The Born Identity

Like another much-loved ’80s C-sector stalwart, Volvo’s turn of the decade hatchback was aimed at two market sectors concurrently, satisfying neither. We ask, was the 440-series Volvo’s Maestro?

1988 Volvo 440. Image credit: (c) autoevolution

Volvo’s long-lived 300-series proved something of a mixed blessing for the Swedish car maker by the late 1980s. On one hand, a firm and remarkably consistent seller (a regular in the UK’s top ten), while on the other, something of an embarrassment given its age, hapless dynamics and the fact that it was a car Gothenburg engineers never had much appreciation for in the first place.

Volvo were understandably keen to replace the 300 with a more modern, competitive product, but also leery of alienating the legions of loyal customers who kept the former DAF production lines in the Netherlands town of Born humming.

Volvo’s links with Renault had begun in the 1970s, with a deal to share certain engine and gearbox lines. This loose alliance ebbed and flowed throughout the 1980s, culminating in a strategic alliance in 1990, as a precursor to what would ultimately become an abortive full-blown merger. However, throughout this period, technology transfer took place freely between both entities.

Work on the ambitious programme to produce a family of cars on a new front-drive architecture was the responsibility of Volvo’s former DAF subsidiary, the primary aim of which was to provide Volvo with a more upmarket successor to the 300 model and shift the car company’s engineering ethos into the modern era. With the bulk of development carried out by engineers in Born, the first fruit of the exercise hit the market in 1986 in the unorthodox shape of the well-received 480ES coupé.

Technically identical to the 480, and retaining its relatively sophisticated chassis, the 440, employed the class-normative McPherson struts and lower wishbone arrangement at the front. However, both they, the front anti-roll bar, steering rack and drivetrain were subframe-mounted for refinement, and chassis dynamics purposes.

At the rear, a cleverly mounted compound axle (akin to that of the acclaimed Alfasud), with four trailing links which acted as Watts linkages limited both body roll and camber changes. Upon launch, Renault-sourced 1721 cc in-line engines were fitted in a variety of tunes, the most powerful being turbocharged.

Volvo 440. Image credit: (c) auto-types

Something of a halfway house between C and D-segments in positioning, the 440 evolved the 300-series aesthetic, its neat, tailored, glassy shape cleaving to broadly conservative marque values, while offering a more contemporary appearance and proportions – (and a drag coefficient of 0.34).

Believed to have been styled in Volvo’s Gothenburg studio, it has been suggested there was some input from carrozzeria Bertone, but this has never been confirmed. The well laid out and somewhat functional looking cabin was the work of Peter Horbury, who later headed Volvo’s design studio.

Announced in the autumn of 1988, the 440 was an accomplished drive. With accurate power-assisted steering, secure handling, a firm but compliant ride and a comfortable cabin, the 440 had plenty to commend it. However the 440 was no lightweight, so its rather breathless normally aspirated Renault power units proved noisome companions which offered little zest by way of compensation.

440 cabin. Image credit: (c) carsdata

Early 440’s also suffered from a somewhat synthetic interior ambience, an  unsatisfying gearchange and a similar array of teething troubles (mostly electronic in nature) to those experienced by hapless 480 owners.

Additionally, in the UK and Ireland at least, the model range was pitched against cars a class above, so while its interior space was similar to that of a contemporary Opel Kadett, it was notably cramped (especially in the rear compartment and boot), to that of the vehicles it was priced to rival.

The following year a three-volume 460 model was offered, as were larger 2.0 litre engine options. Once the early niggles were engineered out, the model settled down to a steady, if not stellar career. Engine choices broadened throughout its life, and a van Doorne-inspired CVT gearbox was offered late in the model’s lifespan – a further link to its DAF past. A major facelift was carried out in 1994 with production ceasing two year’s later to make way for the S/V40 model, co-developed with Mitsubishi.

Hampered perhaps by its not quite one thing or another market position, the 440 proved a slight product-planning misjudgement on Volvo’s part, but a thoroughly decent car nonetheless. Ironically, the 300-series it was intended to replace lived on alongside it, only departing this earth in 1991. Some cars simply won’t be killed.

