History of the Volvo 5 Cylinder

More than any other auto maker, Volvo’s name has become almost synonymous with the 5 cylinder engine over the last 30 years. Here's its history.

Volvo's 5-cylinder: Where Did I Come From
Volvo’s 5-cylinder: Where Did I Come From

Volvo’s history is intrinsically intertwined with the 5-cylinder engine. More than any other auto maker (besides maybe Audi), Volvo’s name has become almost synonymous with this rather idiosyncratic engine over the last 30 years. At the time, it was a perfect compromise between the 6-cylinder’s power and the 4-cylinders size and efficiency.

Of course, time soldiers on and today we’ve got 4-cylinder engines that put out 6-cylinder power with great efficiency, leaving the 5-cylinder to the history books.

In 2012, Volvo announced they would cease producing the 5-cylinder, opting instead for the smaller 4.

Let’s look back at the history of Volvo’s 5-cylinder engine, where it came from, and delve a little more into why this peculiar engine flourished for so long.

Volvo 850, 5 Cyl. 2.3 L
Volvo 850, 5 Cyl. 2.3 L

Where Did the 5-Cylinder Engine Come From?

5-cylinder engines have been around a long time. Henry Ford first tinkered with them back in the late 1930s. Fast forward to 1974 and Mercedes has put a 5-cylinder diesel in their 300D. Jump forward 2 years (1976) and Audi has introduced the first gas-powered inline 5 in the Audio 100, the beginnings of a relationship that lasts to today (though with some bumps and gaps along the way). In fact, along with Volvo, the 5-cylinder is forever linked with Audi.

Since Audi’s initial success with the 5-cylinder, seemingly ever manufacturer has introduced their own version at some point: Volvo in 1991, Volkswagen across many of their offerings, Acura, Fiat, Lancia, GM (including even the Hummer H3 when it was first introduced), and others.

Brief History of Volvo’s Inline 5

Volvo’s love affair with the inline 5-cylinder began in 1991 with the introduction of the 850. The offering was part of the Volvo Modular Engine, a family of inline-4, inline-5, and inline-6 engines that used aluminum blocks and heads, as well as aluminum pistons and double overhead cams.

What’s a Modular Engine? Basically, the above 3 engines share many identical parts and components, making the manufacturing process easier and more cost-effective

Volvo began researching and developing the Modular Engine project in the late 1970s, with their first offering coming in 1990 with the new 960 that featured Volvo’s first Modular Engine, an inline 6-cylinder.

In 1991, they released the 850, the first of many vehicles sporting the inline 5-cylinder Modular Engine. The 850 sported the 5-cylinder until its demise in 1997.

Benefits of the Volvo 5-Cylinder

The 5-cylinder is unique and dwindling in popularity, but it does have some legitimate perks:

  • Space. The 5-cylinder fits much better in the compact transverse engine compartments of modern cars than an inline-6, but provides more power than an inline-4.
  • Smooth Power Delivery. Because of the overlapping piston timing inherent within inline 5-cylinder engines, they produce a smoother power delivery than similar inline 4 engines, in which the pistons’ movement does not overlap. Because of this, 5-cylinders enjoy less noise and shaking in the engine. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at this wonderful Engineering Explained video on YouTube on 5-cylinders:

  • Cost. Costs less to build than inline 6-cylinder engines.

What’s Going On with the 5-Cylinder Today?

As more and more automakers turn towards turbos and tweaking to make inline-4s more powerful and efficient, the inline 5 is become more and more redundant.

Volvo stopped producing 5-cylinders in 2014, with the last 5-cylinder going into the 2014 S60, and is testament to the sea change described above: they no longer make any engines larger than 4-cylinders, though they quite like the turbos.

Even up until just 5 to 10 years ago, 5-cylinders were used by the likes of Volkswagen, Audi, Land Rover, Ford (with Volvo’s engine), and Chevy. Today, you’re hard-pressed to find any, although Audi has announced a new 5-cylinder for 2017 that produces almost 400 bhp.

Will Volvo Ever Reintroduce the 5-Cylinder?

In two words. Probably not. Like we said, the 5-cylinder is a thing of the past. During its heyday, it was the perfect meeting point between 4- and 6-cylinder engines: almost as efficient as 4-cylinders, almost as powerful as 6-cylinders.

With today’s modern engine technology, we can squeeze more performance out of inline 4s and many auto manufacturers are even jumping onto 3-cylinder engines coupled with turbos to pack even more power. Just like the other manufacturers, Volvo is moving forward to an era of smaller-but-powerful engines.

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Image credit: Creative Commons Flickr

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4 Replies to “History of the Volvo 5 Cylinder”

  1. “During its heyday, it was the perfect meeting point between 4- and 6-cylinder engines: almost as efficient as 4-cylinders, almost as powerful as 5-cylinders”

    I think you meant to say “almost as powerful as 6 -cylinders”

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