Once upon a time, Volvo was famed for its safe and utterly box-like or brick-like 240, 740, 940 series of cars. Everyone who was an uncle actually wanted one. It exudes safety through its brick-like shape and Volvo marketed the 'S' for Safety word to the hilt. Volvo marketed safety and some people like me would say that it also marketed dullness. Until the arrival of the Volvo 850, especially the turbocharged variants like the T5R and the later 850R version.
It was in 1994 and this coincided with Volvo's quest to be seen as cool with the younger crowd. The 850 was the Volvo that was entered into the very popular at the time British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). In fact the people at Volvo did have a wicked sense of humor as they entered the 850 station wagon into the BTCC. People were actually shocked to see it happen, but they actually welcomed Volvo into the battle with BMW, Toyota, Alfa Romeo and Vauxhall. It brought something different and it actually made the 850 a cool Volvo to have. Especially the wagon. Some of you may remember watching on telly Rickard Rydell driving the 850 on two wheels after flying over the curbs. Never has a brick felt so cool to drive.
In 1995 things really went a up level in terms of coolness. The very slightly rounded at the edges but still brick-like Volvo 850 (especially the wagon) gained an ultimate fire breathing model. Volvo released an exclusive limited edition race-bred model developed in part with Porsche called the Volvo 850 T-5R. The T-5R was based upon the 850 Turbo with the 2.3liter turbocharged engine with a special ECU, that added 1.3psi (0.1bar) to turbocharger boost pressure, giving the engine an additional 18 hp. The engine produced 250hp and 330Nm of torque in 5 speed manual form and slightly limited to 225hp (240hp on overboost) and 300Nm in 4 speed automatic form.
The car was one of the first few cars that came equipped with the then new Pirelli P-Zero tires. In those days, any car equipped with P-Zeros were considered as serious machines. They were bloody expensive and in the front wheel drive 850 T-5R, suffered from serious wear up-front. This was due to 300Nm of torque to the front wheels. Many people who actually drove their T-5Rs felt this extra wallet pinching bite. Torque steer and massive wheel spin were the main culprits. But the T-5R was really fast for a Volvo, or for any car in the mid-1990s so this was a price you had to pay for the speed and power. The T-5R had a 0-60mph (97km/h) of 5.7 seconds, a quarter-mile time of 14.8 seconds and a top speed electronically limited to 249km/h. Extremely fast for a slightly rounded brick.
The 850 T-5R was ballistic and only 5500 T-5Rs were produced worldwide, of which 2000 went to the US: The 1995 850 T-5R was limited in exterior paint color choices with the cream yellow and black variants its most famous colour choices. The black T-5R wagon was also nicknamed 'Darth Vader' as it looked like something the Sith Lord would take to the market for grocery shopping. It was manic and it was the first cool Volvo in a while.
The Volvo 850 T-5R was also noted for its safety features. Volvo didn't want to alienate its older 'uncle'-like customers too. It was one of the first automobiles to have four airbags standard. It was also one of the first cars where Volvo introduction of daytime-running headlamps. Remember those Volvos in the late 1990s that had their lights on almost all the time? It actually wasn't something that caught on in tropical South East Asia and was dropped quietly soon after (only now certain manufacturers have the LED daytime driving lights). It also also came with the first integrated child booster seat in the rear cabin.The T-5R was also the first sedan to have three-point seatbelts at all five seating positions. Yawn. Let's move on to other stuff.
It wasn't the looks about this car that made it cool. It really had the grunt to pull off its looks too. I remember driving on the North-South Highway in the late 1990s and a red Volvo 850R bombed past me. It was flying through the sweeping corner and it looked extremely planted. I was doing 110km/h at the time through the sweeping corner and the chap was easily doing 150-160km/h. Never had a semi brick-like wagon looked so utterly, utterly cool. Never had a Volvo looked utterly cool too. In fact the last cool Volvo I could think of was the P1800 coupe that Roger Moore used as The Saint. A cool and slightly mad Volvo. Something unique at the time.
And what about Volvo these days? They surely look good, almost IKEA-like inside and curvy on the outside. The C30 hatchbacks, S60 sedan and XC60 SUVs do look very good but they're slightly dull when it comes to the driving experience. Slightly anesthetized and slightly numb, even though they may be quite fast at times. I suppose you can't win 'em all. But I do miss the manic tire shredding, slightly mad Volvo T-5R mentioned herein. Some madness is actually good. A mad Volvo is sorely needed again in my opinion.