The Volvo 480ES - Setting The Record Straight
The Wedge has long been panned for being underpowered, unreliable, and for underdelivering. But is it actually a bad car?
The Bosnian sun was warm and the air was clean, we were on a Balkan adventure, and for a 14 year old boy constantly thinking about what his first car would be, it was finally a chance to go somewhere interesting. On our drive up to Montenegro, a strange car appeared in our rear view mirror. It was like nothing we had ever seen. Was it a Citroen? Some wonderful Communist Contraption? Even an AMC was briefly considered. It overtook us, and to our shock, the blue sports hatch was a Volvo! I knew, in that moment, my answer had been found.
My reaction was a microcosm of what happened in 1985 when the Volvo 480 was unveiled to the Geneva Motor Show. Volvo were legendary for their rare mould breaking cars, and people had high expectations for what this car would bring. However, poor build quality and overselling on Volvo's count quickly dented the car's reputation. It always was a niche car, and is even more so now.
Powered by a 1721cc B18E engine, this is a tuned version of the unit found in the Renault 11, albeit producing significantly higher power, coming in at 109bhp as standard. The car was Volvo's first ever FWD effort and set the standard for their future endeavours.
The 480 was meant as a sports coupe, rather than an out and out hot hatch
Starting the engine one is greeted with a typically Gallic sounding engine, but a raspy exhaust burble can be heard. Pulling away is quite relaxed, the engine gets most of its power between 4500-6000 RPM, so risk of uncontrolled acceleration is low for anyone who doesn't suffer a common sense deficiency. It will do 0-60 in 9.5 seconds, which isn't bad, it does mean that bringing the car up to speed isn't the most exciting thing in the world - this car isn't a hot hatch; but the car should not be passed over as boring, as it has a few tricks up it's sleeve.
The Gearchange in this car is superb, the gearstick is swift and precise, and can be slickly handled. The engine is relatively torquey, and it is possible to overtake in 4th gear without changing down, though for increased fun factor, it is recommended to change down into 3rd, or if slow enough, rev match into 2nd, and let the car take flight. The straight line performance of the 480 is not its strong suit however. That would be its handling.
The handling of the 480 is nothing short of superb, find a twisty B road and the car really comes into its own. It always remains sure footed, and the feeling of plantedness stays with you as you roll from bend to bend, this is a car that likes to be chucked around. The rear suspension set up was done by Lotus and it really shows. You never feel like the car is going to throw you off, and even when having fun, you can concentrate and be safe.
Back in the day, and indeed to this day; the 480 has always been compared against the Honda Accord Aerodeck. In every period review I have seen, the Volvo always came out on top, on dynamics especially. As Aerodecks are extremely rare I haven't had the chance to drive one, however I am still very impressed by the Volvo.
If I were to improve the car however, I would give it a little more grunt, but that is only to make it a bit more sprightly, as otherwise I can't find much fault with the way it drives
The Interior of the 480 is a really nice place to be, with great seating arrangements which make the most of the limited space. My 6ft 3in frame fits comfortably inside, front and back. The interior was designed by Peter Horbury, who later did work with Aston Martin. Each occupant has their own chair, and has a decent amount of headroom.
In terms of Instrumentation, it is clear that great care has been taken. All the dials are clear to read through the two-spoke steering wheel, and the Info Centre on board computer has a host of real-time data that you can play with, such as Fuel Instance Usage (Live MPG). The Dash is quite high up, and all the controls are within touch reach, so that your eyes needn't be averted to change the radio station, something modern cars makers don't seem to value.
For all its good points, the interior has a whole host of let downs. There are lots of rattles, squeaks and creaks that can be heard when driving, while this is to be expected from a car of the era, it is still annoying. The Dash Board binnacle is very fragile and is now only held in with two screws on my car, as the other screw points had broken off (even then I had to build a new one).
The boot space is also very small, although the rear seats do fold flat for large objects, the central armrest/storage bin does get in the way. In addition to this there is no privacy in the car, so thieves will have full view of any items in the car that won't fit in the (albeit many) storage bins.
