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Safety features give an impregnable feel


WHEN I was younger, my father owned a Volvo 164, a big brute of a car with a tall upright grille, a powerful and thirsty straight six-cylinder engine, and the sort of heavy duty build that made a tank seem fragile.

Every journey was conducted like a foray into enemy territory: the 164 was driven into battle and it swept all other traffic aside like autumn leaves.

Each time my father bullied another car into moving over with the intimidating presence of the big Volvo, he would floor the throttle, and listen to the big engine rev with obvious satisfaction.

Eventually, the 164 was traded in for something a little lighter on its wheels and less thirsty at the petrol pump.

Nothing has changed that much. Volvo still offers a big, impressive saloon car with a powerful straight six-cylinder engine and it still feels as solid and safe.

The new version is the 960. The engine is new and the style sharper, but the character of the 164 has survived.

The 960 is big. The wide cabin gives plenty of elbow room and the seats, which come with leather trim as standard, slide well back to give long legs plenty of space.

Headroom is generous and the seats are made to accommodate even the most ample physique.

As soon as the wheels are turning, the driver feels the huge comfort and satisfaction of knowing that his is driving a vehicle of immense strength and security.

Volvo's reputation for solid, safe cars has become almost a cliche, and now that all car makers emphasise the crash protection built into their vehicles, motorists pay less attention to claims of superior safety.

But the 960 really does feel extraordinarily strong and the driver's seat of the 960 does seem the safest place to be in Hongkong traffic.

With a curb weight of 1,550 kilograms, the 960 is lighter than many of its competitors in the executive saloon class, but it manages to convey the feeling of impregnability.

Even though it feels cosy in the cabin of the 960, there seems to be an awful lot of car between you and the outside world.

This sensation of invulnerability soon affects the driver's style and the drivers of other cars are aware that a small dent for Volvo can mean a major crash repair job for an ordinary car.

With this unspoken understanding, driving is simplified. There is no need to fight for the space in traffic; other vehicles make way for the imposing 960.

The driver of a taxi who tries to shoulder his way in front of the Volvo at the traffic lights will soon back off.

The public light bus driver who thinks of darting out of the side street into the path of the 960 will change his mind rather than risk contact with the Volvo's big bumpers.

But the 960 is not a clumsy lump, it is a refined saloon car.

This 2.9-litre multi-valve motor is exclusive to the 960 and delivers all the power and sophistication that the top-of-the-line Volvo deserves.

Two hundred and four brake horsepower are transmitted through a four-speed automatic gearbox and a constant track live axle to the rear wheels.

A Bosch Motronic engine management system co-ordinates both ignition and fuel injection to produce a creamy smooth rush of power and good torque at low engine revs.

A standard anti-lock braking system, acting on discs at all four corners, works progressively and smoothly. The turning circle is a mere 9.9 metres.

The test car came fitted with optional alloy wheels and very low profile tyres which gave the 960 excellent traction under cornering. But the steering, though positive and nicely weighted, felt rather wooden and insensitive, making the car tiring to drive quickly on minor roads.

A relaxed pace is more in keeping with the 960's comfort and character. It responds best to smooth driving around the bends and squirting down the straights with the easy performance of the engine.

For the remainder of this month, the 960 is priced at $478,000. The price will rise to $498,000 at the beginning of next month.