Volvo owner, Volvo DIY’er, and MVS Volvo Forums Contributor mecheng gives us his outstanding essay on how to buy a Volvo.
I am writing this guide to help the general public and enthusiast when looking for a Volvo 850, S70, referred to as the P80 series from 1993-2000. It is also referred to the 854 or 855, where the last digit is the number of doors. Why, you ask well there are still quite a few on the road which is a testament to their overall durability and corrosion resistance.
Long before the typical reliable Japanese car will rust to its demise, the Volvo will still be running strong (ask me how I know). This guide is not all encompassing and the reader is encouraged to do all the standard basic checks when buying any old car. Like, did this car take a swim in a lake, is it composed of two different Volvos welded together after getting demolished at your local derby? Those are things you will have to investigate yourself with a Carfax report and trained eye or just have open and look for simple things: ie: welds on the frame = bad. I don’t intend to cover all the specs, variants for that you have many other sources.
“The one word everyone asks is: are they reliable? In a word, I would say YES but they need maintenance to get the most worry free miles.”
The one word everyone asks is: are they reliable? In a word, I would say YES but they need maintenance to get the most worry free miles. They are not the kind of car that is set and forget; they need small amounts of love, as I will get into. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised with their reliability because they are sometimes lumped into the General: European cars are not reliable category which is false.
Ok, so what goes wrong in these cars. In no particular order:
- A/C Condenser: This is very common and is difficult to replace as the dash has to be removed. You can help prevent (read PREVENT not eliminate) if you use a high quality ventilation filter. Note, early P80s did not have a filter, but you can add the housing to add this feature. Also, before turning you’re A/C off run the fan to circulate and dry out the condenser. It fails due to corrosion from the build up of moisture being trapped with dirt/dust. While you have the dash apart, fix any mounting points that may cause the dash to rattle.
- Spring Seat: if you can turn a wrench on the top mounting bolt under the hood with no resistance (be careful not to damage seat), your spring seat has failed. Luckily, Volvo has a fix in the form of the XC spring seat which is sturdier.
- O2 Sensor: I wouldn’t say they are much more prone to failure compared to other cars but after about 160,000km they will most likely throw a P0133 code. Replace them with a Bosch sensor, they are factory OE and not expensive when purchased through Amazon.
- ECT Sensor: on a similar note to the O2 sensor, these also have a finite life at about the same mileage and OEM Volvo sensor is best as this sensor is also responsible for how well your car will run and start (cold and hot) and the fuel consumption so the extra money is well spent. While you are replacing the ECT, replace the thermostat with Volvo OE as they fail safe. Typical symptom is a car that runs cold. Aftermarket thermostats tend to fail closed which is bad.
- Parking Brake Cable: they have a tendency to seize but can be brought back to life by inserting lots of penetrating oil into the broken sheathing.
- ABS Module: this is not a matter of if it will fail but when it fails. There are many rebuilders who can reflow the solder joints, it is a sealed unit so it requires some patience. Less likely, the failure is a rear ABS sensor which is what I experienced in addition to the ABS ECU.
- Turbo Coolant Hoses: There have been reports these fail so it is good measure to replace the feed and return hose. They are inexpensive but slightly tricky to replace.
- Fuel Pump Relay: The solder joints develop cracks which should be re-flowed. Some also replace the two capacitors.
- AWD: Multiple failure points due to multiply causes, one of which is non matching tires. This is too complex to go into full detail but you can always remove the driveshaft and switch to FWD.
- Heater Core: it has been noted that several people have reported leaking heater cores. I’ve been lucky at 235,000km with the original core. If you notice a sweet smell through the vents, wet carpet or steam on the windshield replace ASAP. Don’t wait until it fails badly.
- Door Chime: this is a micro switch which can be replaced in the door latch if you have some DIY skills. I just removed the BLUE door chime relay to stop the annoying sound and so that I don’t have to slam the door.
- PCV: Check to see if the PCV was serviced. It should hold a vacuum on a rubber glove through the oil filler. If it doesn’t replace the system before it causes damage to the RMS (rear main seal). This would be costly. It is not a simple system but is still DIY Friendly. It is not as simple as just replacing a PCV valve like on some Japanese cars but hey what do you expect, it does a good job at re-burning oil vapors.
