Volvo 700-series wagons make their debut in the New World

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For the first time, Volvo has launched a series of new vehicles in the United States before they hit the road in Europe. The Old World won't see the 700-series station wagons till fall. The front-engine, rear-drive 740 and 760 Volvo sport wagons are as posh, upbeat, and practical as a wagon can be. You want room? The new wagons have it. Performance? Ditto. Design? Great.

Depending on the appointments and trim you're after, you have a choice of five versions and three power plants -- a nonturbo gasoline engine, turbocharged (with intercooler) gasoline engine, and Volkswagen-built turbodiesel.

After driving two of them off and on for the past few weeks -- the automatic 740-GLE and the 5-speed 740 turbo -- I can only say that the up-to-date Vikings not only have arrived, but conquered as well. The lines are superb, the ride and pro-driver suspension among the best, and the room capacious.

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All of this, of course, has a price. We're talking of about $20,000 and up. Over-priced? Not if you're looking for continental flair and image, yet unwilling to pay the $35,000 price of a Mercedes 300TD.

The 740 GLE with automatic transmission carries a sticker price of $19,795 while the turbocharged, intercooled 5-speed-manual 740 lists for $21,700. Leather upholstery is standard fare and so is air conditioning. In the top-of-the-line 760 models you get climate-control air, a power sunroof, and heated electrically adjustable outside mirrors. In the 740s you adjust the mirrors by hand, but that makes one less thing to go wrong, right? Among the extras, automatic transmission lists for $435.

The turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine cranks out 160 horsepower and should give all the punch you might ever need or want on the road. If you don't require that much zip, the nonturbo engine is rated at a more tame 114 hp. The 6-cylinder turbodiesel, listed at 106 hp, is built for Volvo by Volkswagen.

City mileage runs from 20 to 25 m.p.g., depending on the engine, weather, driver, and conditions on the road. You obviously do a lot better on the highway.

Volvo says the new wagons augment but do not replace the 240. Built on the same platform as the 700-series sedan, the wagons have a 109.1-inch wheelbase and a length that's a sliver under 200 inches. Cargo capacity is 39 cubic feet with the rear seat up and 75 feet with the rear seat flat. The vertical tailgate lifts high out of the way on gas struts.

There are little extras inside that make the car all the nicer. A plastic snap on the left A-pillar will hold a parking permit, for example. The dashboard is well laid out and there are no flashy displays. This is a Swedish car, remember.

Volvo likes simplicity, not complexity. There is no remote fuel-filler latch, for example, and in the 740-level wagons the sunroof control is by crank. The horn location, however, is bad. The horn buttons sit on the steering-wheel crossbar and I found a tendency to strike the horn as I simply moved the wheel. Headroom is certainly adequate for even a 6-footer. Back kneeroom is tight, however, if the front seats are all the way back.

Some of the Volvo people look on the new wagons as extra-cargo sedans. Well, no matter how they're labeled -- sedan or station wagon -- they're a lot of fun to be in. Volvo expects to sell about 10,000 big wagons this year.

Meanwhile, Volvo is probing the sharply higher-priced market with its new Bertone-built 780 coupe due out next fall. Expected to cost more than $30,000, the 780 coupe will be competing with such cars as the midrange Mercedes-Benz, higher-priced BMWs, Jaguars, and the like. Only about 1,000 will be built in the first year.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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