Car Mechanics (UK)
Dare To Be Different: Volvo 850 T/R
If you’re in the market for an angular alternative to the Audi S6, the hot Swede estate delivers in every respect, says Ian Cushway.
Dispel the image of a panting Labrador in the boot, this hardcore old-school estate is more Rottweiler with its scintillating performance, rugged build and subtle body modifications. Lurid red and retina-blasting yellow hues aside, the Volvo T, T-SR and R that ruled the executive car roost during the mid-1990s is one of the ultimate sleepers. While it looks all respectable Sunday afternoon runs on the outside, underneath it’s a gloves-off high-performance A-road ruffian.
In short, it was a game-changer that spawned a range of equally rapid
executive cars such as the Audi S6 and Mercedes-benz AMG range. And don’t ignore the even more deceptive four-door saloon version – that’s one for anybody who really wants to stick the boot in.
What is it?
A world apart from the barge-like 940 it replaced, the innovative 850 with its clever Delta-link independent rear suspension, side impact bars and transversely-mounted five-cylinder engine broke cover in 1991. Those with a penchant for more power had to wait
until 1993 for the phenomenally quick turbocharged 2319cc 850 T.
Thanks to tuning tweaks by Porsche, the limited edition 850 T-5R that followed in 1995 – with its five-spoke anthracite alloys, wood-effect dash and alcantara seat inserts – was even more potent, but just 2537 were sold worldwide. Of those, only 250 came to Britain, with the UK police force getting the lion’s share.
A year later, this model morphed into the brisk 850 R which boasted a 30mm lower ride height, limited slip differential as standard and half-suede
interior. For those wanting an off-road take on the same theme, there was the 850 AWD from 1997. Featuring fourwheel drive and a slightly raised ride height, it was only available as an estate and had a turbo attached.
The 850 lasted until 1997, when it was replaced by the V70, which was really just a less distinctive version of its predecessor.
It’s possibly the last of the properly-screwed-together Volvos, but one that offers all the creature comforts, safety features and driving thrills of an up-todate family wagon. What’s more, that compact five-cylinder engine is almost as smooth as a six and has lots of torque, so while performance is brutal, it’s also relatively easy to drive. As you would expect, it handles well for such a big car: the steering’s scalpel-sharp and that firm suspension means there’s surprisingly little body roll while cornering.
For practical reasons, the estate is the most appealing, but if a secure boot’s important, there’s also the saloon.
What’s not so good?
Even the newest examples are now more than two decades old and time may have taken its toll. That said, if looked after, those engines should be good for 200,000 miles without major problems.
Watch for oil leaks from the rear main oil seal, though. They are often caused by pressure build-up due to a blocked PCV system. You can test it by removing the oil filler cap and determining if there’s a vacuum. If there is, the PCV is fine; if there’s air blowing out, it’s not. Aftermarket replacement PCV kits cost about £70. If you end up replacing the seal, you might as well fit a new clutch at the same time. If there’s oil at the back of the engine, it’s more than likely that the oil return pipe from the turbo has sprung a leak.
The majority of cars will have climate control, but if the evaporator goes, it’s a full-on dash-out job which will cost the best part of £500 if you go to a specialist. Condensers are prone to stone damage, too.
Head gasket failure is another worry. Be suspicious if there’s a creamy deposit on the underside of the oil filler cap, although short journeys can often account for this. Turbo failure is relatively rare, but if there’s a whine it could be on its last legs and replacements begin at £300 at Fast Turbo Ltd.
Be wary of any examples with illuminated dash warning lights, especially if they’re for the ABS/TRACS or Lambda, as issues can be pricey to sort.
The cambelt replacement interval on the B5234T engine is 70,000 miles or six years, but it’s not a difficult job. Oil and filter changes should be carried out every 10,000 miles – or sooner if you’re doing lots of stop-start driving. If you don’t adhere to these schedules you’ll run the risk of severely shortening the life of the turbo.
It’s a boxy estate or saloon with real retro appeal that goes like stink and can be used as a reliable daily driver. Moreover, one of these trusty Swedes won’t be dear to buy or maintain. Basket-case projects start at under £1000, though you will pay as much as £12,000-£15,000 for a mint T5-R estate with lots of history.