Volvo is striving to revise its reputation as a builder of conservative cars for liberal 'burbs. Public presumptions for the product, goes the edict from Goteborg, should no longer invite the adjectives scholarly, tweedy, doughty and dour. Volvos of the '90s must be sporty, nimble, something to be feared in a rearview mirror and an absolute giggle to drive. So the Swedish company built the 850 GLT, which enters showroom and street service this month as a sports sedan first, a family value second. It is indeed quicker--with the five-speed version recording 0-60 m.p.h times in a fraction over 9 seconds. It definitely handles more like a car than a barge--with a flexing rear-axle setup adding the effect of four-wheel steering with none of the expensive, complex hardware. It has improved mechanicals that are radical for any Volvo--with front-wheel drive and 2.4-liter, five-cylinder engine mounted across the front bay for a shorter, lower, more athletic front end. Volvo appears to have achieved its aims. But consider the starting point. It was a cumbersome covey of cars already a half-generation behind the times. Volvo has always been heavily dependent on fourth-time buyers who view their sedans as armored personnel carriers and family heirlooms to be handed down when baby is registering at Berkeley. With the 850 GLT, Volvo has simply updated an antedate. The result is a senior, sensible sedan offering a general parity with others in the field--a crowd of mid-size, well-handling automobiles with such desirable front runners as the Audis 90 and 100, Acura Vigor, BMW's 325i and the Lexus ES300. All are about the same price (mid to high 20s) and size. Value and quality are close. Unwavering reliability is a common denominator. All carry a cachet suggesting their owners are pretty astute buyers. Where the four models of Volvo 850 GLT stand apart is their adherence to twin venerable traditions. One: The car remains a family-oriented utility vehicle, more squares than curves and heavy on fundamental equipment before Sharper Image frills. Two: It has not lost its heft as a Swedish Humvee for those who believe that if you can't avoid accidents, best be inside a car better equipped to survive them. So driver and passenger-side air bags are standard in the 1993 850 GLT. Anti-lock brakes coupled to four 11.5-inch discs also come with the car. That's for parents. Kids weighing between 30 and 80 pounds--or maybe a good-sized golden retriever--will be held safe on a rear center armrest that doubles as a booster seat with lap and shoulder harness. As always, the Volvo 850 is built like a brick ski shack, and the construction emphasizes energy absorption before brute resistance. The front end of the unit body is constructed around side members angled to dissipate head-on crash forces by transmitting them t hrough windshield pillars and into the roof, doors and floor. The passenger compartment also presumes the worst; it is built from high-stress steel and surrounds its occupants like a roll cage on a Winston Cup stock car. Center pillars are robust, roof and doors are heavily reinforced and there's a unique system for soaking up side impacts. This Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) is set around twin tubes transversing the front seat cushions. In the event of a side impact, they channel crash forces across the car and transmit destructive energy to the far door. Would that Volvo's stylists had pursued the engineering department's total attentionto innovation and upgrades. Unfortunately, the looks of the Volvo 850 GLT are only fractionally improved from the boxy stodge of previous years. The car is six inches shorter than the entry level 240, the grille has been narrowed and the wheels are now six-spoke cast alloys instead of vented pie pla es. But that's about it. The 850's rear window remains a short, steep cliff, and the back end is perfectly vertical. Alongside the Volvo 740, 940 or 960, even bifocal close, it will be impossible to separate the 850 from siblings who were never Miss Sweden in the first place. Purpose before appearance remains the theme of an interior offering the height and space of a small barn. It is also a little stark, square in shape and philosophy but with comfortable bucket seats and large, positive, well-positioned controls built for durable, almost heavy-duty functioning. Volvo's in-line five-banger--based on a modular concept whereby cylinders are added or subtracted rather like lamb chunks on a shish kebab--puts out 168 horsepower. It is adequate. But to get the car performing with the zip and zing of the competition, drivers must be pushy with gears and keep revolutions above 3,000 r.p.m., where better things seem to happen. With the optional automatic transmission, acceleration times are typically slower. Handling has lost its typical heaviness and lumbering roll, and those are vast improvements for Volvo. But again, the upgraded agility remains at Bronze Medal levels and simply does not surpass the steering and suspension feel of an Audi, BMW and their mid-size ilk. All of which positions the 850 GLT as a change for the better, a leap in a progressive direction and the addition of mechanical moxie without compromising the fidelity of any family's best friend: A Volvo sedan. But the 850 GLT just isn't a sports sedan. 1993 Volvo 850 GLT The Good Newer, improved performer. Two air bags, more safety features than personal bodyguard. Reliable, high-value engineering. The Bad Styling still searching for '90s. No threat to mid-size pack. The Ugly Snubbed butt. Cost Base $24,100. As tested, $27,020. (Includes leather upholstery, CDplayer, sunroof, key-less remote entry, security system, dual climate controls, anti-lock brakes, driver and passenger-sideair bags.) Engine 2.4 liters, 20-valve, in-line five-cylinder developing 168 horsepower. Type Front-wheel drive, five-passenger mid-size sedan. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested with 5-speed, 9.2 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 125 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 20 and 29 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,187 pounds.