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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Richard Truett
May 25, 1995
The new Volvo 960 struck me as a sort of European Buick, a plush, comfortable car designed to appeal to older drivers. That's not a bad thing if you are looking for an innocuous imported mid-size sedan that is solid and safe and that offers
average performance and handling. If I sound somewhat unenthusiastic about the Volvo 960, it's because I drove our light gold test car 421 miles in a week and discovered nothing that made it stand out in a very crowded field of exemplary $30,000 cars.
Does this mean the 960 is a bad car? Not at all. It just means that the 960 has little personality. Its looks won't get you noticed, its interior won't excite you, and its performance won't thrill you. On the road, the car is capable and
nothing more. PERFORMANCE The 960 is equipped with a smooth-running but not-so-quiet 2.9-liter inline six-cylinder engine that has two overhead cams and 24 valves. The aluminum engine is rated at 181 horsepower - and every one of those horses is
needed to move the 960's 3,461 pounds. Car and Driver magazine tested a 960 and logged a 0-to-60 mph time of 8.6 seconds - a leisurely run when compared with the competition. For example Saab's 900SE, which also comes with a six-cylinder engine, can
reach 60 mph in 7.7 seconds, according to Road & Track magazine. The Saab's V-6 generates 170 horsepower, 11 less than the Volvo. Yet the 900SE is quicker and much more entertaining to drive. The docile 960 doesn't have peaks and valleys of
performance, as do many 24-valve six-cylinder cars. Its engine pulls consistently at any speed, delivers adequate passing power and cruises unflinchingly at highway speeds. It's only when the engine is called upon for strenuous exercise, such as fast
acceleration from slow speeds, that its lack of verve becomes noticeable. You can hear the engine breathing, maybe even straining, to comply. Generally, Japanese near-luxury cars, such as the Lexus ES 300 and the Infiniti J30, are quieter and more
powerful. Several times, the engine in our test car did not start easily. It took several twists of the key to keep the engine running after it sputtered and stalled. The 960 is equipped with a computer-controlled four-speed automatic transmission
that allows the driver to select one of three shift modes, ''Winter,'' ''Sport,'' or ''Economy.'' Mostly, the difference in each mode is when the transmission shifts. In the Sport mode, the engine revs higher, thereby delivering crisper acceleration.
In the Economy mode, the transmission shifts smoother at lower speeds. Instead of traction control, Volvo has added the third setting. In the Winter mode, first and second gears are not used. The 960 starts very, very slowly in this mode. Even when
the accelerator is floored, it is not likely that enough power would get to the rear wheels to make them lose traction even on the most slippery roads. Our test car, driven wi
th the air conditioner running most of the time, returned 18 mpg in city driving and 26 on the highway. HANDLING The 960's four-wheel independent suspension system provides a decent blend of sportiness and luxury. But so do many other cars in the
same price range. So the Volvo has almost no traits that make it any more desirable than competitive cars. What I mean is, nothing makes the Volvo any better than the cars it competes against. However, the 960 has one characteristic that must rank
as best in class or close to it - it can turn a very tight circle. In fact, Volvo says the turning radius - the circular distance the car will turn when the steering wheel is turned all the way to the left or the right - is just 31.8 feet. To put
things in perspective, some sports cars, such as the Toyota MR2, can't even turn a circle that sharply. On the road, that means that U-turns in tight places can be performed with ease. It also means that when jock
ying for a parking space in a crowded lot, you can sneak right in without circling the lot like a buzzard. The 960's power-assisted four-wheel anti-lock brakes are adequate. They don't seem overpowering at first, but they grab hard when you apply
extra pressure on the brake pedal. You don't hear much noise as the 960 rolls over the road. The suspension system is capable and competent, keeping the body straight when cornering quickly. When you drive over bumps, the soft-riding 960 dips
gently, almost gracefully - just like a big Buick. FIT AND FINISH The 960 has a user-friendly wood-trimmed, leather-lined interior. But for some reason it does not radiate much ambiance and warmth. The angular dash seems to clash with the rounded
shifter housing, and a seam running the length of the dash makes for a bit of visual clutter. But most controls are placed within easy reach. And the knobs, buttons and switches are cleanly designed for easy use. The three rotary controls for the air
conditioner, for instance, can be twisted and set without the driver taking his or her eyes off the road for more than a second or two. Our test car's $30,000 price seemed justified by the generous amount of equipment the car had. Radio-controlled
door locks, power sunroof, cruise control, power windows, seats mirrors and door locks and an excellent AM/FM cassette and CD player topped the list. The front bucket seats are a bit soft but very supportive in the lower back area. They were excellent
on a long trip. The driver and front passenger have plenty of foot room, legroom and headroom. Visibility is good too. Average-sized rear passengers may find just enough room to be comfortable. The back of the front seat might be a bit too close for
comfort for some larger rear passengers. I would have to give our test car two thumbs up for the way it was assembled. It felt just as solid and well-built as a more expensive BMW. All the 960 really needs is a bit more character, perhaps a more
powerful engine and a sportier suspension system. Truett's tip: Volvo may have shaved off the 960's sharp edges, but those minor styling tweaks have done little to make the car more stylish or more fun to drive. The 960
remains a conservative, soft-riding, sedate sedan.