For one delicious decade, Volvo succumbed to polar madness and built a two-seater with zesty performance, the strength to survive collisions with adult icebergs--and great looks.

It was the 1961 P1800.

Formed like any smorgasbord, the car was designed in Italy, crafted in Scotland, assembled in England and sold from Sweden. When fully evolved in the early '70s, sportier, fuel-injected P1800s actually ran out at 110 m.p.h.

The P1800 may best be remembered by the vanity plate "ST 1" as Simon Templar's sports car of choice. On television, in Saville Row gray, the swan-fendered coupe co-starred with Roger Moore and often showed more poise. It certainly didn't get punched out twice an episode.

Which causes us to suggest limited wisdom behind the 1995 limited edition Volvo 850 T-5R.

From side-impact air bags to daytime running lights and gummy Pirelli racing tires, the car is devoted to keeping us safer than if we'd stayed home.

By tweaking the engine management computer into addressing the turbocharger in sterner tones, the T-5R kicks out 240 horsepower, which is 18 horsepower more than its 850 Turbo cousin. That's good for a top speed of 150 m.p.h. or10 days of community service on the nearest chain gang.

But the triform is incomplete.

This car is quick. Remove the leather and luxuries, and the T-5R is ready to go sedan racing.

This car is tough. It is built so sturdily, bridge abutments have been known to flinch as it passes.

Yet the T-5R is unlovely from any angle and Volvo-blocky with all the aerodynamic form of a UPS truck. Even the implied athleticism of chin and rear deck spoilers can't save the car from looking like something the Mueslix came in.

And its five-spoke alloy wheels in Dumbo gray beg a hundred comparisons. Salad Shooter? Roto-Rooter? Casablanca, and are youse looking at me, kid? Or my very ugly cuff links?

Clearly this car's sporting side will not appeal to Volvo votaries, who are typically sensible family persons, adjunct professors, the tweedy-underwearing and PBS-addicted.

Nor do we believe there are many buyers panting to plunk $35,500 on a car that performs splendidly, will shoulder aside most comers, but still looks like a Stockholm taxi.

These folk, trust me, are tooling around in better-looking Acura Legends, BMW's 3-Series or the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Or Lexus ES300s. That way, they aren't constantly being asked to explain their odd passion for the architecturally challenged.

We are left to suspect--maybe to pray--that the T-5R actually is a test bed for mighty drive trains and componentry.

And that lurking deep within whatever passes for a Skunk Works in Gothenburg there is a sedan in gestation; a sleek, rounded shell of a performer that will return Volvo to an aristocracy of cars whose looks live up to the might of their muscles.

Maybe even a 1999 P1800 four-door.

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Having said all that, and with appearances to one side, the T-5R is an unabashed hot rod and an interesting entry to the market. There's also little doubt that Volvo will sell the 1,000 T-5Rs it will ship to the United States this year if only on the basis of small numbers and the curiosity factor.

And there is an undeniable appeal to the stealth of this car. Pull alongside just about anything. See the scorn as the other driver registers one dweeb aboard a Volvo.

Now tromp on it and suck the hair plugs right out of his forehead as the T-5R sprints to 60 m.p.h. in a little more than six seconds with turbo hissing and whistling in scorn. And there's little lessening of that acceleration as pace passes through mandated limits and the world is wondering where you went.

The T-5R package begins with a stock Turbo 850 listing for about $31,000. Then Volvo stuffs it with every luxury option the factory allows. That's four air bags, handsome lea her seats with suede inlays, automatic climate control, headlight wipers, power sunroof, walnut trim, full power, anti-lock brakes and traction control. Plus rear spoiler, front air dam and those horrible wheels.

A four-speed automatic--with sport, economy and winter modes depending on your mood and the weather forecast--is the only transmission available. Horsepower is increased and the ride stiffened by heftier stabilizer bars, shock absorbers and low-profile Pirellis on 17-inch wheels; although more resilient tires on smaller wheels are available for those bonier of butt.

All that pushes the price to only $35,500 for the sedan and $37,000 for a station wagon version of this thundering Viking.

Oh, and T-5Rs come in just two colors--Bible black and Highlighter yellow. The latter raises an interesting point. Why bother with daylight running lights on a car that already has the visibility of two dozen daffodils on a dung heap?

The interior is all Volvo and yesterday's 850 unchanged. Which means it was designed by a team armed only with set squares and spirit levels, no French curves. Upright this. Rectangular that. Chest out, shoulders back.

With black walnut disappearing against a carbon dashboard, and coal leather seats with raven suede inserts blending into sooty carpets, the inside is all very funereal. Some scarlet here, a flash of yellow there, as BMW does with its racy M-Series, might lighten the depression some.

Seating is incredibly comfortable, friendly to kidneys and lower vertebrae even on a quick haul from Los Angeles to Phoenix and back the following day. With no scrunching for rear-seat passengers.

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The car's high and competitive performance is unquestioned. Although the turbocharged power of its 2.3-liter, in-line five-cylinder engine is a little unbridled. So when getting firm with the gas pedal, it'swise to check that the front wheels are straight and well planted before 221 pound-feet of heavily applied torque sets them twisting and dancing.

Turbo lag is minimal and the inherent understeer of the Turbo 850 appears to have been tamed. Credit could be due those Pirelli tires; although their low walls are built more for interstate cruising than the sometimes crumbled, often littered lanes of the average municipal freeway system.

Volvo is having much fun with the T-5R.

In statements to the media, it notes the car "is clearly not your Uncle Olof's Volvo."

Brrrrrrmpah, thump.

IsayIsayIsay.

Take my wife. Please.

1995 Volvo 850 T-5R

The Good: Built tougher than a brick Mercedes. High-performance wolf in family sedan clothing. Uncomplex functions, solid design, industrial-strength appointments for which Volvo is famous.

The Bad: Cellar-dweller in any beauty pageant. Somber interior.

The Ugly: Garbage disposal blades for wheels.

Cost Base, $35,500. (Includes leather power seats, automatic transmission, automatic climate control, eight-speaker sound system, black walnut trim, anti-lock brakes with traction control, rear spoiler, front air dam, central locking, cast alloy wheels, low-profile tires.)

Engine Turbocharged, 2.3-liter, in-line five-cylinder developing 240 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, high-performance sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 6.8 seconds. Top speed, manufacturer's measure, 152 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway,19 and 26 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,278 pounds.