Test Drive: 1997 Volvo 850R

I'm sure you're familiar with the term "bucket list" by now.  It's a list of things you want to do before you die. Being automotively obsessed, my bucket list is more of a list of cars that I want to own before I die, or rather before you can't find one somewhere besides

I'm sure you're familiar with the term "bucket list" by now.  It's a list of things you want to do before you die. Being automotively obsessed, my bucket list is more of a list of cars that I want to own before I die, or rather before you can't find one somewhere besides a junkyard.  Today, I finally got behind the wheel of one of the top three cars on my bucket list: an old Volvo.

Hey, you have to know by now if you've been reading this website that I'm a bit of a weirdo.  But I've had a thing for the Volvo 850 T-5R/ 850R since I knew how to drive a car.  This relates to the fact that my first car was an 850.  Embarrassing photo of me standing next to it below:

Absurdly tacky picture asides (I'm SO cool! Hello Myspace!), I loved that Volvo.  It was a '97 base model 850 sedan, non-turbocharged, cloth seats and automatic trans.  It was in immaculate condition, perfectly maintained, and wonderful to drive.  A model of solidity, it was one of the only cars I've ever felt invincible driving in bad weather.  It's where I derived my illogical love of Swedish cars which has stuck with me to this day.  I've always said that if that car had one of two things, I'd have kept it: a clutch pedal, or a turbocharger.  After driving it for about 2 years and loving it to death, it got sold to my sister and replaced by a shiny new Jetta.  Mistake.

I'd always really wanted one of the 850 Turbos.  More specifically, an 850R or 850 T-5R.  I read all the stories about the 850 T-5R Wagons racing in the BTCC; heard the tales about how they'd lay 100' of rubber out of a roundabout if you weren't careful with the throttle, and dreamed about having a T-5R with a smattering of iPd racing parts and more horsepower than it knew what to do with.  But up until today, I'd never gotten behind the wheel of one.

So, while browsing Craigslist for interesting turbocharged things the other day, I stumbled across an ad.  "1997 Volvo 850 R-series.  Call for price."  You don't have to ask me twice.  I called up the dealer - a local private seller to the south of Raleigh - and arranged to look at the car.  It was a 1997 850R, and it's the real deal - besides the incorrect wheels, it's the genuine article, not converted.  148k on the clock, clearly lovingly maintained.  A few pieces of paperwork later, I found myself behind the wheel of a car I've wanted since I was 16.

Getting behind the wheel of an 850 again was like coming home.  It's a car you sit down in and are immediately comfortable with.  Everything falls easily to hand, it's in a logical place (no A/C switch hidden behind the turn signal stalk, 900!), and the seats are typical Volvo - supportive in all the right places, but not annoying Mercedes-Benz stiff.  I can't say I'm a big fan of the bright orangey wood trim, but that's fixable, right?  It had a lot more equipment than my 850 did - leather/alcantara seats, auto climate control, power seats, trip computer, sunroof, etc - but mostly it felt just like my car, only a little nicer.  All the things I liked about the 850's interior were just as nice as I remember them.

The gauges are clear, concise, easy to read and well marked.  There are some wacky things - like the hidden door handles and the cup holders that pull out of the arm rest - but mostly it's more conventional than I'm used to.  And man, those seats are comfortable.  Mmm, Alcantara.

Anyway, enough about how much the 850's interior rocks - which it does.  How does the infamous Volvo hot-rod hooligan-mobile drive?  Well, there are two ways to look at it.  For a hooligan, it's a bit of a Volvo.  But for a Volvo, it's a bit of a hooligan.  It's a strange combination of rock-like solidity and Volvo-ness, and a motor that feels like it's sucking down gallons of JP8 and spitting out flaming baby skulls.

Like most small turbo motors (the T-5 is sleeved down from a 2.4 in non-turbo form to a 2.3 for turbo duty), the 850R's a bit soft off the line.  It's about a 3400lb car in loaded R trim, so before boost hits it feels pretty much like a normal 850.  But once the turbo spools up to full song (only 10.6 psi), and all five cylinders and 20 valves are singing in harmony, the 850R punches down the road with real authority.  In R trim, the engine is rated at 240bhp and 221lb-ft of torque, up from 222bhp in regular 850 turbo form - which only allows 9.7psi of boost.  It's no VQ37HR, but for a 13 year old Volvo it has the ability - stock - to really surprise some people.  The sound it makes it pretty tasty, too.  I didn't take any footage, but this video will probably help you get the point.


What's sad is that all turbocharged 850's in the States were saddled with 4-speed automatic transmissions.  What's good is that it's a pretty clever one for the standards of the time.  It has two modes - "Econ" and "Sport" plus a dedicated winter mode.  "Sport" basically holds part-thottle upshifts till higher rpm and downshifts faster when you put your foot down.  Winter mode starts off in 3rd gear to limit wheelspin, which I remember working pretty well.  On a curvy road, toeing into the throttle in sport mode brings the next lowest gear with a snap, boost kicks in, and you take off in a wave of turbo torque.  It's that same smooth pull that's why I love Saabs, only... a bit lower down and less intense, but still impressive.

The suspension on the R is pretty admirable.  The rear is independent, front is MacPherson struts with sway bars at both ends.  It's got a lot less float and dive than my 900, but the steering's a bit heavier and number - you more trust the car than feel the car.  The thwack of boost makes it a little unpredictable, but the brakes are strong and linear.  Basically, the 850R does a reasonable impression of a sports sedan - the first Volvo to really do so in more than a straight line.

Overall, the 850R isn't as hard-core as the low riding body kit and BBS wheels would suggest, but it's a remarkably competent sports sedan in a most unsuspecting package.  Did it live up to my expectations of the automotive bucket list?  Most certainly.  Now if only they had sold these with stick shifts here in the 'States...


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