(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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just another note to add… at the very end of the 960’s run, for MY 1998, they stopped being 960s.
In keeping with Volvo’s new naming convention, the sedan became the S90 and the Vagon (see what I did here?) became the V90.
You must have glossed over the end of the fourth-to-last paragraph: “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” 🙂
But I like the way you phrased it better with figurative speech.
What I remember most from my ride in the back of a friend’s Volvo 900 series wagon several years ago was how very low the beltline was. It was well below my shoulders, and felt like it was approaching my hips, or at least my outstretched arm. I gather if I rode in one now the low beltline and huge glass area would be even more striking, given how high the beltlines and tiny the windows have become on many modern cars. I can’t think of another sedan or wagon with such an outward view as these.
This was very well written–thanks! These really were the final iteration of Volvo’s original architecture of RWD, upright, safe, practical and high quality vehicle. Current Volvos, probably by necessity, have gone more mainstream but you sure don’t see many new Volvos on the ground here where I live. I wonder if there isn’t still a market for the niche that these RWD Volvos had cornered in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. I imagine that they have thought of all of this, but it sure would be cool to see an retro volvo wagon with RWD that was positioned at the bottom of their product line price-wise. I suppose the current CUV trend would make that a poor sales bet, but I would consider one.
Thank you! And I agree about Volvo today. In my research for this article, I read somewhere (IIRC it was an old NY Times article on the “stereotypical” type of owner for each car brand) that in the early-2000s, Volvo’s historic core demographic (typically highly educated, high-income, of a stable profession) began taking flight for other brands.
Volvos were very common in my hometown growing up, so from firsthand experience, I can say that as owner’s children began growing up, Volvos were often handed down to them as first cars. These parents, however, often moved on to brands like Audi and BMW, and their children never went on to buy new Volvos of their own, even when they had careers in which they could afford one. It probably goes back to the whole “kids don’t want to drive what their parents did” theory.
It is easy to armchair QB the philosophy of company like this, but I think that you are right about their loss of market share to Audi in particular and BMW/Mercedes as well. There must still be a market that includes the college professor and high school science/math teacher–nerds with some cash and a discerning eye for good engineering and safety who don’t need the extreme content of most US Audi/BMW/Mercedes!
The new XC90 seems to be quite a hit. Volvo’s problem at the lower end has been the rise of the Japanese luxury cars as well as the top-trim levels of midsize sedans and CUVs. A top-trim Accord might not be quite as cushy as an S60 (let’s say a base T5 FWD), but to the Consumer Reports reader, both cars ace every crash test, and both cars have an immense variety of safety and entertainment features. “Good engineering and safety” are clearly present in both cars. Both cars get good mileage (the S60 is a bit more powerful and efficient), and both are reasonably reliable. Both are reasonably nice places to spend the average American’s daily hour of commuting. Yes, the S60 is nicer, but how much more will it cost you?
25 years ago, a 940 was clearly a safer, quieter, and more comfortable place to be than an Accord – a 1991 Accord didn’t even have airbags. Also, Honda dealers were probably about as friendly as a pack of hyenas in that voluntary export restraint era.
Although not available in the US (I think), Volvo also hit a home run with the V40, introduced in 2012.
No, the newest V40 was never sold in the US. The C30 and previous two generations of S40/V40/V50 were, however.
Thanks for the writeup. These really were the peak of Volvo. The style at the time was so distinctive as they were able to improve the aerodynamics without resorting to just another me too jellybean shape. The fact that this kept the trendies away worked well for the buyer who wanted something different.
We had a 98 V90 that was a fantastic car. The seats, steering feel, and manuveability were just the best. Despite being the end of the line, it was far from trouble free. The rear hatch fit was bad and over time the doors seemed too heavy for the hinges. Overall though, it was just a more substantial vehicle than the V70 that replaced it in our fleet.
I think it is ashamed that the fwd S80 was allowed to replace it. In a way, I think Volvo did as well. By tagging it has an S80 instead of an S90, they were perhaps signaling the downgrade.
