Volvo 850 R
Think of last year’s Volvo 850 T-5R as a trial run for this car. The outrageous limited-edition model not only proved that there’s a serious performance car lurking inside the 850 but also that demand was sufficient to justify putting it into series production, paving the way for the arrival of this: the even more powerful 850R. Volvo insists that the 850R doesn’t directly replace the T-5R but is a model in its own right. Like that car, it is available in both saloon and estate body styles and with either a manual or automatic gearbox, all for the same price of £32,000.
Clearly the 850R is an evolution of the T-5R, but the engine and suspension have been subjected to a number of revisions designed to improve both performance and comfort. For this application, the manual version of Volvo’s characterful 2.3-litre 20-valve five-cylinder engine has been equipped with a new intercooler and a larger turbocharger. Together these boost power output from 240bhp to 250bhp at 5400rpm, supported by a thumping 258lb ft of torque between 2400 and 5000rpm.
Despite their best efforts, the front wheels of the 850R spin all too easily under hard acceleration. In the wet conditions of our test, it scrabbled to 60mph from rest in a disappointing 7.8sec, although on a dry track it would have come closer to matching Volvo’s claim of 6.7sec. A 30-70mph time of 6.9sec is also slower than expected; both T-5 and T-5R were quicker. Once the big turbocharger has had a chance to wind up, the force-fed five feels as muscular as its power and torque outputs suggest. At 30mph in fourth gear it’s still getting into its stride, reaching 50mph in 7.1sec, but between 50 and 100mph it feels supercar quick; witness a 60-80mph time of 5.5sec, which is within 0.3sec of a Honda NSX. Stab the throttle at 50mph in fifth and it again hauls strongly, 70mph coming up in 8.3sec. Trouble is, the driver has to work a little too hard to gain access to the bulk of that performance. That’s because the engine feels strangely lethargic below 3000rpm and has a weighty, slow-revving manner. Softer anti-roll bars and firmer dampers are designed to improve grip and comfort over the stiffly sprung T-5R but the result is still more racing car than road car. Despite a small improvement in ride comfort, the 850R is a harsh and unforgiving companion, particularly at low speeds. The pay-off is that there’s virtually no body roll through corners. Even so, the Volvo is intolerant of mid-corner changes of plan, and despite the fitment of grippy 205/45 ZR17 tyres front-end bite remains limited for a car of its performance potential.
That the once-staid Volvo is willing to build cars as outrageous as the 850R is cause for celebration. However, in the real world, the 850R isn’t any quicker than the less powerful T-5, or indeed a 530i Touring, but would prove harder to live with. A less compromising chassis that’s better able to cope with the power would do much to provide a cure. A four-wheel drive version due next spring might be just the answer.