1991 Volvo 940

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$1,306–$2,586
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chicagotribune.com
Invariably, the cocktail party conversation turns to cars. At least one person will run on about how glamorous it must be to test drive hundreds of cars each year for a living.

``One week a Miata, the next an Acura NSX, then a Mercedes 300SL. How do you keep from blowing your mind?`` a partygoer always will ask.

``Have you ever had to drive a Volvo?`` is our reply.

The conversation quickly turns to religion or politics.

Volvo, any Volvo, looks like a rectangular packing crate on wheels. Five minutes behind the wheel of a Volvo, any Volvo, is about as exciting as spending a week in a monastery. Volvo, any Volvo, makes it look like you can get a degree in automotive design and performance engineering by sending in a coupon on the back of a matchbook cover.

It`s not just that the car looks and acts sterile, it`s that Volvo owners impart an image most folks spend a lifetime trying to avoid. The typical Volvo family stereotype:

- Dad wears suit pants with cuffs; rues the day crew cuts went out of style; starts off every other sentence with, ``When Ike was president . . .``; and dons blue canvass shoes and black socks whenever he ventures out of the house in his walking shorts.

- Mom wears a dress to do laundry; has her hair done once a week; wears a 20-year pin for serving as a PTA officer; has memorized every one of her village`s emergency phone numbers; and proudly displays a photo of Lawrence Welk in the living room.

- Son has a II, III or IV after his name; is captain of the school math club; has a coin or stamp collection, if not both; carries his library card in his wallet; and chuckles when reading Camus.

- Daughter is named Muffy, Buffy, Missy or Sissy; has a pet poodle named Pooh-Pooh; wants to go to college in Hawaii to get a degree as a dietitian or summer camp counselor; and really would rather sit home listening to public radio than attend her junior prom.

- When Dad and Mom divorce, they sell the house but fight over who gets the Volvo. Neither fights to get the kids.

But things change. One week a Miata, next the NSX, another the 300SL, and then arrives a Volvo 940 sedan and the image is destroyed.

After several decades, Volvo has joined civilization.

Make no mistake, this is not an NSX. But the sheet metal is pleasant to look at, and you find yourself paying the designers the highest compliment: ``It doesn`t look like a Volvo.``

The 940 series is new for 1991, replacing the 760 series. There are three 940 models-the GLE, powered by a 2.3-liter, double overhead cam 4-cylinder cylinder; the Turbo with a turbocharged 2.3-liter that develops 162 horsepower; and the SE sedan, the most luxurious in the 940 line, powered by the 162-h.p. turbo.

We test drove the SE sedan. The GLE and Turbo models are available in sedan and wagon versions, the SE in sedan only.

The modernistic styling of th e 940 is significant at Volvo because it reflects the direction designers are going to take with future models. No longer will a Volvo look like the box your refrigerator came in.

``You`re going to see more modern flair,`` promised Volvo spokesman Bob Austin. ``Next up is the 960 sedan that`s on sale in Europe now and will be marketed in the U.S. starting later this year. The 960 features a 24-valve, in-line 6-cylinder.``

What? For decades Volvo was marketed as ugly but safe. No one ever mentioned good looks and the word ``performance`` was verboten. Now comes a good-looking 940 and soon to arrive is a 960 with a more powerful engine?

``We aren`t going to walk away from selling safety,`` Austin said, ``but with the competition in today`s market, you have to bring more to the party. If we were guilty of anything in the past, maybe it was that we didn`t pay enough attention to looks and performance.``

For 1991, the Volvo line includes the dog-ugly 24 series that serves to prove that, though the Swedish automaker is trying to reform its styling, it isn`t there yet; the limited-edition 780 coupe, of which only 400 will be made and sold before it`s dropped; and the 940 sedan that soon will be joined by the 960. Prices range from roughly $20,000 to $40,000.