This series of Volvo sold in decent numbers all over the world, despite being still distinctively Swedish. Today automakers feel they cannot design for the home market and so cars have lost the feel of where they come from. In doing so, a great deal of real diversity has been lost.
My family owned a 940 Turbo, I remember it as very dependable, fast and comfortable. It felt a bit stiff at first, but that’s probably because we were all used to the bouncy Olds 98 that came before. The Volvo was a nice car, high quality fit and finish.
The LAST of the traditional, RWD, “runs like a Swiss watch”, Volvos.
Funny, how the 900 series passed down styling cues to the FWD 1993 850 series.
That’s where their similarities end. The 850 FWDs bucked Volvo’s trend and heritage of durable transportation… Head gasket problems and auto transmission woes aplenty.
These 940/960s can be acquired for very cheap.
I would love to find a low mileage example(85,000-150,000, in Volvo speak) that has been well maintained.
The turbo 900s are especially rare.
While the 240 series made its debut in 1974 (as a 1975 model in the U. S. at least) the basic body dates back to the mid-1960s with the 140 series of 2- and 4-door sedans and a wagon. The biggest change for the 1975 model was the engine and switch to McPherson strut front suspension. My mother owned both a 1973 144 and a 1983 DL. Each had well over 100,000 miles when traded and never gave a bit of trouble.
As a teenager, I did a few stupid things in the 144 but it saved my a$$ each time with its predictable, if not outstanding, “road manners.” Interestingly, my father got a call from a salvage storage yard about a year after he traded the 144 for the DL.
The storage yard manager said he traced the car back to my family (the new owner never bothered to transfer the title and thus pay his taxes on the car – you could get away with that back in the day). The car had been in an accident and my father could have it back if he wanted to pay the outstanding storage fee. Of course, Dad declined. The guy actually rolled (!) the car and, of course, the vaunted safety cage around the passenger compartment saved his butt too.
I had a chance to buy a 1993 240 wagon (last year for the body style) in 1994. Our second child had just been born and I was only two years out of graduate school so we were still being quite conservative with our funds. I bought a Toyota Corolla instead which was an extremely reliable car that served our needs for a few years. We replaced it with a Jeep Cherokee about three years later but I sometimes wonder what would be different if we had purchased the Volvo.
I had a 1991 940SE…great car. Although not badged as a turbo it was a red-block turbo. My brother is still driving it hard at 235k. The 940SE was the top of the line in 1991, it had Nivomat self-leveling independent rear suspension that as I recall was unique to this model. It also came fully loaded with all options standard. I think the reshape of the roof is a very successful facelift. The 700’s resemble a Chevrolet Celebrity to me.
As a diehard Volvo enthusiast for the last 20 years, I thank you for this well-written and informative article. Very well done.
I’d like to add my $.02 worth here. When I give advice to folks who are new to the Volvo brand, I tell them to avoid 960s and early 850s (i.e. 1993-95 models) due to many teething issues those cars had. Here are the reasons why.
First off, the 850s and 960s are what we Volvo folks refer to as “Whiteblocks” – in comparison to the old, simple “Redblock” B230F 4-cylinders that the 240s and NA 740s/940s used, these Modular engines are constructed entirely out of aluminum, and used dual overhead camshafts with multiple valves. If you’re the type that likes to wrench on your own cars – and the majority of old-school Volvo enthusiasts do work on their own stuff – you will find the Whiteblock engines to be more advanced and complex.
Unlike the Redblocks, the Whiteblocks do not tolerate neglect at all. If you ignore the timing belt replacement interval, the engine can and will self-destruct – because of their interference design, the 850 and 960 engines are very sensitive to belt replacements and they must be followed to a T. Neglecting to replace the belt will result in the valves colliding with the pistons, causing a ruined engine in no time. On the earliest 960s (1992), the timing belt replacement interval is every 25,000 miles. No joke. This is why you don’t see very many of them on the road. On the earliest 850s (1993), timing belt replacements have to be done every 50,000 miles. 1993 850s are getting rarer than hen’s teeth and I tell people to avoid these at all costs. I know from experience – I owned a ’93 850, my very first Volvo. It was a nice car to drive – when it ran.
