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History of the Volvo 5 Cylinder


Volvo’s history is intrinsically intertwined with the Volvo 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.

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

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.

MVS

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 - 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.
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.

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.

5-cyl Cutaway Animation

This shows a cutaway animation of how the cylinders #1-#5 move the crankshaft as they traverse the four stroke pattern of intake, compression, fire, and exhaust.
This shows a cutaway animation of how the cylinders #1-#5 move the crankshaft as they traverse the four stroke pattern of intake, compression, fire, and exhaust.

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.

850 Resize

Major Whiteblock Variants

N Series Inline 5-Cylinder 1991-1998
The weak link in these engines tends to be the connecting rods, opinions vary as to what actually will cause rod failure but for the most part it’s agreed that a 300bhp engine is going to perform well day to day without any real concern for reduced longevity or engine damage. This all assumes a properly maintained engine that is in good operational condition before upgrades were installed. Stock pistons are good to approx. 390bhp which is also getting close to the limit of what the stock heads will flow.

inline-5

RN Series Inline 5-Cylinder 1999-2001
The early version of the RN block have lighter valve train components that is primarily a function of thinner valve stems and a solid valve train vs. the earlier hydraulic system in 1998 and earlier models. Be advised some early 1999 models still had hydraulic lifters so check your engine serial number to be sure. These early RN motors were also better able to handle higher RPM limits and better cylinder head flow from both the CVVT and the thinner valve stems taking up less room in the head intake runners. Rods were still a bit on the weak side which keeps this engine rated to approx. 315bhp in stock form.

RN Series Inline 5-Cylinder 2002-2003
The later RN block from 2002 and later received a longer rod that was also stronger. From 139.5mm in early block, to the 147mm rod in later blocks. This design change not only strengthened the rods by virtue of design improvement but also by the nature of the rod duration. Longer rods stay at TDC for longer periods which extracts more power from a given air/fuel charge. This added benefit, along with the lighter valve train and better flowing heads, allowed these engines to safely make upwards of 340bhp reliably.

RN Series Inline 5-Cylinder 2004-2007
With the addition of the P2R series in 2004 the RN engine was yet again redesigned to increase cooling efficiency and head flow. Dual CVVT along with a number of other changes allows this engine to reach power output up to 400bhp quite easily with supporting components.

2.5 turbo

Typical power upgrades that increase engine power to 350+bhp are quite common and provide excellent longevity and performance gains. Past 400bhp these engines can be prone to cylinder liner cracking in some scenarios. In this case some folks have opted to use a 2.4L block mated to the R cylinder head to take advantage of the thicker liners the 2.4L engine is equipped with, which is simply a function of reduced bore diameter vs. the 2.5L block that R models were originally equipped with.

Example: 2004 Volvo V70 R and S60 R

  • Engine code: B5254T4
  • Engine management: Bosch ME 7.01
  • Torque: 295 ft-lbs (manual transmission), 258 ft-lbs (auto)
  • Power: 300 hp

Image credit: Creative Commons Flickr

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5 Comments

“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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