VOLVO SHOULD FORGET about sex. Really. Every time Volvo tries to get sexy, it produces something like the 1996 model 850 R, a car that is to libido what politics is to common sense.

That's not saying the 850 R is bad. Functionally it's a good car. Its dysfunction is in concept -- the idea that something as traditionally square as a Volvo could have anything other than missionary appeal.

In 1992, when the first 850 went on sale in the United States, it was a box, but a box with round corners. And it had pep, certainly more than any Volvo I'd driven up to then. But it turned out just to be another Volvo that wasn't partying anywhere.

The new 850 R likewise is a frustrating work of incongruity -- a square thing that moves fast, is outfitted with items such as a rear deck "spoiler" and seven-spoke alloy wheels, and looks like a garish refugee from a rectory parking lot.

Background: The problem is that the 850 R is the result of Volvo's recent attempts to be all things to all people.

Volvo isn't Chevrolet, which built its reputation on being most things to most people. For example, you want an entry-level Chevy? Buy a Cavalier. You want a mainstream, family Chevy? There's the Lumina. A hot, sexy, true-sports Chevy? There's the Corvette.

But the 850 R is a wannabe-cool-car from a company famed for designing cars as if they were safe appliances.

Now Volvo is scrambling to come up with something that exudes sensuality and attracts more liberated buyers without alienating the company's traditional, conservative consumer base.

Had Volvo stopped with just the regular 850, it would have done okay. That's a nice car -- no humdinger; but it's competitive and acceptable, and it fits well within Volvo's theme of reverse snobbery. (Homeliness is beauty. Conservative is smart.)

But the company decided to go several ill-advised steps further by turning the decent little, front-wheel-drive 850 into a gussied-up road hog -- the 850 R.

Well, whattaya get? Loads of standard equipment, including: traction control to prevent wheel-spin; standard 17-inch diameter low-aspect ratio tires (hot stuff on dry roads; lousy in snow); dual front air bags to help reduce injuries in head-on collisions and dual side bags for front passengers to lower injury risks in side crashes; orthopedically designed seats; power windows and sunroof; electronically controlled heating and air conditioning system; and a four-speed automatic transmission with three selector modes ("Sport," which mimics manual shifting to take full advantage of available horsepower; "Economy," for regular driving modes; and "Winter," which starts the car in third gear for maximum initial traction on slick roads).

The 850 R is equipped with a standard 2.3-liter, five-cylinder, 20-valve turbocharged engine rated 240 horsepower at 5,600 rpm with torque set at 221 pound-feet at 2,100 rpm.

Standard brakes are power four-wheel discs -- vented front, solid rear -- with a three-channel, Bosch anti-lock braking system.

Complaints: Inconsistent styling inside and out -- overly large sports wheels under a family-sedan body; ludicrous air "spoiler" on trunk lid; dainty Scandinavian birchwood interior in a car that purports to be a spunky sportsmobile.

Praise: If only the 850 R looked like it drove. It would be perfect. Also, general kudos for Volvo's safety engineering.

Head-turning quotient: The appeal of a black polyester tuxedo worn with white socks.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces on dry roads. Also, excellent braking on dry roads. Not a snow car when equipped with low-aspect ratio tires, as was the test model.

Mileage: About 23 miles per gallon (19.3-gallon tank, estimated 430-mile range on usable volume of required premium unleaded, running mostly highway, driver only with light cargo).

Sound system: Eight-speaker, 200-watt, AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with SC-815 compact disc player installed by Volvo.E cellent.

Price: Base price is $37,925. Dealer invoice on base model is $34,225. Price as tested is $39,020, including a $495 destination charge and an estimated $600 in purely rip-off federal "luxury" taxes.

Purse-strings note: The 850 R is surrounded by competition, including the Acura 3.2TL, Audi A4, Aurora by Oldsmobile, Cadillac Seville STS, BMW 328i, Infiniti I30, Infiniti J30 and Lexus ES300.