As a wedge-shaped, electronics-packed sports estate, the 480ES came right out of left-field for sensible Volvo during the 1980s.
Volvo in the 1980s wasn’t the world’s most exciting car company. The 480ES was intended to, well, not exactly change that, but at least inject a bit of fizz into a range that had rather lacked it since the demise of the 1800ES in 1973. Launched in 1985, the quirky streamlined wedge that was the 480ES looked completely different to anything else in the Swedish firm’s line-up (although as an estate, it did somewhat conform to the view many had of Volvo). The 1721cc engine was shared with the Renault 11 – then a collaborative partner with Volvo – and was tuned by Porsche, while Lotus tweaked the suspension. Inside was a gimmicky digital display, all the rage during the mid-1980s.
In 1989, a turbocharged version joined the line-up, but only offered 120bhp to the standard variant’s 109bhp. This was followed in 1992 by an upgrade to two litres and a genuine all-Volvo engine to improve reliability. The 480ES was discontinued in 1995, but the 440 hatchback and 460 saloon offshoots continued through to 1997.
TORQUE 103lb ft@4000rpm
MAXIMUM SPEED 12mph
FUEL CONSUMPTION 28.8mpg
TRANSMISSION FWD, five-spd manual/four-spd auto
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Despite it being a Volvo, 480s can and do rust. Prime areas are the sills, rear wheelarches, roof edges around the windscreen and door bottoms. The area behind the bumper also likes to corrode. Look for straight panel gaps – uneven ones could be the result of previous accident damage. The biggest issue with the 480ES is that it is prone to leaks, usually around the rear lamps (which will allow water into the boot area), above the rear side windows, via the sunroof or the front bulkhead. Rear lamps often discolour and go brittle.
If you do suspect an accident (see above) then get underneath to look for any kinks or ripples. It’s also wise to check the sills and floorpan from beneath, as well as look for any impact damage – these are quite low-slung machines after all.
Both the 1.7-litre Renault and two-litre Volvo engines are resilient enough, although it’s the larger and later Volvo unit that is the toughest of the bunch. It was prone to using oil though. Usual checks apply: a full service history is always a bonus (especially as Volvo did a number of in-service improvements), listen for any deep rumbles from within, look for blue smoke on start-up and acceleration and check for signs of overheating which could signal head gasket issues – in which case oil will be getting into the water and vice versa. If you’re fortunate enough to find one of the rare Turbos, make sure the turbocharger is doing its stuff and boosting properly when you accelerate.
Clutch cable failure is a common malady – if the pedal grates or feels stiff when pushed, suspect this is about to occur. Gearboxes don’t often give many problems, but on high mileage examples, the synchromesh can start to feel weak.
Steering should be very sharp (all examples had power steering as standard too) so any vagueness should sound alarm bells. It’s quite likely to be worn bushes, which will be backed up by any banging or crashing over bumps during your test drive.
The inside story
The 480ES became quite notorious for poor electrics, so check everything inside works, especially the dash digital ‘infocentre’ as well as the windows. Make sure the pop-up headlamps rise and retract promptly and together. Wet carpets or a musty smell suggest leaks have struck. Air conditioning, if fitted, should blow cold if so set – often it doesn’t.
Well, aside from the obvious – it’s got very cool pop-up headlamps – the main reason you want one is because it’s just not an obvious Volvo. It’s also been largely forgotten by many, yet has an enthusiastic following among enthusiasts in the know. Think of it as a more practical, more robust Triumph TR7 with gadgets, and you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. As a sports car – of sorts – it is surprisingly effective with handling that’s enjoyably great. And while the 480ES may not be quite as tough as its bigger, less racy siblings, it’s still instilled with Volvo’s traditional qualities of safety and solidity.
As production continued, the early faults were ironed out, so the later cars are the best of the bunch to go for. At the moment, they’re all still pretty cheap to snap up too.