In the world of European sport sedans, Volvos have always found a way to stand out from the crowd. Since the main motivation of Volvo is to build safe reliable transportation, their sportier offerings were never meant to beat cars like the M3. Instead fast Volvos offer an incrementally sportier driving experience while retaining the same mission of the base model. After the PR success of their 850 estate touring car, Volvo decided to capitalize on their new-found racing credentials with the release of the 850 T-5R sedan for the 1996 model year. This limited edition 850 sedan benefited from an increase in horse power, revised suspension, and came in a fantastic cream yellow. The Volvo 850 T-5R was so special it called upon the likes of Porsche to help design this ground breaking sport sedan. Although Porsche only helped design the seats, the Volvo 850 T-5R was still a very special car and huge sales success. This brand changing limited edition model prompted Volvo to create the 850R which went on sale the following year. The 850R took all of the important upgrades from the T-5R except the cream yellow color, and tweaked them to continue the development of this Swedish Turbo Brick. Today the 850R offers a great value for someone looking for a safe, and unique european sport sedan or wagon.
Before diving into the details about this car we need to address a very hard truth about the American allocation of the 850R. Like we said earlier, the departure of the limited edition T-5R model allowed Volvo to improve their successful sports car; however, Americans did not receive many of them. In Europe you could buy an 850R with a 5-speed manual or an automatic, but in America there was no manual option. To make matters worse, the engines for the automatic versions did not receive the larger turbocharger or the welcomed power bump associated with it. Now before we get angry at late 90’s Volvo remember that this was still the time when Americans routinely got watered down versions of European cars, looking at you E36 M3. The American Volvo 850R which, we will focus on, is still a great car to drive and is now an amazing performance bargain.
The inline 5-cylinder engine in the American Volvo 850R produces 240 horsepower which, is sends to the front wheels via a 4-speed automatic transmission. This stout transmission can easily handle the extra power of the R model and has a sport mode allowing it to hold gears longer and unlock the torque converted so boost can build quicker. Although this car needs 7.5 seconds to reach 60 thanks to the old torque converter, it really shines at highway speeds when making passes. Once at speed the 850R can take you all the way to its 155 mph top speed if you are brave enough as even Volvos are safe at those speeds. Like most turbo charged cars from the 90’s the 850R has a lot of turbo lag meaning it takes a few seconds for the engine to react to inputs. The inline 5 used in the 850R has an amazing exhaust note and a lot more personality than the inline fours used in every car on sale today. The 2.3 liter 5 cylinder makes you wait as it builds boost adding drama to this experience with a hint of that incredible exhaust note.
The stronger engine and revised dynamics of the 850R are coupled with a very mature appearance package to differentiate the R from its lesser siblings. Both the estate and sedan versions of the R used stiffer suspension setups and 17″ Volan wheels to improve cornering speeds and complete the sporty setup. At front the R has a more aggressive lower fascia and rear spoiler to suggest sporty intentions without being immature. The timeless three box design of the sedan and perfect proportions of the wagon have aged gracefully and look very handsome to this day.
Today you can pick up one of these Turbo Bricks for around $5,000 depending on the condition of the car. It’s important to find one that was properly maintained because playing catch up on maintenance will often lead to much more expensive problems. Volvo’s of the period had a very high level of build quality but suffered from sporadic electrical problems so pay extra attention to those systems during your search.
Today the Volvo 850R is the affordable European sport sedan or wagon you need in your life. Its timeless styling and strong drive train make it a compelling package to this day. The unique inline 5 cylinder engine is the perfect alternative to the sea of conventional engine layouts. Fast Volvos will always have a special place in the world, their unique approach to performance cars make this a truly special car which you can now own for a very low price.