Post facelift Volvo 440. Image credit: (c) automobilio-info

Volvo has historically enjoyed a somewhat patchy relationship with the C-segment, never quite hitting the sweet spot of the market. Soon, it is believed they will make their latest attempt, the born-again V40, which is based on their SPA scalable platform and is believed to be imminent. Given Gothenburg’s current form, it seems unlikely they’ll miss the mark this time.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

29 thoughts on “The Born Identity”

  1. Face it, Eóin, the original 440 was heavy, slow and cramped — and was overpriced for what you got. It traded on the reputation of the bigger “proper” Volvos, but those niggles let it down too.
    But it was lapped up by the UK’s Which?-buying sector.
    And have you seen 480ES prices now!

  2. I think Car magazine summed up the 440 as being ok but about 5 years too late to market. The early car above with the 5 spoke alloy wheels looks quite nice but the white post facelift example looks awful. I don’t think the facelift had any sheet metal changes, did it?

    1. The Five years late to the market sentiment is quite true, I remember spy shots of seemingly production ready prototypes already in 1982. The only difference being it was more angular in line with the soon to be intoduced 740, the lines was later softened up for the 440 with large radii on the curves. Packaging wise there was absolutely no difference between the ’82 prototype and the ’88 production car, it is very clear the package was locked in very early.

      Another reason for the weight issue is that the 440 apparently shares a lot of tech with the 850. There seems to have been a lot of sharing between those two lines in development, more than what is commonly known. It seems they were supposed to share more of the body hardpoints but that they split the cars in separate lines later on. it seems the weight issue is a consequence of development creep with built in redundancy for the 850 not utlilised for the 440. If someone wants a story, there’s an unwritten story in how much is actually shared between the cars.

  3. We don´t always agree about things here at Driventowrite (which is why we work in separate cubicles). I like the X-Type and Eoin seems to have offered a big, forgiving hand to what I consider as one of the last bad cars made on our beautiful continent. Aspects of it can be called “not terrible”. This car is in, American terms, a 1984 Buick Century for Sweden.

  4. An interesting article, and it describes quite well the problems with cars between segments. As you mention, Volvos have been off the general outlines of the C- or D-segment for quite a long time. The 240 was a very big D-car for its time, and once the 740/760 arrived, they had two cars that were very close in dimensions and engine sizes, if not in the general execution. The later 850 became more standard in its size, decreasing the length while the segment was growing.
    The 440’s successors also were kind of an anomaly in the European C-segment, as they lacked the standard hatchback format, offering only saloon and estate. But I’d say that already with the 2012 V40 they were quite within the C-segment standard template; we don’t have to wait for the next generation for it to happen.

    1. The between segement phenomenon has happended a fair few times. You´d imagine the risk was known and would be planned for. However, segments are poorly defined and they keep growing. It´s like inflation: what we call five euros now is not the same thing as five euros from 2004. What´s interesting is that Volvo kept doing it though.

      The Volvo 240/740

  5. A friend had an 850 turbo. Massive performance, and if you could afford one you didn’t worry about the massive fuel consumption either.

    1. Here´s an example of shifting perceptions. I used to see the 1991 850 as a big car when really it´s *about* the same kind of size as a 3-series.
      …then I go to check the dimensions…
      The Volvo is 4.66 metres long. The 1990 Three is 4.4 metres long. The 1987 Five is 4.72 metres long.
      The Volvo is 1.76 metres wide. The 1990 Three is 1.70 metres wide. The 1987 Five is 1.75 metres wide.

      In betweeny cars confound estimation, don´t they?

    2. I always thought of the 850 as nearer a 5-series — and would see off a 535i too.

    3. Wasn´t the 850 priced more like a 3-series? In 1993 the 850 GLT cost 18,000 pounds. A BMW 320 cost five hundred more. A 518i cost a bit less…. A 520i cost twenty thousand. So, for two thousand less you got more engine but less length than a 520i. I don´t believe the 520i was made to a higher standard (unless it was made in Canada in which case it was a disaster, some say).

    4. A bargain then, unless one preferred the predictable handling of the 3-series — until it became unpredictable in the wet.

  6. I had an e34 Touring and later a phase 1 Volvo V70 which was very similar to the 850. In actual build quality there was nothing in it. The Volvo was more reliable though. The BMW had a better ride quality to the Volvo but the Volvo’s seats were vastly better than the BMW’s. They were both very good cars but I genuinely miss the Volvo. That 5 cylinder engine was fantastic.

