However, the understated 850 is more than an armoured tank for the suburban jungle. It is a new breed of Volvo, billed by its maker as a car with 'spirit . . . to satisfy the most demanding driver', designed to appease detractors without alienating loyalists.
Volvo sank pounds 1.5bn into the 850's development, so failure is unthinkable. It is also unlikely since the car lives up to much of the hype. To start with, there are just two models - the 2.5 GLT and the lesser, tax-beating 2.0 GLT tested here. Both are roomy, four-
door saloons that are more aerodynamic and, therefore, more efficient than appearances suggest.
Both are powered by Porsche-
developed, five-cylinder engines based on the lusty 3-litre, six-cylinder of the flagship 940 24 V. Versions with four-cylinder engines are on the horizon, as is five-door, estate bodywork - for a range that will eventually occupy the middle ground between the 400 and the 900.
Space-saving front-wheel drive has helped create a roomy car from a medium-sized package. Leg-room in the back is generous and the split rear seats fold forward to extend the large, low-lipped boot. As there is space for five adults, Volvo provides five seat-belts, and a fully belted fold- away child's seat.
Volvo carries its safety crusade to new extremes in the 850, with side-impact protection that spreads severe crash loads throughout the body. Volvo says the risk of injury is reduced by 50 per cent. Other measures include crash-activated belt tensioners, front belts that automatically adjust to the wearer's height, and anti-lock brakes, all included in the 2.0 GLT's price of pounds 18,695.
The 2.0 GLT is comfortable, quiet and smooth-riding, but nothing about the conservative cabin raises driver expectations, even allowing for well-placed controls, clear instruments and a fine driving position (the steering wheel adjusts for height and reach).
The 2-litre, five-cylinder engine is smoother than some six-cylinder rivals. But fast it is not. The alternative 2.5 is the model if you want peppy acceleration. However, a premium of more than pounds 3,000 seems steep for an extra half-litre of engine, and slightly wider tyres. Standard equipment on both includes power-operated front windows, nearside mirror and sun roof.
The 2.0 GLT makes up for its indifferent performance with friendly, fluid handling. It glides through bends with an alacrity that belies its lofty appearance.
It is in the chassis and suspension that Volvo has fulfilled its promise to appeal to the discerning driver. Some competitors smother bumps as smoothly, others steer more crisply. Few, however, combine the incompatible demands of ride and handling quite so well.
No matter how strong your prejudice against Volvos, to dismiss the 850 as another Swedish battlewagon would be a mistake.
VOLVO 850 2.0 GLT, pounds 18,695. Engine: 1,984cc, four-cylinder, 143bhp at 6,500rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds, top speed 126mph.
ALFA ROMEO 164 2.0 LUSSO, pounds 18,464. The car that has recovered some of Alfa's lost pride. Elegant, roomy, five-seat saloon powered by gruff, but gutsy, four-cylinder engine. Nice to drive, marred by poor detailing and finish. Prices from pounds 16,385 before negotiation. Also wonderful, more vocal (and expensive) V6.
BMW 520i 24 V, pounds 18,940 (but beware pricey extras.) The benchmark for Volvo's 850. Six-
cylinder engine notable for refinement, performance stronger than 2.0 GLT's. Not especially opulent, but tastefully finished to high standard. Good driver's car - even the lowly 518i, which costs pounds 16,875.
FORD GRANADA 2.0 GLX, pounds 18,115 for four-door saloon and five-door hatch. Also available as an estate. Recent improvements - face-lifted bodywork, a new four-cylinder twin-cam engine, greater security, fresh decor - have given the Granada a new lease of life. Spacious and comfortable, good value.
ROVER 820 Si pounds 18,605 for four-door saloon and five-door hatch. Imposing looks and lush cabin give the big Rover an air of opulence. New four-cylinder engine lively, but coarse; the Honda V6 alternative is faster and more refined. Satisfactory rather than distinguished in ride.
VAUXHALL CARLTON 2.0i CDX, pounds 17,976. Smooth-skinned streamliner similar in performance to the Volvo, but four-cylinder engine less refined. Plush, well-equipped, rear-wheel-drive saloon. Prices from pounds 14,333 for a basic 1.8 to pounds 23,968 for the high-performance 3.0i 24v. Wide model range.