Volvo’s revolutionary sedan and wagon are still with us every day
It’s hard to believe that the Volvo 850 is already celebrating its 25th birthday with the model having, in many ways, defined the decade of the 1990s for the Swedish automaker. But its story began years before the first example was shown to the public at the Stockholm Globe Arena on June 11, 1991.
Work on Project Galaxy, as the 850 was known internally, began all the way back in 1978, even before the 700-series and 900-series cars rolled off the line. The 850 was one of the country’s biggest industrial investments of the time, and despite the looks, it was very different from the other two big sedans in Gothenburg’s lineup.
The 850 represented several major departures for Volvo. It was powered by a transversely mounted five-cylinder engine sending power to the front wheels; it had side-impact airbags in addition to driver and passenger airbags at a time when other automakers had to be shamed into offering them to the front passengers; and it was also a lively driver who eagerly spun its front wheels. The 2.4-liter five-cylinder 850 GLT pumped 170 hp — more than enough to keep the midsize sedan moving — and sportier offerings like the T-5R dialed that up to 240 hp.
The 850 was well received by the motoring press at its launch and soon gained a station wagon variant that went on to become very popular in the U.S., even as the automotive market moved into SUVs.
The model received a mild facelift for the 1994 model year, receiving yet another one in 1995. The changes were subtle, but it kept the sedan and wagon duo looking fresh. All-wheel drive arrived in 1996, and a year later the model received new body panels all around, becoming the S70 and the V70. In addition to spawning a coupe, the C70, the range also produced the very first Cross Country model that added popularity to the offroad-wagon segment.
When talking about the 850, it’s difficult not to mention its motorsport success in Europe. That’s right; for a few years, 850 wagons achieved impressive results in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) with Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers behind the wheel. The wagons scored impressive wins, with Volvo only switching to fielding sedans once wagons were banned from the series.
The 850 and S70 cars were effectively the last brick-styled Volvos. The model was replaced by the S60 and V70 duo at the start of the 21st century, with design boss Peter Horbury’s reVolvolution softening Volvo’s familiar sharp edges. But the 850, as with even older Volvo models, remains a common sight on U.S. roads, attesting to model’s build quality.