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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE knows Volvo has been trying to make its cars more sexy, but nothing so far has moved so radically away from the "beached whale" image of a big Volvo estate as the limited-edition T5R. No sober-suited anonymity this time. The test car I drove was the colour of a ripening banana, the sculpted alloy wheels so slender they looked barely able to carry the weight. It's true that, if you resprayed the vehicle metallic grey, it would start morphing back into its puritanical ancestors. But in this guise it looked positively frolicsome.

If you want a T5R you'll have to get your skates on, though, because the company intends to ship only 200 to this country, out of a worldwide production run of 2,500. But it has more than exclusivity going for it. A 2.3-litre, 240 brake-horsepower engine catapults its substantial carcass up to 60mph in less than seven seconds - and it will go on to over 150mph in countries that tolerate such hazardous eccentricities. But give or take these performance characteristics, and such fripperies as polished interior woodwork, the T5R is still a Volvo 850 at heart. What that means is storage space, leg and elbow room, and all-round practicality. The 850 series is smaller than the traditional hearse-like Volvo, but it still swallows up most of what the average family can throw at it, bar the kitchen sink.

Volvo is not marketing this car as a plaything for flash young cowboys with delusions of immortality. Its performance features are meant to be part of the traditional Volvo safety package. The car's superb turbocharged engine packs a virtually instantaneous overtaking punch; and the whistle on acceleration and the growl over 4,000 revs are spectacular.

As a super-Volvo, this one comes at the relatively affordable price of £28,000, compared to high-performance rivals such as the £45,000 Audi RS2 Estate. Its ride counts against it, but everything else works like a charm.

GOING PLACES: Wonderful 2.3-litre turbocharged engine, giving 0-60mph in around 7 secs, 50-70mph overtaking in third gear in around 4.5 secs. Crisp gearshift, no turbo lag, supercar engineering, but quiet on the cruise in fifth.

STAYING ALIVE: Takes more getting used to than, say, the Audi RS2 Estate because an 850 body is still an 850 body. But the grip is strong, the steering feels good, and the sacrifice of joining an old-style Volvo to a rocket-powered engine is only felt in a bumpy, low-speed ride. Two airbags, traditional Volvo body rigidity and strength, very good visibility and driving- position adjustment, crisp handling on high-speed A-roads.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Not as much load-space as the heftiest Volvo estates, but still massive - especially with the rear seats folded - and flat as a pool table, with no obstructions. Superbly comfortable and supportive seating, with full electronic adjustment. Well displayed instrumentation, elegant wood-veneered facia. Cabin spacious, door trimming stylish.

BANGS PER BUCK: No giveaway, but this car does things that often come more expensive than this. It's very well equipped in terms of both safety features and pampering. Examples include walnut veneer; suede seat edges, door panels and wheel-rim; automatic air conditioning; cruise control; electric seat adjustment; and big-time stereo. Thirsty, but not as much as it might be, at an average of around 28mpg. Price: £28,000.

STAR QUALITY: Brilliant engine, clever aesthetics making the best of the Volvo boxes. High safety standards, spacious.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Hard ride, and balancing the power and the 850 bodyshell needs care at first.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Audi RS2 Estate (£45,000): shattering performance, tenacious grip, expensive; Range Rover 4.6SE (£44,000): slower, but unique; BMW 525i Touring (£26,500): fine handling but too cramped, big on image.