History originally published in Sport Compact Car, December 1997
Of all the “could’ve beens,” perhaps the saddest ever is the Volvo 480 Turbo. Volvo hadn’t built a sports car since the demise of the 1800ES after the 1973 model year. The five mph bumper rule that came into full effect in 1974 would have required a full redesign, something that really didn’t make sense for the aging model. Yet despite the fact that the boxy 240 Series was selling well, the Gothenburg-based carmaker longed for something sporty to spice up the American showroom the way the 180ES had.
Project E12 was launched in 1978 for exactly that purpose. The sportwagon shape of the 1800ES had sold better than the traditional coupe-shaped 1800S, so it’s no surprise that the profile was reprised when Volvo began showing conceptual drawings at consumer clinics in the U.S. in 1981. The new model would be no rehash of the 1800ES, however. Its lines were clean and original, even if similar to what was being done by others at the time.
The definitive form was show to the American press in late 1985, with Car and Driver featuring the 480ES, as the new car would be called, in its February 1986 issue.
What readers saw was a wedgy three-door hatchback with U.S.-spec height pop-up headlamps. Bumpers were designed to meet U.S. regulations and there were DOT-legal side-impact beams in the doors.
New for a Volvo design was the front-engine/front-drive configuration. It was the only way a car with a 98.5-inch wheelbase would be able to seat four full-sized adults. The usual gymnastics would be required for rear seat entry, but once there, legroom was adequate and headroom actually generous, thanks to the roof’s horizontal contour.
Novelties included intermittent wipers that changed to continuous with full throttle, and a new rear wiper that activated when the front wipers were on and reverse was selected.
Volvo had planned to use a turbocharged diesel (by Renault) in the 480ES, and considering the diesel boom that swept through the U.S. in the early ‘80s, that made a certain amount of sense. It was economically, and by the standards of the day, ecologically sound. But when the diesel fad left as quickly as it had come, Volvo had to come up with a new powerplant and decided to us a new engine it was co-developing with Renault. Called the B18, the 1721cc single overhead cam four had been designed for front-wheel drive and transverse mounting.
The iron block wasn’t unusual, but the aluminum head had no combustion chambers. Instead, its eight valves were vertical and in line, with combustion taking place in Heron “bowl-in-piston” chambers. Both ignition and fuel injection were electronically controlled, and with horsepower at a quoted 107 horses, Volvo’s performance claims were a top speed of 118 mph and 0-60 in under ten seconds.
The Volvo 480ES went on sale in Europe in 1986, with production at a factory in the Netherlands that Volvo had acquired when buying DAF’s car line. Volvo announced plans to introduce the 480ES in the fall of 1988 as a 1989 model. But the long gestation of the 480ES worked against it. From 1982 to 1988, the dollar had lost a third of its value against the Dutch guilder, and the selling price had climbed from an anticipated $15,000 to closer to $20,000.
Then came Black Monday, October 18, 1987. That crash of the New York Stock Exchange prompted the February 8, 1988, announcement that all import plans for the 480ES were scratched.
It’s even more of a shame because about the time the 480 Turbo was released. The Turbo added only 13 horsepower, but the torque curve was reconfigured to peak at 1800 rpm instead of the naturally aspirated version’s 4600 rpm, giving excellent acceleration and drivability. More power and torque came for both engines in 1990 with a major redesign; Volvo noted in an internal publication that the engine no longer resembled its French counterpart.
Volvo also produced a sedan version of the 480ES dubbed the 440. This five-door hatchback model came in a variety of trim levels including a rear wing-equipped 440 Turbo. A four-door 460 had a conventional trunk and a naturally aspirated or turbocharged engine.
The irony is that despite meeting U.S. safety regulations and having emission-controlled engines, the Volvo 480ES couldn’t make it through the federal bureaucratic maze even if you wanted to import one. It’s an interesting car, the 480ES. Like we said, it’s a disappointing “could’ve been.”