Curbside Classics: 1991-1998 Volvo 940/960 – Playing It Safe

(first posted 1/27/2015)

“It has the classic Volvo grille design, large glass areas for good visibility, and that solid appearance that makes you wonder if Volvos aren’t carved from a single block of steel. While there is no chance of confusing it with one of those jellybean shaped cars, there is something very stylish about the new 960.” – Volvo 960 Press Kit, July 1995

As a smaller automaker with historically sensible, safe, and practical values, Volvo has oft taken its time when it comes to significantly redesigning its vehicles. Generation cycles typically last much longer than most competitors and major updates that do occur are often very evolutionary in manner. If there is one car in Volvo’s history that best exemplifies this statement, it is the 900 Series.

760 sedan

While Volvo owners have historically favored Volvo’s degree of restraint when it comes to altering their successful formula and visual flash in general, by the 1990s, for better or worse it appeared that Volvo was really stuck in time. Its entry-level (in North America) 240 had been around since 1974. Despite its charm and some meaningful updates underneath over the years, little could hide its archaic looks. Volvo’s other bread-and-butter, the nearly decade-old 700 Series was also looking quite staid, its extreme boxy looks a sharp contrast to the flowing sheetmetal of newer competitors.

760 GLE sedan

Introduced back in 1982, initially with just the higher-end 760 sedans, the range was soon expanded to include the more basic 740 sedans in 1984, 740/760 wagons in 1985, and the 780 coupe in 1986. Arriving at a time when the aero styling trend was becoming mainstream, the 700 Series’ very boxy, upright design was met with some sharp criticism, for looking dated when it first appeared. Nonetheless, the 700 Series found a loyal following, selling over 1.4 million examples by the time it ended production in 1992. The 740 alone accounted for over 1 million of these produced.


While originally intended to replace the vintage-1974 200 Series, the popular 240 was ultimately kept around as Volvo’s entry-level mid-size line of cars in the US, with production actually outlasting the 700 Series by one year. Due to this, even the base 740 was seen as somewhat premium, and Volvo was allowed to take the 760 further upmarket to similar levels of luxury as most German rivals.


Where Volvo owned the market in its segment of course was in station wagons. Despite station wagons sales accounting for less than 4 percent of all new vehicle sales in the U.S. by 1990 (down from over 11 percent in 1973), as far as new Volvos sold, wagons still accounted for over 30% of sales. Research published in a 1991 Volvo press release found that fully 85 percent of new Volvo buyers had children, and thus a high priority for a safe and versatile family vehicle. Also in this same release was data from the Highway Loss Data Institute study finding the Volvo 740/760 wagons to have the best overall injury rating out of 199 passenger cars sold in the U.S.


Due to its relatively small size as an automaker, Volvo lacked the sheer resources to introduce all-new models as regularly as most competitors, and by the early 1990s, most of Volvo’s funds were being devoted to the development of the 850, its badly needed 240 successor. Yet with the 700 Series nearing a decade old in its current form, Volvo needed to give some attention to its flagship range.

900 vs 700(The 700 Series versus the 900 Series)

A full-redesign was out of the question, and indeed the newly named 900 Series rode on an unchanged platform, with mostly carryover interiors, suspensions, and powertrains. The vast majority of money was spent on safety improvements to the body increasing its crash worthiness, an all-new generation of modular engines, with the 2.9L inline-6 version premiering in the 960, and, most noticeably, a large amount of new sheetmetal for a more fluid take of the traditional Volvo box.

IMG_3766(1993 940 Turbo)

In front, all 960 models used the “slanted” front clip and wider headlights given to the 760 in 1988, while the 940 continued with the “flat”, vertical nose and narrow headlight front clip of the original 740/760. Somewhat confusingly, 1993-1994 940 Turbo models used the 960’s slanted front clip before returning to the flat one for 1995. Despite a still very boxy shape, the minor aerodynamic enhancements made helped the 940 achieve a drag coefficient reduction by 12% over the old 740.


Towards the back, the 900 Series received a new, more rakish roof line for an airier feeling. The rear fenders and deck lid received a bit more curvature, with a lower lift-over and new higher-placed tail lights, all giving the 900 Series’ trunk a taller appearance. Although trunk capacity was unchanged over the outgoing 700 Series, it was nonetheless cavernous as 16.8 cubic feet.

