Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
Volvo dealers in the Denver, Colo., area are advertising $3,000 discounts on 1997 850 T-5 sedans. The 1998 S70 is the reason why. New and improved describes this fresh flavor of Volvo four-door, which amounts to little more than a refined 850 with a different name. The 850 Wagon also gets a facelift and updated identity, sporting a V70 tag on the rear liftgate these days. In Volvo's name game the numbers represent the series, and the letter designates the body type. The 70 series is based on the 850 platform, and includes the C (coupe/convertible), S (sedan), and V (versatility) models.
Sedans and wagons are available in base, GLT, and T-5 trim. Base models are equipped with a tried and true 2.4-liter inline five-cylinder engine that makes 168 horsepower without a turbocharger. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on this model, with a four-speed automatic optional. Step up to the GLT, and a low-pressure turbocharged variant of the base motor will pump 193 horsepower to the front wheels through an automatic transmission. The level of standard equipment also rises. Top-rung T-5 trim includes a full load of luxury doo-dads and go-fast goodies, including a 236-horsepower high-pressure turbocharged engine measuring 2.3 liters of displacement within its five cylinders. Power and torque are increased in both turbocharged engines for 1998, with an impressive 16 horsepower increase in the T-5. Performance-minded shoppers will also be glad to discover that a five-speed manual transmission is newly available in T-5 models. Environmentally-responsible shoppers can now drive a T-5 without guilt; the engine meets Transitional Low Emission Vehicle (TLEV) standards for the first time.
New for 1998, wagon buyers can get all-wheel drive if they so choose. The system directs up to 95% of the power to either the front or rear wheels when wheel slip is detected. With Volvo's low-speed traction control system standard, engineers claim the AWD system doesn't give the front wheels a chance to spin before redistributing power. Of course, we somehow managed to disprove this theory, but more on that later. Due this summer and expected to be priced at $35,000, the turbocharged all-wheel drive wagon will most certainly give Audi dealers fits. Why buy the slow, ponderous, and expensive A6 Quattro wagon when the nimble, speedy, and less expensive V70 AWD is available? All-wheel drive wagons will contain the high-pressure turbocharged engine mated to either a manual transmission or an automatic.
At first glance, the transition from 850 to S70/V70 is not readily apparent. The most obvious exterior clues are a new hood, grille, and headlights lifted directly from the C70 coupe. Front fenders and fascias are fresh too. The sedan's back window has been softened to present a less upright profile. At the rear, sedans get a cleaner look thanks to a redesigned trunk lid and taillights, while the wagon makes do with a revised bumper. All trim is body colored for 1998 to make the cars look smaller. The monochromatic effect works, but we lament the loss of the 850's nicely contrasting charcoal-toned bodyside and bumper trim.
Kudos to interior designers for moving the power window and mirror controls from the center console to a location on the driver's door panel. Now we don't have to look in the owner's manual to figure out how to adjust our mirrors when the next test car arrives. The new dashboard is more rounded than last year, but the gauge layout and placement is very similar to the 850. This means that the speedometer and tach are clearly marked and easy to see, while secondary controls for fog lights, sunroof, and power door locks are hidden on the dashboard to either side of the steering column. An all-new steering wheel curves downward on the sides, so these buttons are a bit more easy to find and use in the S70 and V70. Designers have also improved the operation of the manual seat height adjusters, and moved the trunk and fuel door releases to the driver's door panel.
Folks equate Volvo with safety, and the new S70/V70 delivers. Front and side airbags are standard for front seat passengers. The side airbags are contained in the seat, rather than the door, so that they are always positioned for maximum protection regardless of seat position. Volvo has also strengthened the B-pillars so that they provide better side-impact protection and allow time for the side airbags to inflate fully. The steering column provides better occupant protection in a crash, and seatbelt tensioners have been redesigned to work more efficiently.
We tried both the S70 T-5 and the V70 AWD, each equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission. The 2.3-liter high-pressure turbo is a screamer, though turbo lag makes it feel like somebody punched the pause button on a remote control when the accelerator is first mashed to the floor. Once that turbo starts to shriek, watch out. The S70 T-5 rockets forward, pressing the driver into the seat and easily overwhelming the low-speed traction control system. Sensors monitor wheelspin up to 25 mph, and apply the ABS when the rubber is about to squeal. We left a stoplight under full throttle, and the system worked admirably, until we reached the middle of the intersection and surpassed the 25 mph operating threshold of the system. At that point, the wheels began spinning, transmitting severe axle hop into the passenger cabin and frightening pedestrians walking nearby. Volvo needs an all-speed traction control setup, like, yesterday. Clutch action is somewhat heavy, but easy to modulate. Fans of Japanese snick-snick gearboxes will not enjoy the rubbery shift action found in the Volvo, though transplants from models like the Saab 900 and Ford Contour will feel right at home with the S70/V70 manual transmission.
Once the front tires, and the driver's feet, are under control, the S70 T-5 zooms along effortlessly. Brakes are quite effective, with good pedal feel. Steering is light and nicely balanced, clearly communicating to the driver the activities of the front tires. Wind noise is nicely subdued, and very little tire thump makes its way into the cabin. The car handles twisty mountain roads and flat interstate with equal aplomb, all the while providing the driver and passengers with supremely comfortable seating accommodations. The sound system in our test car handled Sarah McLachlan, Seal, Garbage, and the Dave Matthews Band with no trouble at all, drowning out rather excessive howl from the open sunroof. Overall, the S70 T-5 behaved and performed like a slickly refined, infinitesimally quicker 850 T-5.
The V70 AWD, however, feels decidedly different than any other Volvo you've driven recently. Jumping from the S70 T-5 to the V70 AWD, the most obvious difference is weight. The AWD feels quite heavy in comparison, and the car we drove exhibited lots of dive, squat, and body roll. Obviously, added weight means slower acceleration, but the delightful turbo still forces your body into the seat as it howls away from stoplights. We also noticed that the steering on our pre-production test car could suddenly become quite heavy in mid-turn, or when turning from lock to lock as the wagon sat motionless. A Volvo engineer assured me that steering issues would be worked out on regular production cars. Otherwise, the AWD wagon performed and felt the same as the T-5 sedan with the exception of the wheelspin problem. We coaxed a chirp from the front wheels while accelerating on some broken pavement, but the AWD system instantly transferred power rearward, and the V70 roared down the road.
The V70 AWD is not intended for off-road use, even though it sits slightly higher off the ground than the front-wheel drive V70. Rather, the AWD model is designed to provide the sure-footed stability inherent to this drivetrain system, and provide alternatives to the Audi A6 Quattro and the Subaru Legacy Outback Limited. Volvo says the car will be priced at about $35,000 when it comes to market in July, which is a substantial premium over the Subaru but is directly competitive with the Audi. We believe Volvo will be able to reach an entirely new type of buyer with this car, in keeping with a new corporate philosophy to change Volvo's image and reach out to different types of consumers.
While the S70 and V70 aren't dramatically different than the 850 model they replace, they are substantially refined and improved, offering better crash protection and performance wrapped in sleeker sheetmetal. Bargain shoppers opting for the discounted 850 model won't be disappointed, but if the difference in price is only a couple thousand dollars, the S70 or V70 is definitely worth investigating. The departing 850 has always been one of our favorite sedans; the S70 and V70 have filled its slot on our recommended list.
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