Also, as mentioned before, these are all-aluminum engines. The cooling systems have to be in perfect order for them to live a long life. If the radiator hoses, coolant reservoir, or heater core go bad on an 850 or 960, you will lose all your coolant and overheat the engine. There is a reason why I see many 850s or 960s in the junkyards – they are there because of a blown head gasket, a result of a bad heater core or radiator hoses. On the 960s especially, bad head gaskets are a well-known malady of this model, blowing on average around 165k-180k miles.
850s and 960s are much more complicated cars than 240s and 740s/940s. Just the sheer amount of electronic features can make one go crazy when trying to troubleshoot one of these examples. True, the 850 does require much more maintenance than a redblock car, but if you maintain it correctly – and give it a ton of care – they can go many trouble-free miles.
The belt change interval continued to get better, by 1998 it was a 70k interval. It was a pleasant engine but I bet it got even harder to work on when the inline 6 was mounted transversely in the S80. It must have been a difficult decision to go fwd knowing that the newish inline six was still to be the top engine.
I’ve been around these cars for a long time, and almost every independent Volvo specialist I know hates working on the first-generation S80s (P2 platform). The P2 was a much more complex chassis than the old RWD cars many of us are used to.
I also tell folks to not purchase any P2 S80 from between 1999 and 2003, especially if it’s a T6. The T6 models used the GM 4T65-E transmission, known for a high failure rate behind those engines. And the sheer heat of the twin turbos resulted in many issues.
PJ-I met a guy with a 1998 850, he told me he’d bought it new, and it was really nice and clean. He told me it had 750k miles on it! I didn’t enquire as to whether it was the original engine/tranny, but, still! Looked more like 85k miles.
Was the 850 manual or automatic? If it was manual, it has the M56 transmission. Those are long-lasting gearboxes and much more reliable and durable than the AW42 transmissions found in the 850s. The early autos are trash.
If it was a 1998, that guy with 750k miles had either an S70 or V70. Did you ask him if the car was AWD? Early Volvo AWDs are fragile and I wouldn’t touch one to save my life. The last year for the 850 was 1997.
It must have been a ’96 or ’97, I was guessing a little. 2wd, manual transmission. Still shiny original red paint.
My 97 wagon is marked as a V90, but the title says 960, and my insurance company doesn’t even list S90/V90 as a Volvo model.
The leather is beautiful, and looks great with 203,000 miles on it. The pseudo-wood on the dash is cheesy looking. Aside from interior squeaks and rattles, it feels a lot like a Mercedes W124, with softer seats that look like they belong in a Jaguar.
Truth be known, I would prefer a stripped-down 740 wagon with cloth seats, no sunroof, and normal A/C, not the damn climate control. And don’t get me started on the taillamps…constantly fighting with lamps, sockets and bulbs, and can’t seem to keep all of them lit at the same time.
About the woodgrain, when I asked the salesman if the wood was real, he said “No, last year we had real wood that looked fake, and this year we have fake wood that looks real.” They did add wood to the steering wheel on the SE at the end, which I liked.
What year did they switch from real to fake wood? The real wood they used back in the 80’s was beautiful, though the lacquer finish sometimes cracks/fades.
The 1998 V90/S90 had fake. It was real till then.
No mention of the S70? That was the last of the boxy Volvos. I always wondered how the S70 fit in with the old models (i.e. what did it replace, was it marketed above or below the 900/S90 series, how long did their sales overlap, etc.).
The S70 was essentially a heavily facelifted 850 sold from 1998-2000, so it was marketed below the S90/S80.
Great article – and first time I heard that the final years used a transverse leaf spring in back. Ironic, given that the 1940’s design 444 and 544 had rear coils. But with the right engineering a transverse leaf can provide both springing and axle location, as demonstrated by the Model T and Corvette.
