I'm biased. I dislike Volvos. Even tolerable Volvos, such as the tested Volvo 960 sedan, make me edgy. My prejudice has nothing to do with mechanical or assembly quality. It has everything to do with The Volvo Attitude, a pernicious blend of false modesty and political correctness that churns my gut. Volvos are goody-two-shoes cars, which is why they're always square. They are motorized versions of that silly new book, "The Rules," which purports to tell women how to get men. Volvos only kiss on the first date. You give them a commitment, and they give you rejuvenating virginity. To wit: "Yes, we drove. But it didn't count. We were en route to a meeting of the Society for the Protection of Everyone, and we were being safe." Oh, I rant! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! But it maddens me. I'm suspicious of saints, especially those who wear jewels and satin -- or the equivalent thereof -- beneath garments of self-conscious humility, which is the case with the 1997Volvo 960. The car is a homely box on the outside; but it's richly bedecked within. It has deep-pile carpeting; eight-way, electrically adjustable seats, which are wonderfully comfortable and covered with sumptuous leather. It has under-fanny heaters to keep those seats warm in wintry weather; burl walnut wood; an eight-speaker stereo system; and an automatic, electronically operated climate-control system. The only things missing are servants. Background: Rare is the Volvo buyer who admits lust for luxury and prestige in purchasing the car. Justification usually is based on the car's virtues -- safety being chief among them. Volvo understands as much; and so it comes as no surprise that the 960 sedan -- the company's flagship car -- comes with safety devices aplenty. Air bags? Volvo offers four -- one in the steering wheel, another on the passenger-side dashboard, and two side-impact bags on front seats -- in every car it sells in America. There are also automatically tensioning seat belts; three-point seat belts designed to lock in children's seats; an integrated child's rear booster seat (standard in the 960 wagon, optional in the sedan); rear doors and tailgate with child-safety locks; front and rear fog lamps; daytime running lights; one of the most advanced side-impact crash-protection systems offered in the auto industry; power four-wheel disc brakes equipped with a Bosch anti-lock system (standard in the 960 sedan and wagon), and five-mile-per-hour bumpers. It's safer than abstinence. But the 960 also has some libido, as evidenced by its quite willing, in-line six-cylinder, 24-valve, double overhead-cam engine rated 181 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Torque is rated 199 pound-feet at 4,100 rpm. An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission is standard. Both the 960 sedan and wagon are rear-drive mobiles designed to seat five people. Complaints: I can understand Volvo's reluctance to jettison its tra demark, linear exterior styling. But its willingness to hold on to that ugly, ergonomically tortuous dashboard absolutely baffles me. It's got to go, Volvo. Dump it! Praise: An exceedingly safe, comfortable car that can boogie on down the road when it wants to. Head-turning quotient: Gets your attention, but leaves you cold. Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces. No complaints. Braking gets high marks, too. Mileage: Gets about 24 miles per gallon (20.3-gallon, estimated 477-mile range on usable volume of recommended premium unleaded), combined city-highway, running with two occupants and light cargo. Sound system: 100-watt, eight-speaker, electronically operated AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with trunk-mounted, six-disc CD changer. Installed by Volvo. Makes you wanna holler. Excellent. Price: Base price on the 1997 Volvo 960 sedan is $34,300. Dealer invoice price on base model is $31,600. Price as tested is $35,925, including $1,130 in options (heated f ont seats , outside temperature gauge, locking differential and optional sound system), and a $495 destination charge.
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