SEE ALSO: Volvo Buyer's Guide
The cars made by Swedish manufacturer Volvo have long had an admirable reputation for safety in design and construction. On the other hand, the company's image for sporty performance has been pretty much nonexistent, except to a small underground of Volvo enthusiasts. There is nothing wrong with safe family cars, but Volvo wanted a car to appeal to a wider range of potential customers. Enter the Volvo 850.
The 850 was a fairly radical step for Volvo when it was introduced in the early 1990s. It used an unusual inline 5-cylinder engine, mounted transversely and driving the front wheels. The first front-wheel drive Volvo exported to the U. S., it was smaller and sportier than most other Volvos. The 850 had all of the traditional Volvo safety features and promised an enjoyable driving experience as well.
To call the 850 successful would be understatement, as it now accounts for over two-thirds of Volvo sales. Four different versions are now available, all in sedan or wagon body styles. The 850 GLT fits between the base model 850 and seriously sporting T5 and R versions. It has an interesting new engine this year. It is a turbo, but a turbo with a difference, as I discovered during my time with a 1997 850 GLT sedan.
The 850 T5 and R use conventional turbo tuning, with high boost for increased performance. The GLT engine uses lower boost, and is designed for flexibility, fuel efficiency, and low emissions. It makes the most power at low engine speeds most commonly used, and makes the 850 GLT a joy to drive around town or on the highway. I found it to be a wonderful real-world engine in a pleasant, comfortable car.
APPEARANCE: When other cars were square and boxy, Volvos were round. Now that other cars are round, Volvos are square and boxy. The 850 is somewhat less so than most other recent Volvos, with gently rounded corners and edges. It is a little lower, and even sleek, at least for a Volvo. All 850 models have the same basic styling, with only wheel and trim differences. The 1997 GLT has medium-profile tires on 6-spoke alloy wheels. At the front, the vertically-barred Volvo grille is ever lower and wider, flanked by rectangular headlights. The sedan has a pronounced wedge shape from the side, with a gently-sloping hood and high rear deck. The large, angular greenhouse has an enormous glass area and thin pillars for very good visibility. Mudflaps behind the front wheels protect the paint and add Swedish character. Despite its apparently unstreamlined lines, the Volvo 850 has a lower coefficient of aerodynamic drag than many more "streamlined" cars.
COMFORT: Interior styling of the Volvo 850 GLT is as angular as the exterior. It may not be this week's latest automotive fashion, but it is functional and comfortable. Standard upholstery is plush velour, with leather optional. The front bucket seats have just the right balance between softness and firmness for long-term comfort. The instrument panel places all instruments and controls well. There are useful interior storage spaces. Aircraft-style overhead indicators remind occupants to fasten their seat belts. The rear seat is very roomy for the size of the car, and can easily hold three people. A tilt-adjustable steering wheel, cruise control, heated power mirrors, power sunroof, windows, and doorlocks, remote keyless entry, automatic climate control, and an AM/FM/cassette sound system are standard on the 850 GLT.
SAFETY: Volvo is practically a synonym for safety, and the 850 GLT has a high-strength steel safety cage around the passenger cabin, front and rear crumple zones, front seat front and side airbags, 3-point safety belts for all 5 occupants, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, and daytime running lights.
ROADABILITY: The Volvo 850 GLT's MacPherson strut front and patented delta-link rear suspension gives a firmer ride than most family sedans, although softer than the sport-tuned T5 and R models. It isn't quite a sports sedan in handling qualities, but it's close. There is no doubt that the 850 GLT is a front-wheel drive car, but it has no torque steer. Mechanical, road, and wind noise levels are low, and visibility is excellent.
PERFORMANCE: The best feature of the Volvo 850 is a turbocharged engine that doesn't feel like a turbocharged engine. It is designed for fuel efficiency and low emissions, not necessarily maximum performance. However, with a maximum of 190 horsepower, it's no slouch. Most importantly, it produces its maximum 197 lb-ft of torque at only 1800 rpm. Internal combustion engines are most efficient at their torque peak, and 1800 rpm is where the 4-speed automatic transmission keeps it most often. The result is commendable fuel efficiency for a fairly large car, very low emissions, and instant power. No turbo lag, no waiting. The 5-cylinder engine doesn't sound like a big V8, but it sure feels like it, except at the gas pump.
CONCLUSIONS: The Volvo 850 GLT is an understated family sedan that combines safety, good fuel economy, and low emissions with good handling and plenty of very useful power.
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Volvo 850 GLT Base Price $ 31,835 Price As Tested $ 32,330 Engine Type turbocharged inline 5-cylinder, dual overhead cam, 20 valves Engine Size 2.4 liters / 148 cu. in. Horsepower 190 @ 5200 Torque (lb-ft) 197 @ 1800 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 104.9 in. / 183.5 in. Curb Weight 3250 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.1 Fuel Capacity 19.3 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium or regular Tires P195/60 R15 Michelin MXV4 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear MacPherson strut / delta link semi-independent Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20/29/24 0 to 60 mph est. 7.8 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) est. 15.7 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.32