IMG_3781(Non-turbo 940 wagon with the flat front clip)

Station wagons, meanwhile remained largely unchanged from a visual standpoint, looking virtually indistinguishable from their 700 predecessors. As a result, cargo capacity remained 39.3 cubic feet and 74.9 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.

IMG_3755(1994 940 Turbo interior)

Inside, the interiors of both the 940 and 960 were largely the same as they were on their respective 740 and 760 predecessors. What this translated to in each model was a spacious, straightforward, and well-laid out interior. Solidly built from high quality plastics, vinyls, and fabrics, like Volvo’s reputation, 940/960 interiors were premium and functional in what could best be described as “understated” fashion.

IMG_3783(1991-1995 940 wagon interior)

All instruments and controls were clear and logically placed. Climate and radio controls were positioned high on a center stack angled towards the driver. Other controls for lights, turn signals, and wipers located either on steering column stalks or a series of buttons and dials that flanked either side of the steering column. Volvo interiors of this era expectedly placed functionality over style, and the 940/960 interiors were indeed somewhat cold on personality, but nonetheless highly ergonomic and comfortable.

volvo 960 woodgrain

Higher trimmed 960 models added wood grain trim, and would gain additional burl walnut trim on their dash and redesigned door panels in 1995, for greater visual appeal. The 940’s interior on the other hand, would carry on largely unchanged for the rest of production.


Although their instrument and door panels may have projected a somewhat stark persona, once slipping into the 940/960’s orthopedically designed front seats would instantly change passengers’ moods from disappointed to gratification.


From the start, standard amenities on even the most basic 940 included air conditioning, power windows, moon roof, power locks, AM/FM stereo with cassette player, and cloth upholstery with heated front seats for those frosty Scandinavian winters. In terms of standard features, 940 Turbos added alloy wheels and upgraded velour cloth upholstery.

960 woodgrain interior

The 960 upped the ante with standard power heated front seats, 3-position driver’s memory seat, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, power heated mirrors, leather wrapped steering wheel, and the aforementioned wood trim.

IMG_3372(1995-1998 960 wagon interior)

Being a Volvo, the 900 Series was always ahead of the curve when it came to safety features. From their introductions as 1991 models, all 940s and 960s featured a driver’s side airbag, 3-point seat belts for all seating positions, head restraints for rear passengers, 4-wheel disc anti-lock brakes, hill-descent mode, and an automatic locking differential as standard equipment.

Volvo Side Impact Airbags 900 Series

Seat belts received hydraulic pretensioners for 1992 and a passenger’s side airbag was added for 1993. The industry pioneer of side-impact airbags, having introduced them as an option on the 1995 850, Volvo made side airbags standard on every one of its models in 1996.


Volvo also made substantial modifications to the car’s structure to increase the safety of occupants in the event of a side-impact collision. Heavily re-engineering the body cage, it was designed so that force of energy created by a side impact collision would go around the occupants to the sills, roof, and floor, instead of directly upon them through the doors and B-pillars. Called “Side Impact Protection System”, this was implemented on all 940 and 960 models beginning with the 1992 model year.

VOLVO turbo

In terms of powertrain, whereas 940s and 960s sold in other markets were available with a multitude of gasoline and diesel inline-4 and inline-6 engines, coupled to either a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual, choices for U.S. market were predictably slimmer. The 1991-only 940GLE was powered by a naturally aspirated DOHC 16-valve 2.3L version of Volvo’s B21 “Red Block” inline-4, producing 153 horsepower and 150 lb-ft torque. Beginning in 1992, all U.S. market non-turbo 940s were powered by a SOHC 2.3L making 114 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque.

Volvo modular 6

940 Turbos obviously added a turbocharger to the 2.3L, bringing output to 162 horsepower and 195 pound-feet torque. U.S. market 960s were only available with the top spec 2.9L inline-6 and a 4-speed automatic. Constructed of aluminum, this compact, longitudinally mounted 24-valve dual overhead cam inline-6 initially produced 201 horsepower and 197 pound-feet torque. Long individual runners on the intake and exhaust manifolds allowed 80 percent of maximum torque production at only 1000 rpm.

940 wagon

The 960’s specifically designed 4-speed automatic transmission featured three adjustable driving modes: Economy, Sport, and Winter. When the latter was selected, the transmission locked out first and second gear, allowing less torque to be sent to the rear wheels to minimize wheel slippage by starting in third.

