I don't like the looks of the Volvo 850 Sportswagon.

Then again I can't recall any Volvo - except the classic P1800 - whose looks I have liked.

In fact, after testing Volvos on and off for five years, I think I am finally getting the message: Volvos aren't about trendy styling or driving the best-looking machine on your block.

Nope. The real beauty of a Volvo can be found underneath the fenders. It's the durability, the ruggedness and the built-in safety features of the machine that make you like it.

To dwell on the 850 Sportswagon's dowdy styling and weird taillights is to miss the point.


The most powerful engine Volvo has ever built rests under the square hood of the Volvo 850 Sportswagon. It's a 222-horsepower, turbocharged, in-line five-cylinder aluminum engine of 2.3 liters.

This terrific lightweight engine - which drives the front wheels - delivers the same level of performance you would expect from a small V-8.

Smooth is not exactly how I would describe the way this engine runs. Perhaps the odd number of cylinders makes for more vibration than a four- or six-cylinder engine. However, I like the way the five-cylinder engine runs. It feels powerful. And it is.

Nowhere in Volvo's press materials are you going to find an official 0-to-60 mph time - after all, Volvo has that safety reputation to protect. But in the pages of enthusiasts magazines such as Road and Track, you'll find that the 850 Sportswagon can reach 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds. That's fast.

If you like cars that are quick from a stop, then you will be smitten with this car. Pressing the accelerator hard enough to activate the turbocharger gives the 850 enough power to make it leap into action.

A turbocharger, by the way, is a pump driven by exhaust gas. It forces a denser mixture of fuel and air into the engine, which increases power while only marginally affecting fuel mileage. If you drive normally, you won'tuse the turbocharger much, but the device kicks in to make passing power nothing short of excellent.

Speaking of fuel mileage, on a 900-mile one-day driving marathon to Pensacola and back, the 850 averaged 24.9 mpg on the road.


Has any car that ever looked so dull handled so brilliantly? Probably not.

The 850 Sportswagon is definitely a street sleeper. The only thing that hints that the 850 is equipped with some serious high-performance hardware are its big 16-inch alloy rims and low-profile tires.

You can drive the 850 just as hard and fast as you want. It can handle any curve at any legal speed. That would be a respectable feat for a sedan or sports coupe, but it's almost unheard of for a wagon, especially one not wearing a BMW badge.

The ride is firm but not so stiff as to make the car tiresome to drive. It is very quiet on the road and over bumps.

Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering allows you to turn a complete circle in a tight 33.5 feet. And the four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes provide excellent stopping power.

Our test car came with optional traction control, but it didn't seem to make a difference. I tried it on a dirt road, but with the dash-mounted switch in either position, the front tires still spun.

Volvo, which is a newcomer to front-wheel drive cars, really did its homework with the 850. You can't tell the front wheels are driving the car.


Even though the interior of the 850 Sportswagon is adorned with wood trim and leather upholstery, it still comes off as being more functional than stylish.

The dash is rather square and plain-looking. The analog instruments, with their white letters, black background and orange needles are easy to read but not especially noteworthy. And the switches and buttons all have a somewhat heavy and utilitarian feel to them.

Be that as it may, the interior of the 850 is an exceptionally comfortable placet be. I know; I spent 15 hours - 10 straight - behind the wheel.

The heavily padded front bucket seats are just terrific. You don't just sit on them, you sit in them. You sink slightly in and then the seat firms up and holds you in place. The high head restraints look a bit awkward, but I can't recall a test vehicle that I felt protected my head and neck - and those of my passenger - better.

More than any car I can remember, the seats in the 850 give you a feeling of security.

Even though the 850 Sportswagon is a mid-sized car, it is an extremely well packaged vehicle, so it feels more like a large car. There is an abundant amount of head and leg room front and rear.

The rear seats split and fold forward to allow for odd-size parcels to be stowed in the rear cargo area. Our test car came with a built-in child safety seat and practically every power accessory you could want, including a power sunroof.

All in all, the Volvo 850 Sportswagon is right up there with the Oldsmobile Aurora and Saab 900 S as one of the best vehicles I've tested this year.


1994 Volvo 850 Sportswagon Base price: $31,735 EPA rating: 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway Price as tested: $33,790 Incentives: None

Truett's tip: The 850 Sportswagon is the ideal vehicle for young families. It's a car that can haul the kids as well as be driven fast and hard like a sports coupe. It just may be Volvo's best car.