Opinion

The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

It is usually called Cream Yellow, or sometimes Gul Yellow, but its actual name is T-5R Yellow, a pale, perfect shade for a pale, perfect car. For some reason, this car remains more liked than envied.

(Full disclosure: Volvo recently invited me to New Jersey to drive its 850 T-5R, though, unlike the usual car marketing pitch, I could not discern a reason why. Neither could Volvo, really, as a Volvo person said, “It’s not like we’re trying to sell new 850 T-5Rs.” I commend Volvo for doing something without obvious self-interest; other automakers, please take note.)

The 850 T-5R is liked more than envied possibly because it is front-wheel drive; possibly because almost all of the ones in the U.S. are automatic; possibly because the people with money are currently in an ‘80s nostalgia boom and not quite yet in a ‘90s one; possibly because only a three-digit number of 850 T-5Rs were sold in America, and unlike E30s, say, they just aren’t common enough.

Get outta here with screens!

Get outta here with screens!
Photo: Raphael Orlove

I don’t know the reason, but I do know that a T-5R Yellow 850 T-5R went for $15,000 on Bring A Trailer as soon as May, and a manual one, too. Possibly that is because that particular 850 T-5R is in Canada; possibly that is because that particular 850 T-5R is the less-desirable sedan version of the car and not the wagon that raced in the British Touring Car Championship, where it enjoyed aerodynamic advantages; possibly that is because that particular car has over 200,000 miles; or possibly that is because the 2.3-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine makes just 240 horsepower which, by modern standards, isn’t much.

I was not the buyer of that particular 850 T-5R, either. Maybe I should have been, as I drove one recently — a 1997 850 T-5R sedan that Volvo Car USA maintains in its heritage collection — and it was sort of like all the old Volvos I cycled through as a teen in the late ‘90s, except this one had power, luxury, and everything worked. It was fantastic.

Illustration for article titled The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

Photo: Raphael Orlove

Let’s stop and have a word about the 850 T-5R’s power first, because in the ‘90s, here was Car and Driver’s take:

Mated to a slick-shifting electronic four-speed automatic (the only transmission offered), our T-5R wagon scorched to 60 mph in just 6.7 seconds—three-tenths quicker than our last 850 Turbo wagon. […] This would be blistering speed for any car—let alone one capable of ferrying the entire family to a pancake supper.

From my own drive, “blistering” is not quite the word I would use, but you have to understand that, for its time, the 850 T-5R was quite fast. It made more or less what that era’s BMW M3 made. You know what else made 240 horsepower and went zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds? A 1977 Ferrari 308 GTB.

Illustration for article titled The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

Photo: Raphael Orlove

These days, when even a base model 2021 Camry gets over 200 horsepower, 240 horsepower is less special, but the thing about 240 horsepower is that it is … enough, especially for a car that weighs a little under 3,500 pounds, and is probably the best-looking Volvo ever, with apologies to the 1800ES.

Illustration for article titled The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

Photo: Raphael Orlove

I say “best-looking” because the boxiness, here, is a quiet evolution of the ur-boxy Volvos of the 1970s and 1980s and a peak of Volvo styling, when it was still recognizable from a distance. Modern Volvo, by contrast, seems to be all about tail lights and curves. In the age of electric cars, which require sleek aerodynamics, boxiness is probably never coming back to any car, period.

That’d be a shame, if we didn’t already have the 850 T-5R, which has side airbags and three-point seat belts in the rear. The 850 T-5R has power, looks, safety, and a spoiler in one package. And like all instant classics, no one seemed to know it at first.

Illustration for article titled The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

Photo: Raphael Orlove

As a Volvo person explained to me, when the T-5R Yellow 850 T-5Rs came to the U.S., Volvo dealers couldn’t move them, and a lot of them ended up as company cars. A lot of people apparently shared C&D’s assessment of the color, which was that it threatened to inflict “visual trauma,” but the thing about a lot of people is that they are often wrong.

Because the T-5R Yellow is majestic, something to celebrate in a modern world where you can only get a new S60 in one of eight colors, and five of those are white, black, or a shade of gray, and none of them are green. It’s true that T-5R Yellow is not for everyone, but that also means it’s probably for you.

Illustration for article titled The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

Photo: Raphael Orlove

Illustration for article titled The Volvo 850 T-5R Is Still Underappreciated

Photo: Raphael Orlove


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