A quarter of a century later and there's still no more iconic Volvo than a fast 850 wagon
By Matt Bird / Monday, February 15, 2021 / Loading comments
Has a car ever changed the perception of a company as much as the Volvo 850 T-5R? Prior to its introduction in 1994, up to and including the regular T5 of 1993, in fact, Volvos were sturdy and staid and not all that interesting. They were good at what they needed to do; problem being that a Volvo was never required to do anything particularly exciting.
Then the T5-R came along, with big wheels, the option of yellow paint, the involvement of Porsche and an enormous 240hp. The launch of a Volvo estate more powerful than an Escort Cosworth alongside the debut of a car just like it in the BTCC make for an instant, if unlikely, icon. Volvo became relevant to enthusiasts, the prodigious speed and distinctive soundtrack of the 850 road cars keeping them popular for many years after. So much so that the template was simply evolved and improved, Volvo becoming synonymous with five-cylinder performance cars for a long time after the 850. It broke the mould and established Volvo in a new arena. The affection among enthusiasts was long-lasting.
Quite how Volvo would disturb the status quo in 2021 is hard to know, given how comprehensively covered off seemingly every niche is. A fast estate would need 800hp to be top of the tree, an electric vehicle would need a 1000-kilometre range for headlines and it's hard to imagine motorsport involvement having quite the impact it once did. Which isn't to say Volvo is doing badly – very far from it – rather that it's hard to make a splash nowadays given how densely populated every area of the market is.
Back in the mid-1990s, so significant was the reception to the limited run T-5R that Volvo wanted to capitalise on its popularity; the 850 R was the result. Yellow was dropped from the colour palette but the aggressive look (for Volvo) remained, and the R was more potent than ever: power from the 2.3-litre five was up to 250hp, and a limited-slip differential was finally introduced for the front end to better distribute the oversized output. For many it was a fitting finale for the 850, a Volvo estate like no other. The V70 came along soon after and successfully updated the formula, with five-cylinder flagships joining the range, but the impact of the 850 had gone. People knew what to expect from the fast V70, whereas the 850 equivalent had arrived from nowhere.
The cult appeal is why a V70 T5 can be yours for just a few thousand pounds – and an 850 like this is £10,000. In red with the manual gearbox, it's a very desirable spec, altered only from how it emerged in 1996 with Koni suspension, grooved brake discs and an uprated (if seemingly still quite subtle) exhaust. It's the perfect High Mile Club candidate; at 122,000 miles, some would see 2021 as the car's twilight, but Volvo is said to have designed the 850 for a 500,000-mile life. The condition of this one, with seat bolsters still standing proud and great slab of dashboard without a blemish, points to a properly assembled old bus.
It's also the perfect car to have here as it's one you'd want to keep adding miles to. Obviously the recent appreciation of 850s makes it a slightly different prospect to what it once was, but the combination of build quality, space and performance means this could surely still see service as a family wagon. Albeit without the very latest in interior technology, though at least all the glass would mean a good view out…
Let's hope there's still plenty of years left in the old Volvo, because nothing quite warms the heart like a quick 850. An MOT is looming in April, and cars like this have never been kind on consumables, but an 850R always was the coolest way to ferry a family around – and that hasn't changed in 25 years.
See the original advert here.
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