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.

- Volvo Cars · Iceland · Audi · Samsung Galaxy S6 · Mercedes-Benz · Aufrecht Melcher Grossaspach · Belarus · Porsche Automobil Holding SE · United Kingdom · Somalia · Belgium · Austria · Volvo 850 · Audi S6 · Volvo V70

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.

What’s good?

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.

Ser­vice sched­ule

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.

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