DESPITE ITS BOXY DESIGN (and the fact the ‘coolest’ version was the wagon), the 850 marked the point at which Volvos became fun to drive. It may have looked much like the 740 and 760 models that it replaced, but it was all new.
It was billed as ‘a dynamic car with four world firsts’ when it was launched – a transversely mounted five-cylinder engine, sophisticated new ‘Delta-Link’ rear suspension, self-adjusting front seat belts and Volvo’s famous Side Impact Protection System (SIPS). Most are front-wheel drive but a four-wheel drive model followed later.
Most of the 850s available are 2.0 and 2.5 petrol models. However, it’s the boosted 2.3-litre cars that we care about. Or, more to the point, the turbocharged T5, T5-R and 850R, which offer genuine pace. All were mainstream production models, although finding an example of any in good condition today is reasonably hard given few were sold here.
The rare and highly sought-after limited-run T5-R is the most difficult to track down. The T5-R proved to be such a success globally that Volvo turned it into a mainstream production model – the 850 R – and offered a four-wheel drive version. The all-wheel drive system proved to be unreliable, however, and now seems to be pretty much extinct.
Interestingly, the 850 (in wagon form initially) also paved the way for the Swedish marque’s return to the racetrack.
BODYWORK Start by checking the leading edge of the bonnet, which gets stone-chipped then begins to rust. The front guards corrode just ahead of and behind the wheelarches and the inner guards get holed where they meet the chassis rail. On estates check along the lower edge of the rear side windows; corrosion festers beneath the rubber trim and by the time you know there’s a problem it’s too late to do anything about it.
The rear wheelarches are also prone to rotting along their leading edges from the inside out and examining the spare wheel well from underneath will probably reveal that it’s holed. It doesn’t help that the lacquer peels, weakening the paint and leading to corrosion.
OILY BITS There are two five-cylinder engine families; one petrol and one diesel. The all-aluminium petrol unit came in 2.0- and 2.5-litre guises with the smaller unit available as a 10-valve or 20-valve. There was also a 2.3 turbo in the T5, T5-R and 850 R.
A common issue with the petrol engine is an oil leak from the main rear seal between the engine and gearbox. You can fix it yourself (though access is poor) but a specialist will charge $500-$900, despite the fact that the part itself is very cheap. The turbo return pipe seal also hardens, leading to the underside being coated in oil; replacement is a straightforward job.
HSV turned its hand to the Commodore wagon and added a worked 5.0-litre V8 with 180kW/400Nm into the equation. It also came in a sedan body style.
The venerable 4.0-litre straight six sends 164kW/366Nm to the rears and was available with a five- speed manual. If you want a booted Ford V8, try the Fairmont Ghia.
With a 206kW/333Nm RB25DET and AWD, the 1998 Stagea is in a different performance league. However, if you want one, you’ be dealing with imports.
The Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) system clogs up leading to a build-up of pressure in the crankcase and blown seals. The set-up comprises a series of small vacuum lines which become brittle and break, leading to uneven running and a loss of power. The lines are hidden under the intake manifold, but it’ worth inspecting them every other service and replacing the hoses every 130,000km or so.
Mass Airflow (MAF) sensors fail on non-turbo models because the thermostat in the air filter housing gives up the ghost. This leads to hot air flowing through the MAF, which cooks it. A new MAF sensor is easy to fit.
If the engine is reluctant to start or rev the fuel pump relay has probably failed. A new one is cheap and just slots in. Beware any 850 whose timing belt hasn’ been replaced within the last 80,000km or five years – the engines are an interference fit so a snapped belt can destroy them. A new water pump with improved impellers should be fitted at the same time. The engine’ top mount/stabiliser is a known weak point, but the bushing can appear intact even when it isn’ The bottom engine mount can fail too, although this is rare.
All 850s were fitted with a catalytic converter – it doesn’ generally give problems, but a full new exhaust can be costly depending on which engine is fitted.
DRIVETRAIN 5-door, 5-seat wagon
ENGINE 2319cc inline-5, DOHC, 20v, turbo
POWER 186kW @ 5400rpm
TORQUE 350Nm @ 2400-5000rpm
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
USED RANGE $8000 to $30,000
VOLVO WASN’ without success on track before the 850. The 240T was a winner overseas and in Oz (Robbie Francevic winning the 1986 ATCC). However, when the Swedish marque announced a return to racing with Tom Walkinshaw (TWR), no-one expected it to be the estate! A blatant publicity stunt to change the image of the then new 850, two wagons raced in the 94 BTCC, with a best race finish of fifth (Rickard Rydell). It was replaced with the race-winning sedan for 95/’ 96.
All 850s got a five-speed manual gearbox as standard with a four-speed automatic a popular option. The manuals will rack up enormous mileages before they start to wear and the clutches are strong, too. The automatic gearbox is also tough, although those fitted during the first two years of production weren’ as durable as later versions. The ATE/Teves ABS module fitted after 1995 tends to fail - the warning light on the dashboard staying on when the engine is running is the biggest clue. It can be rebuilt for a relatively low cost.
Make sure there’ no play in the front wheel bearings because they can’ be replaced on their own – you have to fit a new hub, complete with bearings, although it’ an easy job. A set of bearings typically lasts 95,000km.
Groaning from the front at low speed as the wheels are turned points to failed strut mounts. They have a rubberencased upper spring seat and the rubber perishes, so open the bonnet and look for signs of the rubber cracking or pulling away from the centre sleeve.
Rattling from the front on bumpy roads suggests worn anti-roll bar links. Volvo changed the design after the first year of production so it’ worth upgrading an early car’ anti-roll bar to the later design. It’ more expensive, but also more durable.
Cars built in 1993 have four-bolt wheels; five-bolt items were fitted from 1994. Although the five-bolt wheels share the same PCD as the older rear-wheel drive models, different offsets mean they can’ be fitted to an 850.
TRIM AND ELECTRICS Most 850s have cloth trim, but many got either full leather or leather with cloth or Alcantara. The latter looks great, however, it isn’ easy to clean – T5-Rs have it on the bolsters, lesser models have it in the middle.
Heated seats are fitted to most 850s, but it’ worth checking that they’ re working because the heating elements can fail. Fitting a new one can be a fiddly job, so most owners don’ tend to bother.
The 850 came with plenty of standard kit. Many buyers want air-conditioning, but this was initially an option on the 850 so isn’ fitted to all cars. However, it’ not always reliable and repair costs can be high. The condenser sits in front of the radiator so it’ vulnerable to puncture damage from flying stones and road debris. New ones are about $250 and you’ have to get the system regassed, too. Later cars got a stone guard to protect against damage – check it’ still fitted.
The aircon evaporator can also fail and replacing it involves taking the dashboard out. It doesn’ help that only left-hand drive replacements are currently available. One other issue to look out for concerns the evaporator, which gets wet from condensation, soaks up dust sucked in from the heater fan and all-but guarantees corrosion.
Finding a used 850 R in Australia will be the hardest task, particularly in good condition, but it’ a quirky offering with decent performance to boot.