    1. What’s wrong with gold? I have never seen a gold 440. They are almost all white, dark grey or black in my experience.
      Was the 440 Volvo’s Mæstro? I don’t see the parallel as clearly as Eoin does.
      Would I be right in guessing that the 240 and 440 were very similar dimensionally? Volvo at this tricky point had three not-very differently sized cars (they had not much choice about this – model range strategy had to somewhere). I think it’s okay to have a small model range – some brands don’t need to cover the market. Jaguar, I am looking at you.

    2. I didn’t say gold’s the wrong choice for a 440. I just mentioned that Dr Klaus Junk owned one of these.

  7. The Volvo 140/240/760 are roughly the same size at around 4.80 metres. The 440 is much smaller at around 4.40 metres.

    1. I’m a fan of the 123GT, an idea much copied over ensuing decades.

      The 760 was interesting, a real 6-light limo but a Volvo. I doubt they sold many, however comfy the seats were.

    2. The 240 was very long and narrow, and for its length had a terribly short wheelbase. A good part of its length also came from its massive bumpers, which doesn’t exactly contribute to interior space. Hence its length suggests an E-segment car (for its time), while internally it was a D – with exception of the boot, probably.

    3. The bumpers made the car grow from 4.8 metres in 140 guise to 4.9 metres as a 240.
      I don’t know how much boot space the saloon had but the estate’s transport capacity was enormous, nnot least because of its boxy outline. I don’t remember its interior as being so cramped but at that time most cars were much less roomer inside than they are today particularly in interior width.

    4. The boot of the estate was big, however when you were used to big Citroëns, it was a bit of a disappointment: limited height due to the high floor and intruding wheel housings.

    5. We had a 240 in my family for a few years. Rear legroom was pretty good. Volvo designed super seats. I don’t recall any shortage of space. The 740 was even better. It’s a criminally under-rated car.

    6. I wouldn’t call it an actual shortage. But you know, I practically grew up in the boot of a CX estate, so I’m quite spoiled.

    1. I think it was illegal in Britain for an antiques dealer not to have a Volvo Estate.

  8. I worked for an Irish Volvo franchise holder in 1988, when the 440 was introduced. I recall it was received with a good deal of interest by the salespeople, who felt it was a notable step forward from the still popular, but decrepit 340-series.

    In Ireland at least, Volvo had carved itself a market as a sub-Mercedes for those who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stretch that far. One of their major selling points was the fact that you got a lot of car for the outlay – coupled to the fact they looked like money and were well constructed. They were also well suited to Irish conditions.

    The 440 subverted that to some extent, being quite pricey for its size and additionally, its engine choice militated against it in the ROI market, as it was placed in a higher tax bracket than its compact outward dimensions suggested. Couple that to a lack of oomph and I seem to recall they didn’t exactly fly off the forecourt.

    Owing perhaps to the 480’s early woes, the 440 was even later to market than it could have been – certainly the coupé’s maladies were sufficient for one customer to hand theirs back in disgust. By the time the 440 landed, I think the worst of the gremlins were sorted, I don’t recall problems of a serious nature. I left the business in 1990, so beyond that point I quite naturally couldn’t comment.

    I will say however, that gearchange apart, which I never liked, I thought the 440 was quite a nice car to drive – immeasurably better than the shocking 340-series – a car which actually frightened the daylights out of me.

    The Maestro parallel I stand by. Both cars attempted (and failed) to straddle sectors, both spawned three-volume variants aimed further upmarket, with less than stellar results and both were plagued with maladies. Additionally, neither achieved the sales volumes intended and finally, both cars were at their core, fundamentally decent, if insufficiently developed when they came to market.

    1. Selling small cars at large(r) car prices was a strategy that British Austin Leyland Rover or whatever it was called that week used for its Triumph Acclaim to Rover 200 ranges.
      It kind of worked in the home market, but not for export.

      I remember that Mercedes in the late Seventies/early Eighties took Volvo deas serious as a competitor in its home country. The 240 was seen as a valid alternative to their W123 with the same potential customer base.

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