FWD Champions: The Volvo 850 T-5R
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.
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:
- Peugeot 205 GTI
- B4 Volkswagen Passat
- Lancia Fulvia Coupe
- Acura Vigor
- Mazda Millenia
- Citroën SM
- Fiat Coupé
- ’91-’96 Infiniti G20
- ’91-’94 B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R
- ’88-’92 Mazda MX-6
- Audi Coupe GT
- Volkswagen Corrado
- Peugeot 405 Mi16
- ’78-’93 Saab 900
- 5th-generation Honda Prelude
- 1st- and 2nd-generation Volkswagen Scirocco