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Hot Rod Wagon: 1997 Volvo 850 R

The Volvo 850 R is one of those under-the-radar cars from the 1990s that is worth picking up while still relatively affordable. This is a limited production, high-performance wagon that looks like a sports car but can haul a small family and their gear around with ease. The seller notes that rough estimates indicate Volvo only imported 1,000 or so of these over two years, so it’s rare to find one that appears to be in excellent condition with no modifications. The 850 R is listed here on eBay with bids to $7,100 with the reserve unmet.

This is such a great looking car, clearly having descended from a long-line of high performance wagons offered by Volvo over the years. Starting with the Turbo Wagon and its wildly entertaining advertisements depicting the variety of sports cars a turbocharged long roof could easily destroy in the stoplight grand prix, Volvo earned a quiet reputation for building extremely useful and pleasingly quick estate-bodied cars, that came with the added bonus of being incredibly safe. No other brand has been able to create a similar niche for itself.

The 850R shown here didn’t have quite the same allure as the original turbo models, which were obviously trying to make a plash in a marketplace not known for its love of fast wagons. To be fair, the Volvo brand has been in a state of flux for some time, so I can’t entirely blame consumers for not falling in love with an obscure performance car that happened to be in the shape of a wagon. Volvo did pull together some clever ads regarding the impressive performance right out of the box for the 850R, but it didn’t have the same polarizing effect as the printed materials from the 1980s did.

The Volvo is powered by a turbocharged 2.3L five-cylinder engine that puts down 222 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque, channeled through a standard automatic transmission. Mileage is approaching 136,000 and the seller notes that the timing belt was replaced just shy of 128,000 miles. Other recent work includes a full suspension refresh, engine mounts, A/C system overhaul, front brakes, and more. The seller claims that service records show over $25,000 in maintenance over the years, so suffice to say, this is a well-loved 850 R.


  1. mike

    I remember a story about these.In their ads they showed a red one but when you went to the dealer they said Volvo didn’t offer it in red.With many complaints Volvo was forced to offer it in red.

    Like 1
  2. Maggy

    Subaru built their reputation on safety too.Their WRX series was the performance line.Remember the commercial with a couple bringing their baby home in a Subaru and then she’s all grown driving the same car while mom and dad watch her drive away while standing next to their new Subaru.Clever marketing.This wagon is awesome.Utilitarian and peppy. Still think the red engine was Volvo’s best though.It was like what the SBC is to Chevrolet.

    Like 3
  3. ClassicCarFan

    I like these. I think I’d say “looks mostly like a modest family hauler wagon but drives a bit like a sports car…”

    I believe Volvo raced these in the British Touring Car race (like a production car racing series) series with some success…

    Not sure why anyone would pick one of these with an automatic trans though? surely missing out on a lot of the fun…

    Like 2
    • Derek

      They did race them – not the T-5 or R though. Cue a wheen of jokes about Volvo thinking it was the Towing Car Championship, and so on.

      Like 2
    • B.B.

      They were only available with the automatic in the U.S. They were available with 5-speed manual overseas but not here.

      Like 0
      • Stan

        Canada 🇨🇦 🍁 got the manual also ?

        Like 0
  4. B.B.

    Had one of these about 10 years ago. Same color, with beige interior. They are fairly quick but not really a performance car, even for the times. I think 0-60 is about 7 seconds, maybe 15 seconds in the quarter. I’ve noted that Volvo enthusiasts tend to really exaggerate the performance capabilities of these Rs, but they are basically just a T-5 turbo with slightly more boost.

    You can get the ECU flashed by IPD for more boost still. That’s what I did on mine. Made it quicker, but I wouldn’t compare it even to my E36 M3 in terms of thrust. Ride was very harsh as I recall, even with new OEM Sachs replacement springs and shocks. So you might want to drive this one first.

