MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Volvo 850 Estate in 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
SALOONS always seem like a bit of a diversion for Volvo. After all, if you make cars that all resemble sideboards on wheels, why not just build ones that not only look like sideboards but are capable of transporting several of them at the same time? In other words, estate cars that are solid, roomy, reassuring and distinctive. Volvo saloons, by contrast, usually look like tomorrow's minicabs, but without their paint chipped and their bumpers hanging off.

One of the most adventurous saloons was the 850. When introduced in 1992 it made Volvo saloons desirable, matching the handling and performance of Audi and BMW. It was revolutionary - but it still looked like a minicab-to- be. But what it lacked in charisma it made up for with safety features. One can only respect a company prudent enough to consider its customers' protection if attacked on the seabed by sharks, or attempting to gauge the effects of driving a car off an office block into a gigantic balloon.

With the 850 Estate, Volvo has preserved all the 850 saloon's considerable virtues - and added more easily accessible load space than most of its rivals. In fact, it is almost as adept at swallowing large loads as the biggest Volvo freighters, the 900 series. Yet its swift and smooth five-cylinder engine, plus eyebrow-raising handling for such a substantial car, make it a serious contender with BMW and Audi in the frisky estate-car stakes.

As it turns out, the 850 estate is more attractive than its saloon siblings because of styling departures such as its roofline-to-bumper rear-light clusters. Its versatility increases when you take into account the integral child seat at the back, and the split and folding rear seats which increase loadroom even more dramatically - but remember to take the child out of the integral rear seat first.

You can buy an extra bench seat as an optional extra, stowable under the luggage floor and for children's use only. Volvo still isn't that hot on intimate, pampering interiors, preferring the Head of Corporate Platitudes look. But if you want to move a lot of material over long distances and still keep that devil-may-care smile on your face, the Volvo 850 Estate takes a lot of beating.

GOING PLACES: An excellent Porsche-developed five- cylinder engine that gives

0-60mph and 50-70mph overtaking bursts in about 11 seconds - not bad for such a truck-like mass, although not quite worthy of Volvo's vaunted 'sports sedan' tag. Gearshift a bit crude.

STAYING ALIVE: Startling nimbleness for such a utilitarian car (and particularly for this marque), the result of an all-round Volvo suspension rethink for the 850, including passive rear steering. Anti- lock brakes standard, traditionally bomb-proof Volvo body, ride comfort good even when heavily laden.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Wide, supportive seats which are very comfortable over long distances. Lots of legroom, and huge amount of storage space, expandable by readily flattening rear seats and even a fold-flat passenger seat. Integral child seat in the rear bench. Drab, boxy cabin, however.

BANGS PER BUCK: Electric windows, mirrors, sunroof, standard anti-lock brakes. Fuel consumption bearable for the size at approx 30 mpg in general use. Price: pounds 19,745.

STAR QUALITY: Space with pace. One of the biggest estate cars in the business and a pleasure to drive (which was formerly a contradiction in terms).

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Feels its bulk heading up long inclines. Gearshift negates the sports-sedan factor. Cabin design robotic.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Audi 100 2.0E ( pounds 18,234): more graceful, less practical; a little quicker, but less charming despite smoother design; BMW 520i Touring ( pounds 20,150): BMW cachet rather than luggage cache with this - speed, agility, beautiful controls, but limited room; Ford Mondeo 2.0 Ghia ( pounds 18,450): smaller but with a creditable load capacity, very good performance and handling, driver's side airbag, noisy engine.

(Photograph omitted)