The cars we loved.

1986 to 1995 Volvo 480 ES: Looks Aren’t Everything

1992 Volvo 480 ES

1992 Volvo 480 ES

Volvo is known for its safe, practical if not boring cars. So when the company occasionally produces something unusual, it’s worth taking note.  The most unusual of it’s 80’s products was the two door four seat hatchback or coupe as Volvo called it 480. Originally intended to be sold in America, it never made it here due to unfavorable exchange rates.

1989 Volvo 480 Cabrio

1989 Volvo 480 Cabrio

Hatchbacks have always been popular in Europe, as the 80’s evolved, the range of options and types were growing. There was also a large influx of high tech cars coming from Japan that complicated buyer choices even more. Volvo’s answer to this trend was to produce a high tech near luxury car, that was sedan like in it’s passenger accommodations, but estate car like in its versatility. All of this was to be wrapped in a sporty coupe form, or as close to sporty that a Volvo could get in those days. Similar in concept to the famous P1800 of the 60’s , the 480 went one step further by being available as a convertible. It’s look resembled the smaller Australian built Ford Capri sold around the same time.

The resulting car was Volvo’s first with front wheel drive and pop up headlights. The overall proportions were strange looking at some angles, if downright ugly – especially from the rear. A large frame less glass hatchback was one of the distinctive design traits of the 480 and other Volvo hatches in the past. The American styled signal and turn lights suggested that the 480 was designed with the American market in mind early in its development. It had nothing in common with other Volvo’s aesthetically here or in Europe and might have been a hard sell in the US where hatchbacks were seen as cheap entry level cars.

1988 Volvo 480 interior

1988 Volvo 480 interior

Inside the comfortable interior featured four distinct sport seats in front and back that gave each passenger generous legroom and good lumbar support. Like most Volvo’s, it was fitted with either a 4 –speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission. Mechanically the 480 was sound and reliable, but some early cars were prone to electrical problems. Volvo’s rare mishap may have been the end result of trying so many new things with unproven technology. The problems were not completely solved until the early 90’s when a series of major design and technical refinements occurred.

One final trait that set the 480 apart from other Volvos was that it was actually fun to drive. Its great performance was due in no small part to Lotus for its suspension and Renault who later supplied a Porsche tuned engine.  Although horsepower was only at 108 for the normally aspirated 1.7 litre engine,the 480s light weight aided acceleration.  Other engines were developed like a 2.0 for improved performance, but the most impressive performance came after the introduction of the turbo in 1988.

The Garrett AiResearch turbocharger was fitted to the 1.7 and eventually the 2.0 for a small gain in power, but the car became much more fun to drive. Major changes to the exterior occurred in 1992, making the car look much better by removing some of the odd quirks of it’s initial design. New body colored bumpers produced a cleaner more modern look, especially from the front.  There were a few special editions, even a supercharged prototype using a G-Lader system similar to VW’s Corrado. None of the technology of the various prototypes was ever put into production, but may have influenced the 480’s eventual successor the C80 a decade later.

1991 Volvo 480 ES

1991 Volvo 480 ES


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This entry was posted on July 9, 2010 by in 80's Cars, 90's cars, Volvo and tagged , , , .
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