An iconic race-bred family hauler: The 1996 Volvo 850R

I recently had the opportunity to drive this beautiful 1996 Volvo 850R Estate. Powered by a 2.3L 20V turbocharged I5, this front-wheel drive wagon put out 240 hp and 240lb-ft of torque when new. // Photos and text by Nathan Christian

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April 4, 1994: Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) came out to play at the British Touring Car Championship with a car seemingly unfit for the circuit – a Volvo 850 Estate. With a starting grid including agile Alfa Romeo 155’s and BMW 318i’s, the 850 Estate looked far from its element compared to these rear-wheel drive sport sedans whose manufacturers had prior experience in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). Although TWR was unsuccessful at securing any titles with either of the two 850 Estate racecars, their brave entry into the BTCC with a front-wheel drive family car won the hearts of many.

Fast-forward to 1996, when Volvo releases the ultimate 850 for the street, the 850R. Inspired by the infamous “two wheeler” TWR 850 racecar (and successor to the limited edition ‘95 850 T-5R), the new 850R brought the speed and agility of the BTCC to the hands of the public for their own irresponsible street use. The Volvo 850R is a humble, sporty and surprising vehicle, and I was able to get my hands on one for a day.

Anybody that knows me knows that I love obscure cars, so I was ecstatic when my neighbor, Phil, told me that I could review and photograph his 1996 Volvo 850R wagon. Phil’s particular 850R is finished in “Bright Red” and has just under 140,000 miles on the odometer. Available in either a sedan or an estate configuration, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an estate.

Powered by a 2.3 liter, 20 valve, turbocharged five cylinder, this wagon put out 240 horsepower and 240lb-ft of torque when it was brand new. All 850R’s that were destined for U.S. shores were equipped with a quick shifting and remarkably impressive 4-speed automatic. Don’t get me wrong, I love having three pedals as much as the next (car) guy, but I know a good automatic transmission when I feel it, and I feel it with this transmission. Phil’s 850R has the highly desirable Volan seven spoke 17” wheels finished in a stunning gunmetal shade of grey along with a factory roof-mounted lip spoiler.

Enough with all of the numbers and details – how does it drive?

Fantastic. It’s an inconspicuous sort of power you have when behind the wheel of this car. You realize in the back of your mind that you could blow the doors off that Scion FR-S sitting next to you at the stop light with ease. The power delivery is smooth and fairly uneventful until you hit the sweet spot of peak boost and all 240 horses try to escape through the front wheels at once.

How does it sound? Unique. It has a nice grumble on a cold start idle, but once it warms up it is as quiet as about every other car on the road around it (nothing an IPD turbo-back exhaust can’t fix). However, when you’re getting on it, you can hear that oh-so-special turbocharged five cylinder screaming at the transmission to shift to the next gear as clear as day. Steering is precise and accurate. I have absolutely zero complaints about the way that the car changes direction. Just aim the car into the corner and stab the throttle accordingly to help adjust the car depending on how tight the corner is.

If I have one real complaint about this car, it’s how it rides. It almost rides too sporty for me. Coming from a guy who daily drives a Honda S2000 on coilovers, I would easily consider this car be on the rougher side of ride quality, which could be annoying on long car rides or trips. On the positive side of the sporty ride, there is very little body roll and it’s very predictable through corners.

This car is something special that we don’t see often in the modern automobile industry: a manufacturer being straight up different. I would consider it the gatekeeper for the “superwagons” category, alongside the Volvo V60 Polestar, BMW M5 Touring, Cadillac CTS-V wagon and Mercedes-AMG wagons. Ever since driving this beautiful example of an 850R, I’ve found myself accidentally looking at the 850R’s in the classifieds section more than I ever would have been before. Although the Tom Walkinshaw Racing 850 never had any notable victories in the BTCC, we can all be thankful for the byproduct of that unsuccessful racecar, the 850R.

Nathan Christian lives in Lee's Summit, MO and enjoys daily driving his Laguna Blue Honda S2000 (when it's above freezing outside). Check out his Instagram account (@speedenthusiasts) to view more of his work.

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