For many people, driving a Volvo is about as big an adrenaline rush as wheeling a shopping cart around the supermarket. The Swedish carmaker has a reputation for turning out models that are safe, suburban, and blah in their styling. But with its new 850 GLT, Volvo is trying to improve that image. It poured $3 billion into developing this sporty sedan and such sister models as a station wagon due out this fall. Volvo Chairman Pehr Gyllenhammer calls the model's success "decisive" for the company's future.

Happily for Gyllenhammer, the 850 GLT is a very nice machine. At 168 horsepower, its 5-cylinder, 20-valve engine is plenty peppy. Even punching it in the passing lane on a hill at 55, it zoomed effortlessly up to 75. And as Volvo's first front-wheel drive sold in the U.S., this car really hugs the pavement.

Well-belted. I gave it a workout in the rain in New York's Catskill Mountains without any of the usual fear of

losing control that I've experienced with rear-wheel drives under similar conditions. On the automatic transmission, there's even a "snow mode" that starts the car off in third gear to keep the wheels from spinning in icy conditions.

The new Volvo doesn't sacrifice safety, either. Driver and passenger airbags and antilock brakes are standard. So are tensioners to cinch seat belts tight in a collision. And in the backseat, there's a neat fold-down cushion that lifts a child high enough to be held snugly by the middle seatbelt.

As for comfort, the 850 GLT's seats are among the most supportive I've tried. There's plenty of space all around, too. The engine is mounted sideways, allowing for more leg room in the front. And the boxy design makes for ample shoulder space and headroom.

But therein lies one of the 850 GLT's negatives. While the new model is sleeker than past Volvos, its styling is still too much like a big shoebox. And, as with many new cars, I found its electronic gizmos a bit complicated to operate. For instance, I couldn't make the memory function--which is supposed to adjust the seat automatically to your specifications--work properly. Whenever I pushed the button I was contorted into the position chosen by the previous driver--apparently a stoop-shouldered giant with lower back problems.

Still, I was surprised by how much I liked the car. At $24,800 for the base model and $28,500 for a package that includes sunroof, leather seats, and other goodies, it adds a dash of sportiness to Volvo's traditional safety and sturdiness.

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