    A big area to watch on these is the PCV system. These systems clog up over time and can cause excess crankcase pressure, which can ultimately lead to oil leaks all over creation if not promptly addressed. Probably best to replace it right away, along with the timing belt, as if that breaks, you’ll have a nice pretty red paper weight on your hands, as it’s an interference engine. Expect to spend some money here as both are labor intensive jobs.

    Like 4
    • B.B.

      I’m stunned at the bidding. $7,800 with over a day to go. I paid $5,000 for mine and put a ton into it. Ended up barely getting over 4k after putting all the work in in ’15, and it was as nice as this and had similar miles on it. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $5,100.

      So it turns out I massively overpaid. And the car was very difficult to sell too. That’s a whole ‘nother story. Has the market for these gone up that much in the last 8 years or so? Or is this part of the collector car madness we’re seeing? Time will tell. So tread carefully if you’re thinking about jumping on this one!

      Like 0
  5. TheOldRanger

    I liked this Volvo, but the best story I have is my boss just purchased a new one back then. He brought his new baby to work one day just to show him off. The baby was about 6 months old at the time, and on the way home (the baby was strapped in a very nice safety seat on the second row. There was a traffic tie-up on Central and as he was waiting, he heard a terrible screeching of tires, he looked in his review mirror, saw this large truck almost jack kniving and hit his car in the rear, probably still about 40 mph. He braced himself and figured he and his baby were bound for the hospital. The back 1/3 of the car crumpled, his car was shoved forward into the car in front. Short story version, neither he nor the baby were hurt, but the car was basically totaled. He still drives Volvo today based on that one incident.

    Like 5
  6. John Eder

    The very first item that I bought on eBay was a 97 T-5 wagon in red, with tan leather interior. My wife needed a car to replace her 740 wagon, which we gave to her daughter once she got her license. Shopping in the S.F. Bay Area, these cars were running in the low $20K neighborhood, with 50-75K miles on them at the time. At the suggestion of a friend, I looked at eBay, which I was unfamiliar with (this was around 2001-2002). I saw a red 97 Volvo wagon in Texas being offered at auction by an insurance company. The back story on the car was that it had been turned in at the end of a two year lease with 27K miles. It was put out on the used car lot of a Ford dealer, where it was immediately thrashed by a hail storm. Broken headlight covers, cracked windshield, broken left rear side window and several hundred (?) small dimples in the roof and hood (the electric sunroof was fine). It then went into storage while the various parties argued over the insurance settlement. I called the number on the paper license plate on the back of the car and asked, “What will it take to make this car go out of your life?” They came back with $7,500.00. I sent them a cashier’s check and it was in my driveway a week later. I got an estimate of $10K + to fix the dimples (apparently, Volvo steel is actually made of Kryptonite), so we lived with them. It was a great car, loaded with every option, and served us well for many years, only disposed of when it would no longer smog in CA. By my standards, it was a quick car. Putting the transmission in “Sport” mode allowed (middle-aged) me to smoke most cars at a light when the turbo spooled up on the other side of the intersection- handy for the several merges on roads in our town. It did most things asked of it quite well, but upkeep could get expensive. I used to have a lot of fun with people asking why the car had all the little dents in the top (we didn’t get hail storms where I lived). I used to say that I bought the car without checking with my wife, and that she had taken a ball peen hammer to it out of anger when she found out. Most people were aghast. “Are you still married to her?”, they often asked. I would reply, “She is a handful, but, man, can she cook.” They would just shake their heads… Now that I live in a state that doesn’t smog, I would consider another one- solid, quiet and comfortable for high speed, long-distance asphalt consumption.

    Like 1
  7. Slomoogee

    Volvo wagons have been my daily drivers for over 50 years. From my 1st 122 to my current 2010 V70Rdesign. They are not particularly quick but quick enough. They are engaging to drive and easily can be made more so. Chassis tweaks, and turbo enhancements are done to many. Like any other used car maintenance records, and history are key. Many websites to help. These 850Rs are starting to climb, a good one if you can find one is a winner.

    Like 0

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