I had a 95 960, bought used with about 50K on the odometer. It served faithfully until about 150K, surviving being used by two teenage drivers. The engine and tranny were still strong, but all kinds of things were breaking everywhere else, a Volvo tradition. We thought it got rotten gas mileage, but it was generally reliable, the only tow truck ride it took was when the fuel pump went south.
It was a vastly superior car compared to my 82 240, which had to have been assembled by Swedish drunks on a Monday.
There are still a lot of fine looking 960s seen on the streets of Southern CA.
My V90 has a beige interior, and the steering wheel is beige, unlike the black one in the photo above. Looks nice, but shows more dirt than the black wheel. It does have quirks, like any old car, but it really is nice having an old beater to use as a wheelbarrow…carrying bags of mulch, car parts, etc, and not tearing up one of the new cars. Mine gets around 18 MPG in the mix of mostly-city driving I do, and will get around 27-28 MPG in all interstate driving.
I figure mine will be due for tires and another timing belt/water pump at 260,000 miles, which should be about 5 years from now…that’ll be the big tipping point where I’ll have to decide whether it’s worth throwing more money at it. I get the sick feeling it will be too ugly and decrepit to bother with at that time…or I’ll get bored with it and dump it in the interim for something else I find interesting.
My grandmother had a 1996 960 sedan from 1996 to 2010. I loved riding in it as a kid – it was quiet, and the back seat was very comfortable! I got to drive the 960 quite a few times – I found it comfortable and peppy, with a good stereo. I think it had about 80K when she traded it in for one of the first 2011 S60s (yes, a fully loaded T6 AWD) to arrive in the US. The S60 is an excellent car as well, and it’s interesting that despite how different it is, the engine can trace its roots back to the 960’s.
She had a 740 before that, which my father took over from 1996 to about 2001. I was way too young to drive the 740, but the two cars felt completely different from the back seat – the 960 was much quieter and smoother, I guess due to the better suspension and sound insulation.
This is a nice, comprehensive writeup of a car that Volvo probably didn’t mean to build–if the “Galaxy Project” had come in on time, the 850 and the 400 series would have replaced the entire rwd lineup by the time the 900 series came out.
I’ve had a ’95 960 wagon for the last 3 years. It’s a smooth driver, with gradual, proportional inputs at the throttle and steering wheel–quite different from the aggressive throttle tip-in and video game like push-back-to-center steering I’ve seen in many newer cars. It’s not catlike or anything, more like the Mercedes of the 80s-90s than the BMW of the time. The car’s real strength is on the highway, or at least the open road–we took it on a trip of about 3500 miles last summer and it did quite well. (The gearing of the AW-40 means it’s harder work to go up a mountain at 70 (maybe 4500 rpm) than to hold 90-95 on the same grade.)
Certain peripherals are brittle, or disposable–I have replaced almost all of the cooling and HVAC systems. The front suspension makes noises that the local shop just can’t diagnose, resulting in possibly needless replacement of various parts. For now, I like the car and haven’t decided what’s next, I’m hoping I come across a good idea before there is (another) heater core failure.
Great article!! I always admired the styling on these. I’ll probably pick a beater one up soon to keep my C70 out of the snow. I don’t think there’s ever been a better winter beater.
IMO these cars have always been pure, unadulterated class. If Volvo returned at least one of their lines to this shape (S60, S80 – who cares), I bet they’d sell a whole lot more. Especially the wagons.
Flashback to 1998 when my wife and I bought a new S70. S90s were closing out, and we could have gotten a new one for only $2000 more than the S70. I so wanted to make that jump. But we stuck with the S70 because of the smaller size…I often wonder if the S90, with it’s much older design, would have served us better than the S70 did. Our S70 was a fun little tank to drive, but a disaster reliability-wise and we dumped it within 5 years.
I see many 960 for sale cheap, the last one I saw on CL was going for $225. And it looked pretty good. Unfortunately it suffered the same problem all these “white block” engines have, blown head gasket or timing belt failure. My 1986 760 has 235k and still running good. Not perfect but good.
