30 years of the Volvo 480

Posted on March 31st, 2016 by Rob Marshall


Of all carmakers, the most obvious producer that springs to mind, whenever safety is considered, is Volvo. This is for good reason and is not the result of carefully-choreographed marketing hype. Right at the company’s inception, its founding fathers asserted that safety had to be at the forefront of everything that the company delivered. Since then, Volvo Cars introduced safety features in its early models that are taken for granted today, such as the three point safety belt, side impact protection and rear facing child safety seats.

Yet, safety was considered not especially exciting and, in the early 1980s, Volvo realised that its worthy, tough but rather stodgy 200, 300 and 700 series were struggling to woo younger buyers. Even its most likely candidate, the 360GLT, failed to dent the sales performance of Golf GTis and Escort XR3s, a situation not helped by its roots being set firmly in the preceding decade.

The point of change

Thirty years ago this month, the Dutch arm of the company (now defunct, although the factory now builds BMW MINIs) shocked crowds at the 1986 Geneva Motor Show, by unveiling a very un-Volvo-like, low-slung, sporty combi-coupé but its beauty was not skin deep. The production-ready 480ES boasted all of Volvo’s renowned safety features of the time, including low-speed impact resistant bumpers, 3-point seat belts front and rear, high level brake lights, daytime running lamps, crumple zones, double-impact protection beams in the doors and much more.

The car was advanced in other areas, too. Its construction utilised a mixture of high strength steel and the latest in forward-thinking GRP (fibreglass) construction (its bonnet was entirely made from composite materials, like that of that Citroen BX of four years previously), while its tailgate was a single toughened glass sheet. Inside, the 480 boasted an all-new interior, the fascia of which was angled towards the driver and designed by Peter Horbury, who would become Volvo’s design director five years later. While heated seats (naturally) were standardised, the entire cockpit electronics were controlled by a single body control computer, a method that almost all of today’s modern cars now employ. This allowed convenience factors to be controlled more accurately, such as front lamps that could light up one’s driveway before switching off, to wipers that changed from normal wipe to full speed, under full-throttle conditions.

Road testers were impressed, too, although they concluded that the 109bhp, from the tough Porsche-tuned Renault engine, was only adequate for the Lotus-developed handling. However, the lustre did not last long. While the build quality of all 480s was hardly bullet-proof, the earliest cars were especially dire and a spate of issues led a Dutch motoring magazine to dub the car “The Coupé from Hell”. The main issues surrounded the complicated electronics, which were prone to causing all kinds of irritating faults. The unreliability issues harmed the car’s sales, not helped by Volvo’s North American aspirations for the car being dashed by poor currency exchange rates, destroying the chance to cash-in on the lucrative trust-fund kids and trendy young professional markets.

Gradually, Volvo improved the 480, the most obvious change was a minor facelift in 1993 that standardised a driver airbag and anti-lock brakes. A turbocharged version appeared in 1988, to answer criticisms about performance and the 1.7-litre engine was superseded by another hardy Renault-based 2.0-litre unit, after catalytic converters sapped performance of the smaller engine even further. Build quality improved slightly over the years and the original ES was supplemented by several special editions, with a stripped-down ‘S’ and limited production GTs and ‘Celebration’ examples following, prior to the end of production in 1995.

While the 480 was a disappointment for Volvo, it is starting to become recognised as an interesting oddity in the company’s history. Importantly, it sired the 440 hatchback and 460 saloon, both of which sold in healthy numbers throughout Europe and were crucial to the company’s survival, during the early 1990s. Furthermore, every all-new Volvo model that has been introduced since the 480 has been front-wheel-drive.

Should you buy one?

Despite being a problem child during production, today, the 480 makes the grade as a capable retro-classic. It is safe enough to be used every day and the performance, comfort, handling and brakes are not lacking. Electrical problems are rife, even on the later cars, but most common issues remain confined to the all-electric instrument panel and the ancillary electrics. Rear wheel arch, doors, boot floor and sill corrosion are the main problem areas, not helped by water leaks that enter the cabin through the rear windows and rear lamps.

Mechanically, the Renault-sourced engines and transmissions are very tough, although the automatic gearboxes are less so. I would recommend a 2.0-litre version, which is rated at only 10bhp less than the 1.7-litre turbocharged version, but is not only more reliable but also better on fuel.

Considering that the 480’s used values remain in the doldrums, the fact that even Volvo is starting to acknowledge its very existence could mean that prices are about to rise. The only problem is finding one in good condition. Buy one before they are all gone.