbo models, torque steer could be a little challenging.  But the truth was – particularly in its various turbo forms – the 850 could haul butt. It might have looked somewhat like every other Volvo, but, watch out!

As pokey as the 240 was to drive, the 850R was its polar opposite.  The R series was designed to be Volvo’s version of the BMW M – a line of functional and aesthetic upgrades that took a plebeian model to the next level of performance.  My red wagon came with all of the gadgets available at the time – alcantara suede/leather seats, sunroof, automatic climate control, traction control with ABS, dual front and side airbags, a lower front air dam with rear hatch spoiler, fog lights, headlight wipers – you name it.  But the thing that sold me was the power – hit the gas pedal and, once the turbo spooled up, the car rocketed away.  I left many guys in Mustangs and Camaros with their jaws open as I blew them away at traffic lights.  And I could still fit a complete Costco run for the family.  What more could a family man/car guy want?

In buying the 850R, I made some crucial mistakes.  Mistake one – I didn’t get the full history on the car.  The guy I bought it from had owned it for a few years and was a true Volvo enthusiast, so I neglected to ask questions about the car’s past.  It had over 160K miles and most of that came early on.  Which leads me to mistake two – assuming that the Volvo durability I experienced with the 240 translated to the 850.  The 240 and other RWD models of the time represented the culmination of decades of Volvo experience with the platform.  The 850 was new territory – and, as a result, Volvo was trying out a lot of new stuff.  Some of it worked, some didn’t.  But what I learned was that an aging high performance Euro wagon can sometimes (maybe often) be a finicky thing.

I was fortunate that the mechanic who had worked on my previous Volvo was also well-versed in 850 models.  Greg worked at a small family garage in Minneapolis and I called him the Volvo whisperer because he knew exactly how to figure out what was up.  He owned an 850 wagon that he daily drove.  He understood their quirks – the engine oil leaks, ABS module failures, flame trap quirks, turbo finickiness, wiring, etc  When the 850 worked, it was great.  And when it didn’t – which included leaving me stranded numerous times either at home or somewhere around the Twin Cities, it was like some voodoo magic was working on the car.  Greg and I started seeing a lot more of each other – and my bank account reflected it.  I bought the car for about $2500 and, truth be known, I should have figured that it would have some issues.  But I was naive and smitten with the possibility of what the wagon could be – a family man sports car.

The 850R was my daily driver for four years.  When it worked, it did kid pick-ups, commuting, grocery runs, work trips around Minnesota in all weather and more. The front air dam – which hung ridiculously low – eventually fell off on a highway in St. Paul.  I pulled over into the slush, grabbed the thing from the median and threw it in the back, later using some zip ties and duct tape to reattach it.  Same with the passenger side mirror that collided one snowy morning with a parked car.  The heated seats stopped working, the a/c needed a charge monthly in order to work and the rear wiper had a mind of its own.  But one morning in the summer of 2014, the car just refused to start and I raised the white flag.  I posted it on Craigslist and sold it to a young college grad who wanted a fast car.  He came with a trailer and whisked it away.  I later did see it on the road in St. Paul, so I guess he figured out how to get it going again.  I was out of patience and decided that whatever I got next needed to be more reliable.  (Indeed, for a future COAL, I’ll discuss the replacement for it – a Lexus ES300.)