At 16, we are burdened with parental constraint, but the promise of independence is just around the corner. We’re anxious to be “free,” and the logical first step, for most, is learning to drive. Driving is a taste of adulthood, a taste of liberty — with all the autonomy and responsibility that follow. When first at the helm, driving is more than commuting from point A to point B, and for that reason it’s hard for anyone to look back at their first car — the vestibule of their own independence — through anything but rose-colored glasses. But even if the best first car is any car, the Volvo 850 stirs up the nostalgia better than most.
The 850 first launched in 1991 with the slogan, “A dynamic car with four world-beating breakthroughs.” Said breakthroughs were: a transverse five-cylinder engine driving the front two wheels, Delta-link rear semi-independent rear suspension, Volvo’s new Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) and a self-adjusting seat belt mechanism. Those four innovations are so indicative of what it means to drive a Volvo. The latter two indicate a safe, sensible family car while the former are more telling of the hidden sporting pretensions that, deep down, all Volvos seem to have.
It was so heavy, so robust, the 850 could have doubled as a fallout shelter.
On the surface, the 850 was nothing but practical. It was a boxy, compact executive car available as either a sedan or a wagon, and it was built like a tank. That was thanks in no small part to SIPS, a system of honeycomb material used in the sills, b-pillar and doors that disperses the shock of a side impact. The heft of the thing was apparent when you opened the door — it was so heavy, so robust, the 850 could have doubled as a fallout shelter.
Open those blast-proof doors and the interior is all the same. The FWD layout of the 850 gave it far-from-modest legroom and a cavernous trunk. The seats were opulently comfortable — think La-Z-Boy levels of back- and ass-swaddling cushion. The steering wheel was big, thin-rimmed and pedestrian, the dash was as unadorned as the exterior styling. It was a mundane interior, one that backed up the Volvo’s seemingly bland image. But in the lower left corner of the center console was a lone button with the word “Sport” written on it in a simple, clean typeface.
The button didn’t do much. This is a mid-’90s Volvo, after all. Sport mode only allowed the engine to rev higher than usual, so you could get more power out of the engine before the transmission would shift into a higher gear. But being a 16-year-old boy in a car with a sport button is like having a button that adds an extra two inches to your manhood, and I was dead-set to ring all 168 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque out of that engine. It was a far cry from a track car (though the 850 wagon was moderately successful in BTCC during the ’90s), but for a boy in rural Wisconsin with a license still warm from the printer, the 850 performed above and beyond the rest of the high school parking lot.
For a boy in rural Wisconsin with a license still warm from the printer, the 850 performed above and beyond the rest of the high school parking lot.
The car’s weight — what some would consider to be a weakness — actually made it great for driving shenanigans. Handbrake turns, a staple of entry-level hooning, are easy to do in a heavy car like the 850 — pull into an empty parking lot, turn off the TRACS traction-control system, pull the handbrake and let the car do a near-complete 360. In the winter, crank the wheel all the way and step on the gas: instant snow donuts. Find a long stretch of road and the car could hit 60 mph in 8.7 seconds. This kind of hooliganism isn’t exclusive to the 850, but it was easy to do in that car, and all the while mom and dad knew you would be safe in the event of a wreck because you were driving a damn Volvo.
And that is what made the 850 great. Not only does a sensible Swedish car keep both parent and child satisfied, it gives the car a hint of understated cool. The 850 hides its attributes behind a family car facade, but it doesn’t keep those aspects entirely secret. In other words, it isn’t a try-hard. Teens hate try-hards. A municipal, mildly luxurious, safe car that belies its inner recklessness: that’s the recipe for a teen dream.