The 940 stands out from other Volvos in that it features ``more generously radi used edges,`` according to the automaker. That means the sheet metal edges are rounded, not square. The deck lid is raised a bit and the hood sloped a bit, just enough of a tweak in the straight-line approach to give the new car some distinctive character, whereas Volvos past looked like they popped from the same mold used since 1950.

The turbocharged 2.3-liter teamed with four-speed automatic is EPA-rated at 19 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway, a bit on the low side considering it`s a 4-cylinder and the turbo typically doesn`t come into play in EPA mileage measurements. The rating shows the 940 is heavy, though you don`t feel it in the wheel.

The 2.3 responds in ordinary fashion off the line or when moving out into the passing lane. It`s not until the turbo kicks in that you get a rush of power. The in-line 6 in the 960 this fall should provide the boost in off-the- line performance the 940 lacks.

Of course, most Volvo buyers are more concerned with how quickly the car comes to a stop than how fast it takes off. When it comes to safety, a driver- side air bag and antilock brakes are standard. Considering Volvo prides itself on safety, you`d think it would provide a passenger-side air bag as well. It doesn`t.

Though quickness from a stoplight is not the top priority of most Volvo loyalists, starting from a standing stop in foul weather without the rear wheels spinning aimlessly is. For 1991, Volvo offers an automatic locking differential for the 940, a form of traction control.

The automatic locking differentialis designed to apply power to both driving wheels if one starts to spin while starting off. The feature is standard on the 940.

Inside, controls are simple. You can see the dials and buttons you need to use and you can reach them without having to pause for a refresher course with the owner`s manual. Heated driver and passenger seats are a welcome feature in the Midwest.

In back, Volvo earns kudos for a neat styling feature. The roof above the rear-seat occupants is raised in bubble fashion to provide added head room. Nice touch.

There`s ample arm and leg room in back, too. If only two adults are in back, a center armrest can fold down and open up to provide a storage area or mini-table. If three adults get in back, the armrest folds into the seat back and a headrest can be pulled up to serve the extra passenger.

Trunk room is spacious. The domestic automakers should check the 940 out to see how Volvo engineers were able to come up with a massive cargo hold in the trunk without sacrificing back seat room.

Though the 940 is the first Volvo we enjoyed driving in the last 24 years, it had a couple of flaws that should be fixed to make it even better. For starters, the power seat button doesn`t function until you put the key in the ignition and turn accessory power on. If 6-foot Dad tries to slip into the seat after 5-foot daughter last drove the car, he`ll do bodily harm to himself.

The other irritant is the basic interior design. The exterior features rounded edges for a softer look. But the interior still features sharp, stiff edges. The look and feel inside is formal, when the new sheet metal on the outside dictates that the car be more casual.

Standard equipment includes power brakes and steering; air conditioning; power controls for seats, windows, door locks, mirrors and sunroof;AM/FM stereo with cassette; an adjustable steering column; cruise control; rear-window defros er; and 15-inch radial tires.

A 24-hour roadside assistance service and an eight-year, unlimited mileage corrosion protection warranty are added standard benefits.

A new option unveiled this month is a child safety seat that uses the rear-seat folding armrest, plus added belts and buckles, to provide a resting place for a 50- to 80-pound child. The option runs $190.

The 940 SE is priced at $33,775 after an $825 boost last month, which Volvo attributed to higher business costs. You`ll also have to pay a $377 luxury tax under the new 10 percent surcharge on the amount over $30,000.

If Volvo could come up with such a nice car as the 940, perhaps there`s hope for Saab and Peugeot.

>> 1991 Volvo 940 SE
Wheelbase: 109.1 inches Length: 191.7 inches Engine: 2.3 liter, 162 h.p., turbo four cylinder Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 19 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway Base price: $33,775 Strong point: It doesn`t look like a Volvo, proving safety doesn`t have to mean ugly Weak point: No power for seats until the key is turned on, interior needs less formal look >>


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