Pssst…you can swap the twin-turbo I6 from the S80/XC90 into there. (The transmission is what seems to send those cars to the junkyard.) People have swapped in Ford (look up Paul Newman’s 960) and Chevy V8s as well.
Thanks for the great coverage – I have one of the last S90s (late 1998 ; I bought it in like new condition with just 150,000km on it). I think one reason these senior Volvos were kept in prod so long was for the weird and wonderful stretch limos, hearses and ambulances built off them. For example, check out this Volvo ad for the LWB Royals and Executives at the link above.
I’ve always been a fan of the 900-series, especially the late 960/V90 wagons with the updated front clip. Great interiors and the safety features were well ahead of their time. I may be looking for a wagon at some point in the next year or two, and despite their advanced age, I think I’d consider a late 960 or V90 if I could find one that had been taken care of and didn’t have a ton of miles on it.
These cars are virtually rust-proof, and tend to hold up well on the outside.
On the inside the door panels pucker, plastic tabs fall out regularly, plastics peel, the frame around the switches and HVAC loves to loosen up, the carpet inserts in the doors can be a pain to work with, wagons always have a rattle in the rear hatch, its a bit more “American” than the 240. Good design, bad execution.
Then theres the headliner, Volvo should’ve stuck with the 240s weird plastic headliner. Not pretty to look at but super tough.
And whatever mods you put on these cars will NOT handle, not without substantial mods. They’re great cruisers though.
I was never a fan of the 960, but I loved the 940 sedan. A red 940 Turbo Sedan with the 5-spoke directional alloy wheels was the best looking Volvo of the era, IMO. A friend of mine had one in college, but it was just a plain old 940 in red….with plastic wheel covers. The 940 Turbo would fly, but Volvo’s decision to put the base 114hp 4-cylinder in something this size and weight was the closest they’ve ever come to building an unsafe car! It felt sort of like a full-size tank (let’s say a Crown Vic) with the engine from a Ford Fiesta and that’s about how it felt and drove. Floor it as you turn onto an on-ramp and you’ll be lucky to hit 45mph (and make some serious noise doing it) by the end of the merging lane….what were they thinking???
I had an 850 Sedan from the same era. Mine was a 1996. As far as volvos go it was quite good looking, but I have to say that as someone who has owned toyotas, bmws, audi, mercedes and VW, this volvo was the most expensive car to maintain that I ever had. Yes, repairs were more for this than for my 1998 740i. I went through 3 radiators, a valve replacement, 3 sets of brakes in 5 years and a ruptured brakeline that thankfully happened in the driveway instead of in traffic.
When it finally died, it died a glorious death. It began stalling in traffic followed by a massive bleed of coolant…which was coming into the passenger compartment. In a cloud of steam and in a green puddle it gave up the ghost for good. Would I ever get another volvo? Doubtful, although I still appreciate their safety standards and even their looks.
I still run a 940 wagon as a daily driver in the u.k. Mine’s a 5 speed manual with the 6 cylinder intercooled turbo Diesel engine. At 22 years old with 265000 miles it’s a little cosmetically challenged with puckered door trims and lacquer peel on the paint, performance isn’t all it should be either. She’s ready for some new injectors and I suspect the inlet tract needs decarbonising (courtesy of e.g.r valve) but even on the coldest of winter days, turn the key and it fires up on the first crankshaft rotation. It steadfastly refuses to go wrong or fail the annual roadworthiness test.
I love these big volvos with the d24 engine, Volvo quality with diesel economy (sort of..realistically you’re looking at 35-40 u.k mpg) plus it’s quite happy to run on waste veg oil.
When driving, turbo lag very much makes its presence known but at higher speeds the mid-range pickup is incredible when it’s running properly. I’m keeping mine until one of us dies.
tengo 2 autos volvo 960… 93 3.0 y me cuesta conseguir los amortiguadores irs 3516803 rara… me gustaria saber como debo hacer… si me puede ayudar… quedaria muy agradecido… desde ya gracias por cualquier tipo de informacion al respecto.
I have a 97 960 wagon 145k with the 2.9 liter engine / auto trans.
