Volvo 480 is First Produced

The Volvo 480 is a car with an unusual 4 seat, 3-door hatchback body, somewhere between liftback and estate in form, though marketed as a coupé. It was the first front-wheel drive car made by Volvo Cars and the only production Volvo to feature pop-up headlamps.


Press launch was on October 15 1985, but the 480 was first put on show at Geneva in 1986, becoming available to the public in 1987. It was produced in Born, Netherlands at the factory which built DAF cars, including the DAF 66-based Volvo 66 and later Volvo 300 Series. The platform that was also used in the Volvo 440 and 460. It was originally planned for the North American market (as can be evidenced by its US-spec front and rear side markers, not used on European automobiles), but took some time before it was sold in the U.S due to unfavourable currency exchange rates. The 480 was the first Volvo of its sport back style since the Volvo P1800, and the last until the unveiling of the Volvo C30. All of these models featured a distinctive frameless glass hatchback which has become something of a trademark for such Volvo coupés.
The concept was to design a sporty, luxury front-wheel drive car with advanced electronics. Unfortunately, the necessary technology was still in its infancy, and in the early days due to funding, the 480 suffered electrical problems. Revisions in the early-1990s saw improved reliability. Offsetting these problems, the car had excellent handling, due in no small part to its Lotus-designed suspension, and a series of reliable Renault engines, tuned by Porsche. It was also Volvo's first front wheel drive model.
In 1988, a Turbo version was introduced, the Garrett AiResearch turbocharger increasing the power from 109 PS (80 kW; 108 hp) to 120 PS (88 kW; 118 hp). Maximum torque was 175 N·m (129 lb·ft) instead of 140 N·m (103 lb·ft) for the naturally-aspirated 1.7 L engine. In 1993 (UK), due to new legislation which meant that catalytic converters had to be fitted to unleaded petrol engines, power dropped and so the 2.0 L engine was developed; it was rated at 110 PS (81 kW; 108 hp) and 165 N·m (122 lb·ft). Standard 4 speed automatic transmission was also offered.
In 1992 the 480 was given new mirrors, and headrests for the back seats, along with subtle modifications to the trim and body-colour bumpers. The 2.0 naturally-aspirated engine was also introduced in a bid to improve performance. Changes between the CEM (Central Electronic Module) are externally apparent with the introduction of a total closure system whereby the key can be held in the lock position to close the windows and (where fitted) sunroof. Earlier CEM modules feature a 'passing' function for the wipers, whereby fully depressing the accelerator pedal will switch intermittent wipers to full.

Rear end of 480, showing its distinctive frameless glass hatchback.
Early-1992 saw the release of special editions; 1994 saw the UK release of the 'Celebration' limited edition of 480 specially equipped and numbered cars. In 1994 the 480 was updated further with clear front turn signals. Production ended on 7 September 1995 with about 80,463 units produced. Writing about the demise of the 480 in Car Magazine, journalist Richard Bremner made reference to its decent power and low weight combination. 'This meant there was some danger of a sporty steer — pretty radical from a company that considered having fun at the wheel as acceptable as seducing a nun,' he commented. 'Good grief, a Volvo worth preserving. And there aren't many of them.'

Prototypes for variants

The 480 factory also made several prototypes, including a 480 with an electric drivetrain, a supercharged version (G-Lader), a version with a 16-valve engine and a version with a turbocharged 2.0 L engine. However, none of these made it to production. A convertible was announced to the press in summer 1987 but wasn't seen in public until the 1990 Geneva Motor Show. It was planned to be launched at the beginning of 1991, but ultimately did not make production due to a supplier going bankrupt, concerns over roll-over safety protection and a too-long development process.

The 480 started life in 1978 as a project by Volvo called the 'E12', and some 7 years later, in October 1985 it appeared to the world as the 480 ES, with the official launch following some 6 months later at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1986. It is quite remarkable that a Company such as Volvo could take so very long to complete the project, particularly when they subsequently promoted it in their literature as being a successor to the 1800, which was discontinued some 12 years earlier in 1973. The 'E12' project was commenced in Gothenburg, and was subsequently transferred to the Netherlands in 1983, where the cars were later manufactured. One major advantage of manufacturing them there was that the vehicles were being built within the European Community. The 400 series, in general, was according to Volvo designed to complement their existing and future range, and with the exception of the 480 (which was loosely marketed as a successor to the 1800) was not meant as a direct replacement for either the 300 or 200 series. Despite this statement, it is hardly surprising that the 300 series disappeared fairly quickly after the arrival of the 440's and 460's. The 480 was a very close competitor to the 360 GLT which probably explains why the 360 was discontinued first. At its launch, the 480 boasted a whole host of electronic gadgets aimed at making life easier for the driver.

