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VOLVO’S NEW MOTTO: SAFETY AND SPEED `R’ US

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Safety to Volvo? A synonym. Speed to Volvo? An oxymoron.

A 240-horsepower, seven-second 0-60, 150-mph Volvo? And a station wagon at that?Mission, Impossible?

Maybe a few years ago, but the IMF instructions tape has long since been played for the Swedish Jim Phelps and his crew, whomever they are, in Gothenburg. It has self-destructed, of course, and today we have their work:

The Volvo 850 R.

Volvo calls it "Eric the Red in metal clad armor" because that's its primary color and because they don't want you to forget your fear of a crash and Volvo's image in helping you survive a crash.

The fact that much of the safety equipment in a Volvo, excepting side-impact air bags, can be found in most other cars on the road is irrelevant. Hey, Volvo is to safety what Kleenex is to tissues and Scotch is to tape. If that arrest-me red isn't exactly your dream color, you do have a second choice, basic black. I gladly took the black.

The 850 R is an extreme outgrowth of the 850 Turbo. The 850 series has been Volvo's first venture into the radical world of front-wheel-drive. The R model is a curious mixture of high-horsepower performance and the practicality of front-wheel-drive.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

There's no denying the juice provided by those 240 horses developed by an all-aluminum (head and block), 20-valve, twin-cam, five-cylinder engine. Even with the automatic-only transmission mate, even with nearly 3,400 curb pounds stretched over 185.4 inches in length in a shape with the aesthetics of an egg carton, the acceleration doesn't quit.

And as long as the road is dry, the R's stiffer shocks and beefier anti-sway bars help those huge Pirelli P Zero 205/45 17ZRs corner flat and tight. Can't be sure how much help the design of those titanium gray aluminum rims provides, but it sure is pretty cool-looking.

But if you'll have need to navigate your 850 R in bad weather, you'd be wiser to take the no-cost option of 205/50 16 ZR Michelin MXM on 16-inch aluminum rims. I'm not crazy about Michelins, but in this case they'd be a wiser all-weather choice. Besides, if the Pirellis were so great as an all-around offering, why does Volvo offer a downsizing option at no extra cost?

Standard traction control helps, but it's not the proverbial panacea.

Many other standards help try to justify the car's hefty price tag, like nearly all power options, four air bags (including one near each of the front doors for side-impacts), keyless remote with burglar alarm, a striking interior and an unusual climate-control system.

The side-impact air bags are actually hidden in the outside seam of the front seat backs and are mechanically triggered in four to six milliseconds. There's no complex collection of computerized electronics - just two gas generators and a sensor to fill the 1-foot-by-5-inch bag and prevent you from a side crash. (Of course, since the expanding gases fill the bag that's folded in the seat back, you'll need a new covering for your seats since the seam will have been split by the bag deployment.)

The interior is highlighted by light-colored Swedish birchwood on the dash and a part-leather, part-pseudo-suede covering on the comfortable bucket seats with their eight-way power adjuster switches. It has been knocked by some critics as unattractive. I thought it was aesthetically pleasing, a pleasant change from the usual dark burlwood, real or fake, found in everything from London to Munich to Tokyo these days.

I also checked with one fashion expert who assured me it was the best-looking interior on the market since the late Maserati Biturbo. So you guys who don't like it should go back to drinking iced transmission fluid.

The climate control, though, didn't captivate me. Although the 850 R has those nominally different thumbwheels for driver and passenger air temp, it doesn't have an electronic-digital setting in the modern mold. CFC-free air or not, I had to reset it several times for various conditions. And the in-dash ambient thermometer, part of a trip computer, showed temperatures of 100-105 on an 85-degree day as the car cruised on I-95.

Although a five-speed stick will be available some time next year, the four-speed automatic is hard to fault. It comes with a switch allowing you to choose "sport" driving, in which upshifts are delayed to take advantage of the high-end peak power output and downshifts seem quicker for more passing "kickdown."

There's also an "economy" mode that quickens the upshifts to try to help you reach the high end of those EPA estimates - good luck with that - and a "winter" mode that locks out the two lower gears for slippery road conditions.

The R also comes in sedan form, priced at $37,925, or about $5,000 more (and 18 horsepower more) than an 850 Turbo sedan. The 850 Turbo Wagon, by the way, bases at $33,950 for those who don't care about the extra 18 horsepower.