- Odometer gear: this can fail on the 850s, so make sure you are actually getting the right mileage read. You can read the number of light blinks on the ECU.
In 1998 the 70 series changed from a throttle cable to an ETM (Electronic Throttle Module), the ETM has a high fail rate resulting in a stuttering engine and a low power output. There are rebuilders for these ETMs but budget on spending some money. If this scares you buy pre 1998.
- Oil Seal Rubber: this is the seal on the oil filler cap and should be changed often or it will cause oil to drip down into the spark plug wells.
- Air Pump: common failure is the bearing seizes. Lookup the $1 diode delete
- EVAP Code: this could be a J-hose, purge valve or gas cap. Sometimes it is tricky to track down and would require a smoke test.
I did not capture everything but the most common failure points and with that said if you are mechanically inclined you will notice that some are wear items that can affect other cars but mostly they are all minor in nature and DIY friendly. Notice how I did not list transmission failures, or engine failures. The 4speed transmission is nearly bullet proof as is the engine. (They did change to a 5sp auto transmission in 2000 which is not as reliable) What about the turbo, aren’t those a headache? Actually, no, they were designed to last the life of the car. One of the main goals Volvo had with this model is that it was fast, safe, but it should last 300,000km minimum without any major repair and they were successful in that. There are many Turbo and non-Turbo models with close to 500,000km on them.
From the list above, if you notice issues that in no means a deter towards your purchase. In fact, you will most probably notice one issue from list, and except for the PCV, they should not harm the car. Instead, the owners manual caused more harm to these cars in that they did not recommend any fluid changes. Ignore this, it was Volvo’s way to appease to the average lazy, cheap consumer. For those of us gaming for a high mileage cruiser, change all the fluids. The list of all the components which are still original after 235,000km: namely the exhaust, no rust on the body or frame at all, turbo, engine… too much to list actually. And it drives smoothly, quietly and still has plenty of power and does not burn a drop of oil. Yes, both my 850 and S70 burn no oil at all.
Few more pointers to note, the GKN CV joints in these Volvo’s are very stout, only replace the boots don’t get aftermarket CV joints they are all junk, spend the time to replace the boot yourself. These cars will survive apocalyptic zombie attacks, (don’t believe me, look up its crash performance) and even can survive a steady dose of road salt. You rarely see any Volvo with body or frame rust but you can help them last if you have them sprayed with oil
Ok, so now that you’ve exhausted yourself reading this info, why should you even care. I mean, why should you consider a P80 Volvo. Drive one first and for me it was the combination of power and luxury at a hugely depreciated price. They are more comfortable and faster than many of today’s cars. If you look at the officially economy numbers you would not be impressed but I call BS on those numbers. I easily get 21mpg in the city and 32mpg on the highway. Not bad for a car made in 1998, with 236hp; which by the way was one of the fastest sedans of its day. The LPT (low pressure turbo) models have great throttle response in town, while the HPT explodes on the highway. The NA models, um well I heard they are peppy with a Manual. Ok, thinking a bit harder, and not to offend the non turbo guys, the NA models are very simple. With a turbo comes extra complexity and hoses. Many will say to replace the vacuum turbo control hoses if old, which isn’t a bad idea and I did but if they aren’t leaking you can easily just leave them.
Some other positives, they are very roomy. Once you open the trunk you can ask yourself, how many trunks are that big nowadays? Sound system: The sound system is either decent in some models to excellent in the T5s with the external sub. Steering feel was great with the TRW racks on the 850s and then became over assisted on the S70. Breaking: phenomenal for a car of this period, both in pedal feel and breaking distance. Other cars I’ve owned could not accelerate, or stop like my Volvo. Downsides you ask: I can only think of one. It is not tossible in the fun sense, but how many luxury cars are. That is being picky really, for the money (they depreciate quite heavily) it is an excellent buy. If it was well taken care of, you should have many years of fun, safe, reliable service. When the boost builds, just remember to keep it between the ditches. Enjoy. – “mecheng”