The car is very safe, and while it lacks airbags, it has above average safety for a 1980s car, with front and rear crumple zones, a steel safety cage and low speed impact bumpers. The Visibility is fantastic with few blind spots to worry about. Volvo crash tested the car to 35mph, which was higher than the standard of the day. The Headlights give fantastic illumination of the road, and especially give good side coverage to watch the verge for animals at night
The External Styling of the 480 was undertaken by the design team at Volvo Cars BV in the Netherlands, headed by John De Vries. The lines of the car are very crisp, and the shape is clean and without fuss. The black bumpers are divisive, De Vries was furious at their incorporation at Volvo's behest, although coloured bumpers were an option. The 14" Alloys were designed for this car, and their theme is continued in the steering wheel shape.
However, the biggest talking points of the 480 are its glass tailgate, and the all important Pop-Up headlights. These features really set the car off, there is nothing else quite like it on the road, the aforementioned Aerodeck attempts a similar feat, but doesn't carry it out with the same design cleanliness as the Volvo.
This car certainly looks odd, but the more one looks at it, the more one grows to appreciate the well proportioned shape, from the Torpedo-like snout to the Sci-Fi rear end.
Living With A Wedge
The Volvo 480ES is reasonably easy to live with, but it is here where the car's major faults are really highlighted.
These cars have issues. A Lot of issues. The build quality was never fantastic, and as such these cars leak, like a colander that has taken a shotgun blast. Water will often be found in the footwells, in the boot, and on the inside of the windscreen. This can be sorted by taking all the glass out and redoing the seals properly, but it is a pain.
The Injected Renault engine is bulletproof, and will run for mega-miles with half-decent looking after, however, the electronic systems that govern it and a lot of the rest of the car are very fragile and prone to failure, I once read somewhere that "Hammers can fix anything mechanical, Hammers Can't fix a 480!" which just about sums it up
In addition to all this, one has to deal with rear lights going matte, and rust on the rear arches. This is their big weak spot, but it is the rear lights that often caused these cars to get written off, even if the rest of the car was fine, as replacements were virtually non-existent. Sorting rust on a 480 is vital as if left unchecked it can compromise the rigidity, although in most cases it will be a new rear arch needed, which will be annoying...
It usually costs me around £40-45 to fill the car up with unleaded petrol, this will typically last me about a week on my commute, or a week and a half at a push. I get a readout of c.340 miles after a fill up, though whether this can be achieved is highly dependent on how you drive, the highest MPG figure I have managed to get is 60mpg at 50mph.
A moody of the Wedge, best viewed while listening to some A-ha or Duran Duran, other synth bands are available
The Volvo 480ES surprised me. I have always been fair to underrated or panned cars, but some cars I have to work really hard to find defences for. This car however, is not one of those cases. When you drive the 480, you really feel like the car has been thought about and care has been taken. The Dutch put a lot of effort and love into this car, so much so it is somewhat of a national car in the Netherlands, and it really does show. Whether it is the steering wheel and it's link to the alloys, or the little keyhole light that activates when the handle is pulled when locked, this car is chock full of features and fun that really give it character.
The driving experience is really memorable, you always feel safe, but not unable to have fun too. This car may not be able to beat a GTi, but it was never meant to, and I think it would be dynamically superior to the Aerodeck, and more comfortable and better driving than the Mk2 Scirocco, cars which I think were it's closest class rivals. I can understand why some thought it was down on power, the supercar-aping looks do suggest something more potent, but in uncatalysed, B18E form, the engine is very spritely and able to keep pace with modern traffic.
That being said, the car does suffer from it's build quality and general finish. This was very hit and miss with each car, so if a car has survived this long it is likely to be a good one, although that is not guaranteed. The impact to the quality of life is frustrating, although it is mitigated by the joy the car brings.
I would recommend this car to anyone who wanted a safe starter classic that they can use everyday. There is a fantastic community over at Volvo 480 Club Europe, so if this article has inspired you, do go and have a look.
The Wedge really deserved to do better than it did, it could have been a significant player if the quality was right. Want proof? Just look at how many C30s you see out and about...
Volvo 480 Club Europe: www.volvo-480-europe.org/index.php
Volvo 480ES (1.7, 1988)