In the mid-eighties, Volvo was struggling with sharply declining sales. The 700 series has not even been on the market that long, but actually the model is already outdated. The rectilinear design actually builds on the Volvo 140 from the 1960s.
Technically, the Volvos 240, 740 and 760 are also carved from traditional wood. Longitudinal engines are combined with rear-wheel drive and a simple rigid rear axle. Customers demand more dynamically driving cars with more fuel-efficient engines and a more modern design. Merger plans with Saab and Renault come to nothing and Volvo ends up in a deep crisis.
Under the name Project Galaxy, we are working through trial and error on a successor to the 240. The compact, front-wheel drive Volvos from the Netherlands (440, 460 and 480) are the first result. They are doing well in a number of markets, but they are not enough to compensate for Volvo's global decline. Moreover, they are not full alternatives to the large Swedish models.
In June 1991 the 850 GLT is presented. The 850 is in fact the final part of Project Galaxy and it should provide the redeeming answer to all Volvo's problems. The reactions to the appearance are lukewarm. Although the 850 has slightly rounder corners than the 700 and 900 series, the brick shape is still there.
Volvo silences critics with numerous technical innovations. The Volvo 850 not only has front-wheel drive, but also the first transversely mounted five-cylinder in-line engine ever. And it also has multi-valve technology. The rigid rear axle has made way for a patented semi-independent rear axle (Delta link). Typical Volvo safety features include a side impact absorber system (SIPS), automatic seat belt height adjustment and three three-point seat belts in the rear. An integrated child seat is even available as an option. Volvo also installs ABS as standard on the 850, which was far from self-evident at the time.
The international press reacts positively and concludes that the 850 runs more dynamically and lightly than its predecessors. In addition, car enthusiasts get goosebumps from the hoarse engine roll. The fact that the 850 appears to be more spacious than the 940 despite its more compact exterior dimensions is an important practical advantage. Just like the lower fuel consumption.
Throughout its six-year career, the 850 has been supplied exclusively with five-cylinder engines, with various displacements and power ratings from 126 to 250 hp. The only available diesel engine comes from Audi. It is a further developed version of the very first (five-cylinder) TDI engine, with a capacity of 2.5 liters and an output of 140 hp.
In the fall of 1993, the 850 Estate debuts, which stands out for its almost dead straight rear, with long, vertically placed taillights. In 1995 Volvo expanded the safety equipment of the 850 with side airbags in the front seats, a world first.
To market its new, dynamic station wagon, Volvo uses an unusual marketing tool. In the British Touring Car Championship (BTTC) of 1994, two Estate 850s will be at the start, one of which is driven by Jan Lammers. It is the ideal promotion for the fast top model, the T-5 R with 241 hp. Volvo initially builds only 2500 T-5 Rs (sedan and Estate), in the striking color Cream Yellow. After these 'custard suits', a second series of 2500 T-5 Rs follows, but in dark green metallic. The icing on the cake is presented by Volvo in 1996, in the form of the 850 R, with an output of 250 hp. In between, the 850 2.5 T Estate AWD sees the light of day, the first Volvo with four-wheel drive. This version was never delivered in the Netherlands.
Worldwide, about 716,000 people sign a sales contract for the 850 between 1991 and 1996. In the Netherlands there are more than 17,500. In 1997 the 850 makes way for the S70/V70, in fact a facelifted 850 with a rounder nose, a modernized interior and finely ground technology.
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