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FWD Champions: The Volvo 850 T-5R

September 1, 2011 by Matt

Volvo 850 T-5R T5R

Once upon a time, Volvo got wacky. It’s never really happened before or since; in spite of a number of well-received sporty models, by and large, the company’s staid, conservative reputation is deserved.

But for one year, in 1995, the automaker went a little nuts with the release of a special edition of its midsize 850 family hauler: The T-5R. Despite Porsche’s hand in its development, the engine output wasn’t much to write home about: 240 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque from the transverse, turbo’d 5-cylinder driving the front wheels, producing a 7-second 0-60 time. And sadly, a manual transmission option was never offered in the US, but only in the Swedish automaker’s home market as well as Canada (?). In any case, what makes the car special isn’t really the performance, straight-line or lateral; it’s the context.

Volvo 850 T-5R T5R Engine

Most significantly, there was the image. As stated above, Volvo projects itself, for better or worse, as a safe, secure car company that makes safe, secure, somewhat joy-less cars. The introduction of the T-5R—only available in banana yellow, olive green or black, by the way—was a delightful jolt to the enthusiast community’s perception of the automaker. It’s like a boring friend that never takes a dare, and then suddenly completely breaks character and goes skydiving, as you smile through your mild shock. I felt like giving Volvo’s upper management a collective high five for approving the car for production. It was boxy and dorky, but unbelievably cool, and still is—a collection of adjectives that neatly sums up the output of the aftermarket Volvo tuner scene. I give Volvo major props for recognizing what performance-oriented owners were doing to their Volvos, and packaging the car accordingly. If only more automakers would cater to their enthusiast customers so effectively.

There’s one more piece of the puzzle: What the car emerged from. Up until the release of the 850 (on which the T-5R was based) in ’93, Volvo had never sold a FWD car on our shores. Presumably in search of greater packaging efficiency, the automaker switched its whole line to FWD, and hasn’t made a proper rear-driver since. Enthusiasts greatly lamented the abandonment of the RWD platform, and just as we were surrendering ourselves to the possibility that Volvo had firmly decided to become a creator of genuinely boring FWD appliances, out popped the T-5R, cluing us into the fact they actually had a sense of humor and fun. What took them so long?

For what the car did for Volvo in the midst of the company’s FWD transition, in spite of its one-year model run and inherent FWD limitations, the T-5R deserves recognition and acclaim.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: FWD Champions, Volvo

4 comments

  1. John D says:

    One of my favorite cars…even if it is FWD.

    My first car was a ’89 740GLE. Gold. With black leather interior. Awesome first car.

    My second car was a ’93 850 GLT. Another great car that I enjoyed thoroughly. Just new enough and almost looked sporty. Handled well, decent power, very comfortable and stylish. Had that car for a couple of years before (inevitably) succumbing to something with a little more power…and RWD. A ’96 Camaro V6 (the 3.8L). Enjoyed that one for many years, but for very different reasons.

    Anyway, one of my favorite cars (and one I still wish I had) was a ’96 850 turbo wagon. That car was freaking fantastic. Just enough spirit to keep you entertained on the daily commute and looked amazing (once I got the right wheels on it, proper suspension, painted calipers, and tinted windows of course). And for just a hair over $4k you couldn’t beat the price. I just wish they still made them because it’s a bit of working finding one in good condition. If I had the chance I’d buy one again…if I didn’t need my truck for work, that is. :-(

    • Matt says:

      I never knew you had a Volvo before the 850. Huh. You’re right—they’re awesome first cars. I’m going to be lobbying hard to get my kids into a 200/700 series when the time comes.

      My best memory of the 850 was the unholy power of the sound system you had installed. In my experience, something about the boxy shape of the Bricks seems to reflect and amplify the sound better than in other cars. Or maybe it’s just me… :)

      Any pics of the 850T wagon? Would love to see it.

  2. John D says:

    Well, I dunno about a 200 series…personally, I think they’re pretty fugly. And talk about slow…

    I do have some Volvo pics around here somewhere. Will email you a couple.

    • Matt says:

      Fugly + slow + safe + reliable + RWD + stickshift = How is that not a perfect first car for a 16-year-old? :)

      Thanks for the 850T pics. It’s a stunner for sure. I’m not surprised you miss it—I would too. :)

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