Volvo can't build its stylish cars fast enough to satisfy demand

While far from the big league as a carmaker, Volvo nonetheless is cutting a widening swath in the marketplace with its distinctive styling, high-tech engineering, and the durability of its cars.

The new Volvo 760 GLE, for example, does the company proud. The 760 does everything it is told to do without fuss. It shows how far the Swedish carmaker has come in scrubbing away its stodgy image of the past.

The 760, successor to the 264, comes as two models: one with a V-6 and automatic transmission, the other with an in-line 6-cylinder turbocharged diesel and manual transmission. The gas-engine car has an automatic; the diesel a manual. You do not have a choice.

But choice or no choice, Volvos are in short supply and the company can't build enough to satisfy the demand. To compensate, explains a Volvo spokesman, ''we're selling service, because we can't get enough cars.''

Sales of the 760 GLE in the United States are running at 800 a month, and the company expects to sell 10,000 by the end of the year.

You do have a choice in upholstery, however - either plush velour or, for an additional $665, leather. An electric sunroof is on the way.

The 760 GLE is built on an entirely new platform and has about 25 percent more glass and 10 percent more trunk space than the car it succeeds. As expected , the visibility is high.

It's no sports car, however, but that's as the company intended.

The hood extends straight up at a 90-degree angle to the road for more light inside the engine compartment and ease of service. Many of the engine components can be worked on or replaced from either above or below.

Another innovative feature is the easy-to-replace crash panels designed for points of lowest stress. If some part of the structure is bent, the damaged area can usually be cut out and replaced with a stub part at far lower cost than an all-new panel.

Despite its understated design and its practicality, the 760 GLE is not a bore to drive. Yet it is far from flashy, in line with the way the Swedes design their cars. The 760 shuns liquid-crystal instrumentation and digital readouts, for example. And here's a nice touch: It has a standard clock in the instrument pod - with hands and a tick.

Also, it has one of those nice heaters that, with the snap of a switch, change a car's climate fast.

The instrument console is canted toward the driver, and the controls are easy to reach.

The 760 gasoline-engine car is at home almost anywhere. The Volvo 760 turbodiesel is more of a ''highway car'' than a ''city car.'' A driver may find it a bit clumsy in the city, however. On the open road, the story is something else again.

The rear suspension system in the 760 is all new.

The Environmental Protection Agency fuel-mileage figure for the diesel version is 28. For the gasoline car, it is 20 m.p.g. Those are city figures, which obviously would be higher on the highway. I figure I got about 22 on a several-hundred-mile commute with a gasoline-engine 760 GLE and 25 on the open road with a full tank of fuel.

Indeed, the 760 appears larger than it is because the wheelbase is 4 inches longer than that of the car it replaces, thus helping the ride. In overall length, however, it is a wee bit shorter.

With a drag coefficient of 0.398, 11 percent better than the car it succeeds, the 760 can be rated as a slippery car. Base prices run from $18,785 for the standard gas-engine car to $19,595 for the turbodiesel.

Looking ahead, a wagon is still down the road, and Volvo won't say when it'll reach the showroom. Production of the Volvo coupe was suspended in 1981.

Volvo had $10 billion in total worldwide sales in 1982. US car volume was up 33 percent in 1982, compared to '81. It had $1.4 billion in US sales in 1982, excluding its oil operation. The firm is starting to build buses in the US as well - both articulated buses, which bend in the middle, and the standard 40 -foot-long city bus.

Clearly the Swedish company is dumping its staid image, having displayed two new turbo versions for the 760 at the Geneva Automobile Show last spring. The 141-cubic-inch, 4-cylinder turbo produces 173 hp., which shoots the car from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 8.4 seconds.

Volvo is in a much faster lane worldwide than at any time in its past. Specs at a glance Car: Volvo 760 GLE (Gasoline and turbodiesel) List price: Gas -- $18,785; turbodisel -- $19,595 Engines: Inline-6 Horsepower: gas -- 130 at 5,500 rpm; turbodiesel -- 103 at 4,800 rpm Fuel tank: Gas -- 15.8 gals; turbodiesel -- 21.6 gals. Wheelbase: 109.1 iches Total length: 188.4 inches Curt weight: Gas -- 2,981 pounds; diesel -- 3,155 pounds Steering: Rack and pinion, power assisted Brakes: Four-wheel discs with solid roters Suspension: Front:MacPherson strut coil springs, anti-sway bar; Rear: Live rear axle, coil springs, anti-sway bar Fuel economy: Gas -- 30 mpg (EPA); turbodiesel -- 29 mpg. Trunk size: 17.2 cubic feet

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