When it comes to speed, we’re spoiled these days. Even certain budget racers like Mazda’s Mazdaspeed3 can twist their speedometer dials up past 150 mph. The world was very different fifteen years ago, when 150 mph was today’s 200. And when Volvo came out claiming it had built a pair of cars — a sedan and, less believably, a station wagon — capable of that milestone, people were skeptical. One Volvo product man remembers the original press launch and a particular journalist who was especially skeptical. He blazed out onto the freeway, we’re told, and was disgusted to see the speedometer slow up at just over 80 mph. “Thought this would do 150,” he quipped. Volvo rally driver Wayne Baldwin, riding along in the back seat, leaned forward and offered a tip: “If you take it out of second gear, it will do 150 mph.”
Volvo had never built anything like the T-5R and indeed, even the base 850 was a departure from the larger, rear-drive sedans and wagons for which Volvo was previously known. Sure, the company had done turbos, but no brick-shaped 240 ever crept anywhere near 150 mph.
At the T-5R’s heart was a five-cylinder aluminum block punched out to 2.3-liters, and it was seriously modern for the time. Twenty valves (the ones on the exhaust side being sodium-filled), piston cooling nozzles, a water-cooled turbocharger, and a forged vanadium steel crank and connecting rods were all part of the inventory. It’s the same basic motor that powered the 850 T5, but for “R” duty, tweaking Bosch engine management opened up a bit of added performance. Horsepower was rated at 240 using 1995 SAE net measurements, with 221 lb-ft of torque complementing the power. Heady stuff a decade-and-a-half ago.
Modified computer chips, however, don’t get attention on the showroom floor. To grab attention, the T-5R wore front and rear spoilers, as well as five-spoke wheels, inspired by the 850 R race car running in the British Touring Car Championship. Sport suspension, suede seat inserts and black burled walnut trim completed the package, and basically every normal 850 option was thrown in as standard equipment. This being a Volvo — and not a 2011 Volvo (in America at least) — a wagon was offered alongside the sedan.
But again, it wasn’t even so much the go-fast appearance that really got people talking, but instead one of the available paint colors. Alongside a sinister black, which looked especially mean on the wagon, was a bright, screaming yellow. Decades earlier, Volvo had tried “safety colors” meant to decrease accidents by being too bright to miss. They failed miserably, and as such, design boss Peter Horbury knew it’d be hard to convince the bosses in Sweden that yellow was a good idea. Supposedly, he kept the color to himself until the project got the green light. According to Dan Johnston, Volvo’s all-knowing US PR man, the yellow cars sold out before the magazines stopped talking about the new car, in just five months.
One of those yellow cars, a sedan, has seen only 23,000 mile since new, and you’re looking at it here in our photos. It rides on the original Pirelli tires and might be the cleanest T-5R in existence. The floormats look brand new and the rainwater drains under the trunklid are factory clean. A car locked in a time capsule and buried underground would probably be in worse shape.
In a way, showing such a spotless example might actually be an injustice to the car. Part of the T-5R’s charm is that, at its core, it’s a Volvo 850 with all the reliability that entails. At 100,000 miles these cars can still look excellent and if they’re well cared for, 200,000-mile cars can still be daily drivers. Try getting that sort of life out of a BMW M3 of the era. In fact, the biggest complaint about T-5R reliability is simply that its 17-inch five spoke wheels are prone to bending.
The 850 T-5R wasn’t just a reliable performance car though, it was also a very entertaining one. With the drive wheels up front, torque steer showed itself but was pretty mild and easily controlled; 0-60 mph came in just about seven seconds with the bubbly five-cylinder making its own unique sounds. Unfortunately, all US-spec T-5Rs were sold with a four-speed automatic transmission with a switch-actuated sport mode. It was an excellent transmission as far as automatics of the ‘90s go, but it was surely a choice that kept a number of traditional enthusiasts away from this sportiest of 850s.
Handling performance was pretty impressive considering that only the bigger wheels and stickier tires separate the T-5R from a sport package 850. Compared to Volvos of today — even the tiny C30 — the T-5R feels extremely light and lively. Its steering, naturally weighty and fairly quick, hasn’t been matched by any Volvo product since. The brakes, discs all around with ABS and traction control standard, were adequate for the time, but not amazing.
T-5Rs are, due to the front-drive layout, biased toward understeer, so they were and still are a great car for new enthusiasts to get used to higher limits without much risk of the car biting back. It’s a fun car that’s also very forgiving, and nowadays a reasonable but high-mileage example can be found under $4000. Not many performance cars with seriously limited production can be found so cheap. And of course, with so much safety.
After the 1995 model year, Volvo shortened the 850 T-5R name to simply 850R, stopped limiting production, and added a number of colors and also changed things like interior trim and wheel options. As such, the legend carried on, but the original T-5R was the one that shocked people and got the media talking about Volvo and performance together. It’s the one people remember, and it’s also the one that’s harder to find, making the yellow ones especially cool to own. Just remember, if you want to hit 150 mph, make sure your T-5R isn’t locked in second gear.