Volvo 960/S90: future classic

By: Joe Kenwright

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Future Classic: Volvo 960/S90. This rear driver offers a lot of car for the money

Volvo 960/S90: future classic
Volvo 960/S90


Volvo 960/S90

Even the most contrived squinting could not make a Volvo 760 look much better than three shipping containers tacked together. Yet it remains a global high-water mark in family-car history, with benchmark safety, all-'round vision, low-speed impact protection, a tight turning circle, an ergonomic interior, and ruggedness. The 740 version, with Volvo's faithful four, was so long-lived that an average family only needed to buy two over a lifetime. If a long-life Volvo allowed global car manufacturers to shut down and pursue other activities, it might have even defined some environmental benchmark!

As long as buyers keep demanding more than cold function this could never happen, which might explain why Volvo launched a totally re-engineered 960 for a late-1991 release with barely a hint of exterior change. Transformed by a sweet and powerful new twin-cam 3.0-litre in-line six with 150kW/267Nm, developed by Porsche, it was almost an engaging rear-drive BMW alternative courtesy of its sophisticated multi-link rear suspension. Released at almost the same time was the all-new front-drive 850 with a five-cylinder version of the same engine.

Renowned ex-Chrysler and Ford designer Peter Horbury arrived at Volvo just as the 960 was launched. As the 960 became his focus, his 960 revisions from late-94 previewed future Volvo styling. The smoother and visually lower stance that retained the 960's ground clearance could only be an improvement. Glittering new body details were more ABBA than dour Swede. A chassis re-work added to the 2000 new parts. After early engine casting problems were solved, the last long-life, rear-drive Volvo was not only the best but a satisfying drive. The front suspension, with its own sub-frame, aligned with 850 improvements, including new geometry and a wider track. A new alloy rear cradle supported re-worked self-levelling, multi-link suspension and a transverse, composite leaf spring instead of coils.

The 11kg cut in rear suspension weight, plus firmer settings, impressive steering and extra refinement allowed it to shadow a BMW 5-Series in dynamics. Its automatic, shared with the new Lexus LS400, delivered class-leading drivetrain refinement, although consumption was typical of the era. Available in two levels, including a Special Equipment model, prices were generally $15-20,000 below rivals. Yet too many 760 styling cues survived for sales to extend much beyond the Volvo faithful. A top-shelf Royal limousine arrived with a 150mm boost in wheelbase in December '96, and was rebadged as the S90 after March '97.

By August 1998, the S90 was gone, and with it went most of the core values that underpinned Volvo's extensive following in Australia. At around $10,000 today, a good 960's significance and intrinsic worth should ensure that it will always find a buyer.



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