Volvo 850R: A Sports Car in Stationwagon Guise

Masquerading as a sensible family staion wagon, the 850R is in fact the most potent Volvo ever, and it's very addictive.

Volvo started supplying hardcore performance junkies in 1993 when it launched the 850 T5, laced with a turbocharged 2.3-liter engine packing 168 kW. Not satisfied with that, the company went on to create the limited edition T5-R, with an extra 11 kW.

Both are more than intoxicating enough to satisfy most drivers' cravings, but this did not stop Volvo from upping the power yet again. The new 850R pulsates with 187 kW, and has a U.K. price tag of ?33,550 ($51,350) whether you take it in sedan or station wagon form. That means it's not only the quickest Volvo on the road but also the most expensive, outweighing its closest T5 relative by ?5,000 ($7,650).

It is hard to believe that the 850R is street legal though. Skirts and spoilers galore beef up the body, and it sits on a lowered sports suspension that makes the imposing alloy wheels look like they have been shoehorned into the arches. It looks more like a refugee from the British Touring Car series, which is no coincidence, as it benefits from the mechanical expertise of Tom Walkinshaw Racing, Volvo's Touring Car partner. As well as modifying the suspension, TWR has upgraded the engine with a larger turbocharger and exhaust manifold.

It may look like the evil Dr. Jekyll of the station wagon world, but, from a driver's point of view, the 850R has manners more like Mr. Hyde. Plant your right foot to the floor and there is a slight delay before you get full power. As the rev counter's needle sweeps smoothly past 2,000 rpm, the big Volvo strikes at the horizon like lightning while you hardly notice the turbocharger kicking in.

This awesome power is delivered to the front wheels with great refinement though, and all to the tune of a glorious five-cylinder warble. You can hit 100 kph in under seven seconds and, if you happen to have an autobahn handy, you can press on to 250 kph. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that you are in a Volvo station wagon.

It is a shame the engine's effortlessly smooth behavior is not mirrored by the five-speed gearbox. With a long throw and a slow, notchy action, it is not as willing to cooperate as it should be.

At lower speeds, the 850R suspension is hyper-sensitive, transmitting every last rut and pothole to the cabin. It manages to take the sting out of most, but some cause it to crash uncomfortably. The situation improves slightly as the pace quickens, and the payoff comes when you sweep into your first bend. The hefty Volvo barely rolls at all and grips doggedly.Switchable electronic traction control gives the ultra-low profile tires a fighting chance of gripping and is reasonably effective on dry surfaces. But it can be overwhelmed quite easily when you try to accelerate hard out of a corner, sending the front wheels into a frenzied scrabble. Backing off the throttle brings the car neatly back into line so you never lose control -- but it's very frustrating.

The steering is not wonderful either. Although it is accurate, it is too light and lacking in feel to give you complete confidence. Likewise, more response from the brake pedal would not go amiss, although the four disc brakes mated to a standard anti-lock system rein in the 850 well.

When more serious duty calls, you will find the 850R panders superbly to the family's needs. The wide, roomy cabin can seat five adults with no trouble, all of them getting full three-point seatbelts and adjustable headrests. A baby seat is cleverly built into the rear center armrest. The luxurious leather-trimmed seats offer excellent comfort and support, particularly the front ones, which have generous side bolsters to grip your torso. They are electrically adjustable every-which-way, and the steering wheel adjusts for both reach and rake, so it is almost impossible not to find an ideal driving position.

In front of you is a dashboard that will never win beauty contests, mainly thanks to the quality of plastic used. A few of its switches are located rather awkwardly behind the steering wheel too, but otherwise it is fairly user friendly.

The 850 is big on safety features, too, with a driver-side airbag and innovative side impact airbags to supplement its seat belts and safety door beams.

Flip up the tailgate and you find a massive cargo area ready to take whatever you can throw at it. It has an impressively wide opening and a usefully low sill. If you need more room for large objects, the rear seat splits and folds. Tie-down hooks help you secure the cargo, and a roll-out cover keeps it hidden from prying eyes.

Whether it's a supercar or a sensible family estate car, Volvo's 850R falls into both categories and fulfills each role with flair. When you're playing happy families, its space, load-carrying potential and lavish equipment make it a great day-to-day companion. But as the flattering body kit and gorgeous alloy wheels suggest, this versatile workhorse can also trade blows with Porsches and Ferraris.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.