Don’t underestimate the Volvo 850, the car that, in its characteristic Swedish reserved way, reinvented the automaker when it popped into American showrooms for 1993. The boxy 850 didn’t look like much of a departure, but Volvo’s investment in its new car was the most any Swedish brand had ever spent on itself.
Look beyond the boxy but elegant lines, with its softer corners than the harsh angles on the 900- and 700-series cars with which the 850 was to share showroom space. Forget the tractorlike, ultra-durable 240. For Volvo, the 850 would become its showpiece. It was a highly advanced car that allowed the automaker to flex its sophistication, its safety and especially its performance. Now, nearly 30 years after the 850 was unveiled in the summer of 1991 at a media event, the car that set the stage for the brand’s renaissance has the makings of a future classic.
Even Volvo knew it at the time. The automaker’s memorable print ads to launch the turbocharged version of the car in the U.S. showed an 850 cresting a hill with all four wheels off the ground and the tagline, “This is not your Uncle Olaf’s Volvo.” Uncle Olaf would have plugged along in a 114-horsepower 240 wagon, while the new Volvo owner had nearly twice the horsepower at their disposal.
Admittedly, the 850 got off to a relatively mild start. The first cars to arrive in the U.S. for the 1993 model year were powered by a 2.4-liter inline five rated at 168 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque that shuttled power to the front wheels. Early reviews were positive, but not glowing with enthusiasm. After all, BMW had just stolen the stage with its 1992 325i that swung 189 hp to the rear axle — and the German brand was reluctant to give that up.
For 1994, Volvo was ready to party. The 850 Turbo used a downsized 2.3-liter inline five that hustled its 222 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. At about $30,500, the 850 Turbo was also a bargain. It came dressed up with leather upholstery, a power sunroof, power front seats and 5-spoke alloy wheels shod with high-performance Michelin rubber. To match top power output, contemporary shoppers would need to drop nearly $40,000 on a Saab 9000 Aero or Lexus GS 300, two much larger cars. BMW couldn’t even match the 850 Turbo’s power output with its V8-powered 530i.
For Volvo, the 850 Turbo was just the start. A year later, the automaker tested the waters with a higher-boost, Porsche-massaged 850 T-5R rated at 243 hp, which could vault to 60 miles per hour in a little over six seconds. Volvo allowed buyers to decide if they wanted to go bonkers or subtly bonkers by offering just two paint colors: yellow and black.
Truthfully, neither the 850 T5-R nor the 850 R that followed with an upsized turbo and bolstered seats was an especially polished sports sedan. That much power sent forward meant excessive torque steer. Even later 850 GLTs, with their low-pressure turbochargers, had a tendency to seek out ditches and oncoming traffic when floored. Still, they were fun, and they showed personality like no Volvo had in decades.
Performance wasn’t the only thing the 850 could do. It was also exceptionally safe. In 1995, the 850 became the first car to offer side-impact airbags integrated into the seats. German automakers would dabble in door-mounted side airbags over the next few years, but it was the 850 that created the mold followed by every major automaker nearly 25 years later.
Today, high-mileage 850s aren’t hard to find. Those that have been kept up well promise many more years of zippy performance, sublimely comfortable seats and more standard safety features than some automakers would fit to their cars a decade later. Clean 850s pop up for sale more often than you might expect, perhaps a holdover from Volvo’s more conservative days. Here’s a pretty Aqua Blue 1996 850 Turbo that represents a best-of-the-breed combination of features, while purists might like this beautifully preserved 1993 850. Find a Volvo 850 for sale