Important thing to add to your article: As I understand it, when Volvo wanted a modern inline 6 cylinder and didn’t have one, they went to Porsche for help. Yes, you read that right. Porsche designed the motor!
I love this car. It is so smooth on power delivery and solid. It has this mechanical, quality feel that modern cars cannot touch. We also have a 2008 XC70 with more miles on it than the 960. That is also a wonderful car but for many different reasons. But somehow, there is this experience with the 960, it’s the way it comes together. And small things like the incredible 31 foot turning radius. It’s not just me—the wife and kids also “get it.” The car is usually our grocery getter but recently we took it on a 1000 mile trip to Canada. Man, what a cruiser. You can drive this car all day, get out, stretch, and then drive all night. BTW, great sound system too. Volvo did a marvelous job for this era. The system is excellent. And thanks to the Grom add-on, I also have a modern Bluetooth hands free calling and run music via the iPhone.
Reliability-wise, this car has a bulletproof quality. You need to treat it right, and fix it right. With proper maintenance the engine and transmission will last many hundreds of thousands of miles. And it is fixable, especially compared to modern cars. Yes, it got a bad rap for not being as simple as a 240, but nothing is. Compared to today’s cars, there is so much room in the engine compartment that it is a joy to work on. Even the hood struts have an extended mode that lets the hood sit 90 degrees vertical. So cool. This car is just so cool.
I am getting ready to do the heater core. Yup, after 22 years the original one is showing signs of beginning to leak. I will do the job myself. It will take a few days, and I’ll take it easy, a few hours a day. Not hard, just a lot of bits to get to it. I already have the new OEM core. Cost me all of $38 shipped from England to USA. Amazing.
One final thing. These cars may finally be getting the respect they deserve, following the appreciation of the 240s. I get looks in this car. I get thumbs up and inquiries about it. But here’s the clearest sign: I pulled up to my 19 year old niece’s house and she comes to greet me, looks right at me and says, in her millennial monotone dialect, “That’s a cool car.”
I really liked the low belt line and the dash on this series of Volvos, but I absolutely didn’t fit once inside.
the roof needed to be at least 3 inches taller..I’m just under 6 feet with a long upper body and short legs, sort of like Popeye..sitting in these was pure misery, especially models with the sunroof which ate up at least 2″ of headroom.
my head was touching the headliner, every single time, and being in the back seat, I had to sit sort of sideways, leaning back so far my neck hurt.
otherwise a nice car if you could stay ahead of the mechanicals.
Volvos! My siblings have dipped deeply into the Volvo soup. I think it was caused by the appearance of a 145 in the home of their best friends in high school. Years later, when money appeared more easily my brother began a fleet of used Volvo’s, usually a turbo wagon (740?) for himself to ease his high speed commuting thru New England. He is an excellent mechanic and kept his brood in Volvo’s for years. My sister got a 240 wagon new, and it did well, even kept every one safe after a rollover on the Interstate. Recently frere bought a used 960 with 200k and is figuring out the low compression. A stalwart with the wrenches, Volvo’s live!
Never owned a Volvo but this is one I’ve considered back in the day, since it was available for European delivery; though I’ve not been to Scandinavia, would have included it in itinerary back in the 90’s to pick up a car (I know for a fee, they’d deliver it, but wouldn’t mind seeing the factory). I’m a bit odd in that I enjoy factory tours even more than regular sightseeing (I’ve worked in several of them, though never an automotive one).
My family never owned Volvos nor Saabs (well, brother in law did have a Saab 900 hatch briefly but he’s owned more than 10x the cars that I have, he never keeps them long). Saabs in particular were popular when we lived in Vermont starting in the mid 60’s likely because of the FWD; not so much Volvo because it was still RWD back then. My Dad still bought RWD for his 2nd car, but they were rear engine also (a Beetle, of course, but also a new ’68 Renault R10)…since FWD wasn’t yet common especially for inexpensive smaller cars…that changed a decade later in the 70’s, but the pursuit of better traction was always an issue while we lived there (2 different times…my Dad moved around a lot in his younger days).