Smooth, durable and tops in safety.

Volvo has been on a roll in the U.S. market, and this car is one of the reasons.

Although station wagons don't ordinarily play a big part in a manufacturer's total sales picture, they do at Volvo -- particularly the Volvo 850 Wagon. Introduced just last year, it accounts for something like one-third of all 850 sales, in contrast to the more common seven or eight percent.

Why is this? We can only speculate. Volvos tend to appeal to people who prioritize functionality and safety ahead of style, and few automobiles are stronger in these two traits than the 850.

And as far as style goes, we happen to think that Volvo wagons generally look a little more appealing than their sedan counterparts.

There's a premium price for this or any of Volvo's other virtues. But Volvo owners tend to be a fairly satisfied lot, and their cars just keep going and going...

Walkaround

The 850 is Volvo's first front-wheel-drive automobile, and it's been an almost unqualified success. The 850 is a mid-size wagon -- a little smaller than Volvo's key competitors in this market segment: the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry wagons.

And even though Volvo has been trying to smooth off the hard corners of its designs, the 850 Wagon still looks boxier than the others. We also found that the tall taillights that flank the tailgate from bumper to roof take some getting used to.

To be fair, Volvo didn't put them there just because someone thought they'd look good. Volvo's commitment to safety is relentless, and long taillights make the car more visible to other drivers -- not just to the driver directly behind, but the driver behind the driver behind the driver behind...you get the idea.

Volvo has been busy with the headlights, too. For 1995, all Volvos will be equipped with Daytime Running Lamps -- DRLs, as they're already coming to be known.

The idea is simple. Having your headlamps on all the time makes you more visible to oncoming traffic. DRLs are already required in Sweden and Canada, and a recent change in federal regulations makes them feasible in the United States.

We're not so sure that everyone's going to think this is a terrific idea. There are those who would argue that judging the distance to an oncoming car is more difficult when that car has its headlights on. And it can also be argued that having your headlights on, even at the low intensity used by DRLs, negates the usefulness of the flash-to-pass function.

Finally, there are those, including some of us here at New Car Test Drive, who dislike the idea of a car company playing mom to us all. Nevertheless, DRLs are in at Volvo, and other car companies are following suit -- Chevrolet and Volkswagen, to name two.

The Volvo 850 Wagon comes in three models: the basic wagon, the more luxurious GLT and the torrid Turbo. A five-speed manual transmission is standard for the basic car and the GLT, while the Turbo is automatic-only.

The standard engine is a 2.4-liter five-cylinder that's acceptably powerful and exceptionally smooth. With a turbocharger, however, this engine becomes a real tiger, generating 222 hp and transforming this modest mid-size wagon into one of the fastest freighters on the road.

Our test wagon was a GLT with an automatic transmission.

The Inside Story

Side-impact airbags have been considered for years by several manufacturers, but Volvo, characteristically, is first to bring them to market.

The problems associated with the concept seem complex, but Volvo's solution is elegantly simple. Designed to inflate within 12 milliseconds of impact, the system is integrated into the outer side bolsters of the front seats. Sensors in the side body panels trigger the system, which employs a pyrotechnic flash (gunpowder) to set off two sequentially actuated gas generators that inflate the airbag.

Volvo already had one of the best side and angled frontal-impact protection systems in the business, and this makes it that much better.

Available initially only in the 850 line, the side-impact airbag system is standard equipment in turbocharged models, and a $500 option in the basic 850 and 850 GLT.

Naturally, our test car was equipped with the system. We're happy to report that we didn't test it.

Other 850 standard safety features: dual airbags, standard anti-lock brakes (ABS) and three-point seat belts and head restraints at all five seating positions. Integrated child safety seats are also available.

The 850 Wagon is a comfortable place to be as the miles roll by. Volvo seats have always been first-rate, and the 850's are no exception -- well padded, with plenty of lumbar support and a very good range of adjustability.

The instrument panel looks a little angular compared with the sweeping, organic lines of more contemporary layouts. But the instruments and secondary controls are well-marked and easy to read. An exception here is the radio, which has lots of little buttons.

On the outside, the 850 Wagon is a bit smaller than the other popular midsize wagons, and the same goes for the inside, as well -- primarily in the cargo area.

There's some more rear-seat leg room than in the Camry and Accord wagons, but the cargo area maxes out at 67 cubic feet. However, the shape of the cargo space is well-designed for maximum efficiency, the cargo floor is flat when the split rear seat is folded, and the rear hatch is wide. There's also a net to stretch across the cargo bay to keep laundry baskets from vaulting into the front seats when you stop.

Ride & Drive

Although our GLT automatic wasn't exactly exciting, particularly after a quick spin in a Turbo model, it was quiet, smooth and comfortable.

Ride quality was firm, without feeling aggressive or harsh, and we'd call the handling sporty, particularly as measured by the standards of the other popular midsize wagons. Firm suspension tuning usually equates with good control, particularly in European cars, and that's the case here.

Handling becomes distinctly sporty in the Turbo edition, at the expense of some choppiness. The Turbo's performance is seductive, but for all-around comfort we'd choose the more sedate traits of our test car.

Sedate also applies to the performance of the 850's five-cylinder engine. Its power is fine for cruising and passing on two-lane highways, and it's definitely a smooth operator with impressive fuel economy numbers.

But it's a little short on muscle at the bottom of its operating range, the kind of punch that gets you running when the light turns green. Even with its three operating modes -- economy, sport and winter/wet -- the automatic transmission doesn't help in this kind of work.

Braking performance, on the other hand, is simply outstanding whether the road is dry or wet. The basic four-wheel disc system has excellent power and control, and ABS pretty much makes the notion of panic stops a thing of the past. Why panic when you're still in control?

Final Word

The Volvo 850 Wagon isn't what you'd call a styling pacesetter, and it's on the small side among mid-size wagons. The standard engine, though smooth, is rather ordinary in terms of performance.

The 850's small shortfalls are magnified by its price. This is an expensive car, straddling the $30,000 luxury-car border.

But in the areas that matter to Volvo buyers -- durability and safety -- the 850 is a standout.

So it comes down to a couple of questions: how important is safety to you? And what price would you pay for it?

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© 1995 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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