Back in the 90s, when Volvo was still regarded as a safe, but ultimately dull choice by driving enthusiasts, it unleashed the 850R, a super sedan with explosive performance. We took a pristine example for a burn.
Think Volvo 850 and your thoughts are likely to turn to the brick-like station wagon version piloted by the likes of Rickard Rydell and Kelvin Burt in the British Touring Car Championship in the 90s. It was a marketing tactic that bestowed considerable desirability on the Swedish marque's faster T5-badged models, and in particular the limited edition T-5R.
Encouraged by the T-5R's success, Volvo decided to make a fast flagship a permanent member of the ageing line-up, and so the 850R was born. The car you see here belongs to Emile Smit in Malmesbury, and is in pristine condition. What's more, it's a rare manual version - reportedly only 58 850Rs came to South Africa, and of those only 18 were manual.
It's an important distinction (manual vs automatic), because the difference is not only the gearbox. Automatic 850Rs were powered by the T5's 166kW/300Nm engine, while the manual, as driven here, packed 186kW and 350Nm from its turbocharged 2.3L, 5-cylinder turbo. That's quite a lot to go through the front wheels only...
Compared with the earlier, limited-edition T-5R, the 850R's engine boasted a larger turbocharger (manual only), new manifold, new intercooler and more sophisticated fuel pressure sensor (source: Volvotips.com)
Performance and Luxury
When Emile showed up at a SentiMETAL OutRun for the first time with this car, it just about stole the show. The crisp, squared-off lines really pop in this bright Brilliant Red paint finish (at most 10 red 850Rs were brought into SA), and Emile's 850R has the cream interior, which at first glance appears an odd combination, particularly with the gloss birch wood finish, which would be more befitting of a luxury sedan.
On the outside, it has just enough BTCC swagger to make those in the know sit up and take notice. It sits low (30mm lower than a normal T5), hunkered down on those dark gunmetal Volan 17-inch wheels, the front spoiler is deep, and at the rear there's a subtle black lip on the already prominent boot spoiler.
But then again... this is a luxury sedan, too. It has extremely high (and advanced) specification for a car of its era - and consequently, loads of buttons! It has traction control, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, an audio system with a CD player, heated and electrically adjustable front seats and dual front and side airbags, for example.
If you're buying an 850R, make sure all the electric gizmos work. Emile's car has had considerable money spent on it, so thankfully everything functions properly, including the air-con that pumped lovely cool air on a hot Cape Town summer day.
Hitting the road
The 850 was always a comfortable, spacious and safe car, and I'm immediately struck by the good seating position and how comfortable the seats are. Fire it up and the engine settles into a slightly deeper than normal 5-cylinder thrum without any barking or spitting.
The gearbox - a 5-speed unit - is surprisingly slick and precise (the car has done about 150 000km), and the clutch takes cleanly. It displays far less boost lag than I had anticipated, but the fireworks start at just over 2 000rpm, with the 2.3L turbo delivering its peak torque all the way from 2 400 to 5 200 rpm. So it pulls strongly quickly, and keeps doing so.
Third is really a do-anything gear, with explosive responsiveness to the throttle and a long enough powerband to see speeds really rise very quickly. And yet, for a car of this age, it's refined and the cabin is quiet. Overtaking acceleration is this car's forte, with it squishing its passengers into those comfortable chairs. For the record, the 850R does 0-100kph in around 7.5 seconds (as tested by CAR magazine in January 1997), and recorded a top speed of 236kph. So, it was no slouch.
It's a firm-riding car, though, with the suspension settings seemingly favouring dynamic ability and traction more than cossetting comfort. That said, it's no firmer than a modern hot hatch or performance sedan, and it puts its power down surprisingly well, with a viscous coupling and Torsen differential used at the front. It will scrabble for grip when the driver isn't smooth, or when the road surface is rippled or otherwise patchy, but the steering communicates nicely, so you're always aware of what's going on underneath.
When the 850R was launched in South Africa, it cost around R260 000, a hefty price for a Volvo back then - slightly cheaper than an Audi S6, but pricier than an Alfa 164 V6. The Swede was more powerful than either of those, however, and in my view is highly underrated as a reasonably affordable modern classic. According to Emile, because there are so few 850Rs around, it's hard to establish a price for a good 850R manual these days (but probably around R200 000). You can pick up cars for less than R100 000 but those will need considerable amounts of work (and money). Good luck finding one like this, however!