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1996 Volvo T5R

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — Is 18 extra horsepower and yellow paint enough to turn a wallflower into the life of the party?

It will be, if the Volvo 850 T5R does what it's supposed to do.

Ronny Persson, president of Volvo Canada, says the parent company paid the market research firm J. D. Power and Associates thousands of dollars to tell them what journalists have been

telling them for free: that Volvos are safe, solid, durable

and boring.

Despite various high-performance turbocharged models over the years, despite entering station wagons (!) in endurance racing, despite (or maybe because of) efforts like the 980 Bertone

coupe, Volvos are still perceived as anything but sporty.

The 850 Turbo has helped. It has the handling to go with the power, and enough style to make it the grocery-getter du jour in Beverly Hills and other highfashion hot spots. Hardly a wallflower.

But Volvo really wanted to make a statement about where they think their cars can go. They wanted a car that could be considered in the same breath as BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C36.

Last fall's European car show circuit saw the debut of the T5R, the ultimate expression of 850-ishness. It's coming soon to a Volvo store near you.

The yellow paint makes the car an attention-getter par excellence. So do the wheels: stark, modern-industrial, titanium-colored, five-spoke 17-inchers, which expose most of the brake disc and caliper.

Zrated Pirelli PZero 205/45 tires look even lower-profile than they are. The relatively narrow width means the 0.45 aspect ratio translates into an extremely small section height — the distance from road surface to wheel rim. They look like black rubber bands stretched around the wheels.

Volvo says "more ride-oriented" customers can order 16-inch wheels and cushier tires. I'd suggest that if you're "ride-oriented", you don't want a T5R in the first place. (That lowkey name was the company's designation for the European model, and it's been kept for our cars.)

A trunk-mounted spoiler is fitted to T5R sedans; wagons get a roofline extender above the tailgate. A front air dam, designed with assistance from Volvo's new niche-market partner, Tom

Walkinshaw Racing, is the other feature distinguishing T5R from run-of-the-factory 850 Turbos.

The yellow color will be discontinued after 1995, says Persson, the theory being that someone who buys something special in its first year should have his investment protected.

T5R will also be offered in black, but why would anyone bother? Why make it look like you bought a normal 850 with after-market wheels?

The increase in peak power from 222 to 240 horses is the result of a chip dip with extra salsa. The engine management computer allows fullthrottle turbo boost pressure to spool up to 10.9 pounds per square inch for up to seven seconds, versus 9.6 p.s.i. on regular Turbos.

The extra urge arrives only at the very top end of the powerband; you can't expect dramatically better over-the-road performance.

T5R will be offered with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a Japanese-built AisinWarner four-speed electronic automatic. On the manual car, peak torque is 10 per cent higher than for the automatic, which is the same as the normal Turbo.

In all cases, the torque curve is virtually flat from 2000 r.p.m. on up. Turbo boost comes in early and stays there.

In any event, from-rest acceleration is traction limited; low-speed traction control is standard.

Our American cousins, by the way, don't get the manual gearbox because that powertrain has not been outfitted to meet what's known as the onboard diagnostics (OBD II) proviso of U.S.

emissions regulations.

Suspension is firmed up for the T5R effectively, the fatter bars, stiffer springs and firmer shocks are the European "sport" setup.

The interior is pretty much standard 850 Turbo fare, but with darker burl walnut wood trim and increased lateral support for the front seats.

Every goody Volvo offers — dual frontal air bags, side-impact air bags, leather upholstery with suede inserts, automatic dualzone air, power heated seats, windows, locks with remote control, glass sunroof, trick stereo, trip computer — is standard on the T5R. The only extra-cost option is a dealer-installed, six-disc, cargo-area-mounted CD changer.

As expected, driving a T5R feels little different than driving an 850 Turbo. My test-drive route took me over the Ortega Highway, south of Los Angeles, one of the storied roads of this part of the world. Torrential rains earlier in the week dampened pavement and spirits; hardly ideal conditions to evaluate a high-performance car.

You'd need a race track to determine much performance advantage of the T5R over a normal 850 Turbo — no slight intended, since that's a very potent automobile.

Despite the slippery pavement, I switched off the traction control; it seems pointless to me on a frontdrive car.

Ride quality suffers a little, but not markedly; the tires do jiggle more, especially on broken freeway pavement, but the car would still be a competent daily driver. The P-Zeros handle wet

pavement better than I expected; you'd want to lose them come wintertime, though.

I rotated through several T5Rs sedan, wagon, automatic, manual. All were prototypes, and there were considerable differences in the way the cars felt. A hard-to-define tightness and rightness on the automatic sedan, for example, seemed to be missing from the two wagons I drove.

Inconsistent build quality is expected in prototypes. Sources close to the company tell me it's not entirely unusual with production 850s too probably with all cars, to some degree. Some examples just seem more perfect than others.

Prices haven't been confirmed as yet, but Volvo Canada's Persson estimates the T5R manual sedan will come in at around $47,000.

Auto transmission and the wagon body style will add about $1,000 each; you can calculate the permutations. It should amount to less than a grand more than a fully equipped 850 Turbo; not a bad deal for the added glamor and exclusivity.

It also gives you a loaded, limited-edition, high-performance European sports sedan (or wagon) for tens of thousands less than a BMW M3 or Mercedes-Benz C36.

Volvo claims a T5R will be comfortable for the daily commute, the implication being that the others would not be. I haven't driven a C36 yet, but I know for a fact I could live with an M3. Verrry nicely.

Only 102 T5Rs — an average of just two per dealer — will be imported to Canada this year, with a mix of yellow and black, sedan and wagon, stick shift and automatic.

If you just have to get your antique grandfather's clock home from the auction in record time — and in a car that leaves no doubt as to who made the highest bid — better start acting really nice to your local Volvo dealer today.

*

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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