Race, pace ... and lots of space. Here's what to look out for when considering purchasing a Volvo 850.

When Volvo re-entered the South African market with the 850 and 960 in 1994 (incidentally, at the same time as Alfa Romeo), it did not skimp in the power stakes. As an import, the duty penalties on these vehicles were substantial, so pricing was premium. Sold for just a few years, the 850 Sedan and Sportwagon were rebadged S70 and V70 in 1997. Solidity and safety were hallmarks of the brand.

Packaging

The boxy styling may not appeal to everyone but it ensured lots of space. The Sportwagon could swallow 1 350 litres with the rear bench folded, whereas the sedan had a boot capacity of 336 litres and utility space of 1 040 litres. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and independent suspension was used.

A driver’s airbag was fitted to early models and dual airbags followed soon after, plus ABS braking with discs all-round.

Powertrain

There was a big difference between the two Volvo ranges at the time. The 850 used a transverse-mounted, turbocharged five-cylinder driving the front wheels, while the more expensive 960 had a straight-six propelling the rear wheels. The capacity was 2,4 litres in the non-turbo 850, but reduced to 2,3 with a compression ratio of 8,5:1 when allied with forced induction. The latter’s 166 kW provided a sprint time of 7,64 seconds to 100 km/h for the sedan and 8,03 seconds for the Sportwagon. To reduce wheelspin, torque was limited to 259 N.m in first gear; thereafter, 300 N.m was available from 2 000 to 5 200 r/min.

An even sportier version was tested by CAR in 1997. The 850 R was fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip diff. Power increased to 189 kW and torque to 350 N.m. This dipped acceleration to 7,45 seconds. Due to the high outputs coupled with front-wheel drive, Volvo specified top-spec rubber: Pirelli P Zeros. The transmissions were a five-speed manual or four-speed auto.

Which one to get

While not exactly pretty, the wagon can pack in a lot, making it a highly versatile and fast family transport. If you don’t appreciate the boxy shape, the sedan has a more compact profile.

What to watch out for

Parts availability will be tricky and can be pricey. Volvos are not high-volume sellers and there are few 850s around, so look for breakers’ yards specialising in Swedish cars and scour online Volvo forums for support. There are workshops in major centres that work almost solely on Volvos.

With so much power fed to the front wheels, tyre wear can be severe and check for noises from the front when turning the steering wheel. The wheel bearings and CV joints take high strain and may have to be replaced. Bosch Motronic injection was used and should be reliable and faults should be easily diagnosed.

Availability and prices

Sales figures were not reported to Naamsa and how many remain in decent condition is unknown. We did spot a few in the classifieds and pricing is as low as you can get due to limited popularity. This applies to Saabs, too, as well as many other marques from countries other than Japan or Germany.  

Interesting facts

In 1994, Volvo needed to increase its public standing, so it teamed up with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) to campaign the 850s in the much-loved – and more exciting than F1 – British Touring Car series. Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers were chosen as pilots while the Sportwagon bodyshell (known in Britain as the Estate) was picked for its visual appeal and because there was more rear-end downforce than the sedan. In just the second year of competing, Rydell finished third in the championship.

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