The car is equipped with an electronic information centre, displaying oil, water, and outside air temperatures, along with average speed, plus instant and average fuel consumption. Its computer also assists with the windscreen wipers, switching the rear wiper on automatically, should reverse gear be selected whilst the front wipers are on. There is also the facility whereby the front wipers increase their speed to maximum when the throttle is fully depressed for harsh acceleration. This was a very innovative feature, but one which was subsequently dropped on later models. Even the lighting has computer assistance, providing the facility of not only a delay on the interior lights, but also the option of having the front driving lights remaining on for some 20 seconds after you have got out of the car! Particularly useful if you have a dark drive!

The one drawback to the above benefits of this new and sophisticated technology has been the initial lack of reliability, resulting in problems with the 'computers' and running of the engine. I found it somewhat amusing that on querying the relatively poor idling of mine from cold, the local dealer first checked to see if the large quantity of modifications issued by Volvo had been carried out. To this day the 480 series (1700CC) is not noted for the smoothest of idles! With regard to the information centre, there have been many press reports highlighting its failure, although to date as the 400 register keeper, I am not aware of any failures having been reported by members. It would also appear that the 2000cc engine does not suffer from the same problem of rough idle like the 1700cc. It would be untrue to describe the 480 as a family car, by virtue of the fact that with four occupants there is minimal room for anything else, particularly if the rear passengers decide to take advantage of the option of the rear seats reclining. (it is, however, far more suited to four people than the 1800 was!) With two people in the car, and the rear seats folded down it offers a considerable amount of room for cases and luggage. Access to the back of the car is made easier by the two large wide opening doors, although experience dictates that extreme care is required to avoid tripping on the front seat belts when getting in and out of the back bucket seats. Not only are the front seats in keeping with the car's sporting image and looks, they are also extremely comfortable with both front seats offering an adjustable lumbar support, and the driver's side offering adjustable height as well.

The interior is well laid out with everything easily visible, assisted by the centre console being slightly angled in the direction of the driver. The height adjustment on the steering column also assists to ensure that the best possible driving position can be obtained. The 480 was designed to be a sports car, replacing the 1800, with Volvo themselves actually using the term 'sporty' to describe it. By today's standards the car is not particularly quick, with a top speed of around 110, and the all important 0 - 60 time of approximately 10 seconds. These figures have of course been slightly improved on with the introduction of the turbo charged and 2 litre engines. The engine is surprisingly economical, with an average fuel economy of over 30 m.p.g. which will of course be reduced with harsh town driving, or increased to over 40 m.p.g. with a light right foot on a long run! In comparison to its slightly lack lustre performance in speed and acceleration terms, the roadholding and ride are excellent, being a phenomenal improvement on the 300 series. The vehicle feels as if it has a layer of glue between the road and its wheels, in even the tightest of bends. This description however only applies to good dry conditions, as I am told that in ice and snow the car needs treating with a lot more care and respect! It is an easy car to drive, offering good visibility through its all round tinted glass. It has power steering as standard, which has the useful feature of reducing the amount of assistance according to road speed. Although the styling is radically different to any other Volvo in the range, when it comes to the subject of safety, the car is still a typical Volvo, including a heavy roll bar in the roof, and steel bar protection in the side doors. The braking system consists of disc brakes on all four wheels.

Surprisingly, the 480 (and 440/460) have never been available in the USA, Volvo's biggest marketplace. Apparently it was their original intention for the to be available, but due to poor exchange rates against the dollar in the late 80's it was decided that it was not commercially viable. Throughout its short 8 year life the car has not undergone any major facelift (unlike the 700/900 series - even the 440 and 460 have had their exteriors slightly changed) The trim levels have been updated slightly both internally and externally, but that aside the car remains very similar to the original launched in 1987. Regrettably, the 480 is being discontinued with a Special Edition model being the last one produced. I am disappointed that the lilac 480 cabriolet which took centre stage at the Motorshow a few years ago never became an option in the showrooms. I somehow very much doubt if Volvo will ever produce a replacement stand alone sports car again, but will probably concentrate on the 'family' and 'executive' cars with the option of high performance variants.