960 driving modes

When it came to suspensions, all 940 and 960 models employed MacPherson strut front suspension with eccentrically mounted coil springs, stabilizer bar and hydraulic shock absorbers. 940 sedans’ rear suspension was a constant track with linkage consisting of live axle, two trailing arms, wishbone subframe, Panhard rod, coil springs, stabilizer bars and gas shock absorbers.

960 Multilink Suspension

940 and 960 wagons’ rear suspension geometry was similar to the 940 sedans, minus the stabilizer bars, and with 960 wagons gaining self-leveling shock absorbers. 960 sedans featured an advanced multi-link rear suspension, consisting of individually sprung wheels with lower trailing arm, upper wishbone, lower link and track rod, single coil spring per side and self-leveling shock absorbers and sway bar.

The 960 was given a substantial refresh for the 1995 model year, with reportedly 1400 new components going into it. The 940, meanwhile, stuck to its same tried-and-true looks for another year. Having now been supplanted by the newer 850 as Volvo’s volume-leader, U.S. sales of the 940 ceased following the 1995 model year, though they would continue elsewhere for three more years.

(Gold 960 sedan photos by Tom Klockau)

Front-end wise, this facelift was the 960’s most dramatic visual transformation since 1982. New bumpers were now body color, with redesigned air intakes/air dam and fog lights for a smoother appearance. Along with new body colored side moldings, they featured thin chrome strips for some upscale flair.


The 960’s new front bumpers also extended higher, allowing for a thinner grille and headlights for a sleeker looking nose. That nose was now highlighted by a bolder, all chrome grille, flanked by large wraparound headlights. 1995 also brought several new wheel designs for the 960.

Around back, things were largely the same for both 960 sedans and wagons. Regardless, the new bumpers and tail light clusters with clear-lens turn signals effectively modernized the 960’s backside. Under the hood, the U.S.-spec 960’s 2.9L inline-6 was retuned to better comply with emissions standards, resulting in a 20-horsepower drop to 181 and a 2 lb-ft torque increase to 199.


The 960’s front suspension was also revised to lessen body lean, while 960 sedan’s multi-link rear suspension was upgraded with a new single transverse leaf spring to replace the old separate coil springs. 960 wagons on the other hand, finally received the same multi-link rear setup of the sedans (which as the 760 received this back in 1988) complete with the new transverse leaf spring.


Inside, the 960 interiors were treated to the aforementioned redesigned door panels and new burl walnut trim that now covered the entire center stack, the line of controls below the gauge cluster, and the tops of the door panels. Upgraded leather upholstery was offered and a revised center console also gained the ever important cup holders.

Changes for the rest of the 900’s run were limited. For 1996, in markets where the 940 was still available, Volvo added a 940 Sports Edition trim that boosted horsepower from its turbocharged 2.3L an additional 25 to 190 hp total. It also added a lowered suspension with upgraded shock absorbers and a locking differential, along with a blacked out grille, rear spoiler, and special alloy wheels with low-profile tires. To better fit in with Volvo’s new naming structure, 960 sedans and wagons were renamed S90 and V90, respectively, for their final 1998 model year.


As a traditionally “square” and conservative company when it came to the style and vehicle updates, Volvo’s 900 Series was no exception. To those not following Volvo, on the surface it would appear that Volvo gave this car little attention in almost two decades, and this could naturally raise some points of criticism. Yet in reality, the small automaker did give the 900 Series meaningful improvements in the way of comfort, powertrain, luxury, and above all safety, Volvo’s most endearing quality.


The 940 and 960 may not have been head turning cars, but to the Volvo faithful, these evolutionary vehicles embodied everything owners loved about their Volvos – safety, comfort, and practicality. More importantly, was that as the 900 was living out its golden years (and admittedly getting a bit long in the tooth), Volvo was heavily invested into the development of its successor, the S80.

2004 S80 sedan

A highly advanced vehicle whose all-new platform would eventually underpin numerous future Volvos and Ford vehicles, the S80 officially said goodbye to the the traditional Volvo box, as well as rear-wheel drive. With new powertrains, luxury, technology, and safety features, the S80 continued to offer what Volvo was known best for, with a bit more emotion and sensual styling.


Related Reading:

1989 Volvo 740 wagon

1989 Volvo 740 Turbo sedan

1990 Volvo 780 Turbo coupe

1997 Saab 9000 CS Aero

1992 BMW 525i