Every country builds cars whose engines are just a little bit special, and which (given a down payment) you could just go to the dealership and buy. These powerplants usually have their roots in something ordinary, but with the right attention and massaging, they become legendary—often in their own time.
Witness Nissan's legendary RB26DETT: Its cast-iron RB-family bones, available in displacements as small as two liters, are shared with a variety of home-market Laurels... but when you mix in two turbos, 24 valves, and all the know-how of Nissan's considerable engineering might, the engine (and the car around it) becomes the stuff of legend on streets and road courses alike.
Ford's Windsor V-8 had been clunking around since the fall of '61, in displacements as small as 221 cubes... but when Ford needed to homologate an engine to go Trans Am racing, they went to work: four-bolt mains; canted-valve heads with giant 2.23/1.70 valves and a quench-style combustion chamber; a high-nickel-content, thin-wall, thick-deck block; forged, cross-drilled crank... Ford took it racing, and won.
In Europe, Ford took the OHC Pinto engine—available in displacements as small as 1.3L—sent the rough little Four to the maniacs at Cosworth in Northampton, England, and turned it into the Cosworth YB. The result dominated saloon racing throughout the latter half of the '80s, and well into the '90s, and the resulting street versions of the Sierras and Escorts that used them remain legends today.
Volvo is no different. The five-cylinder engine that arrived in the workaday 850 sedan had an available turbo from its earliest days, and the marque flirted with a performance image with previous models in the '80s, but it wasn't until the world took notice of the 850 wagon in the '94 British Touring Car Championship (see sidebar) that the idea of a hot Volvo started to take hold in the minds of the world's collective car nuts. Barely a decade later, Volvo's S70 R model used its own B5254T4 turbocharged, 20-valve, 2.5L inline-five that was rated at 300 factory horsepower—about 250 at the wheels, before mods—and good for sub-6-second 0-60s in Volvo's heavy family-friendly crates.
It makes some sense that you would see these engines primarily in and around the countries where they were built. Tuners are everywhere these days—if you can get a Skyline sorted out in the U.S., you can surely fettle a Cosworth in Japan. But surely the greatest concentration of that knowledge is at home. It makes sense that all of the tuning knowledge for a particular engine would be in a place where they were built and conceived, and where there are tons of 'em on the ground.
This goes a long way to explain the existence of Roland Zetterstrom's Volvo five-cylinder R-powered KE70 Corolla two-door sedan—a drift-friendly fiend like no other. The basic power package is mostly Volvo, with a few select tweaks—camshafts from a lower-spec GLT Volvo to help boost power up to 4,000 rpm, a KKK24 turbocharger pirated from a Volvo S60 R, an AutoTech ECU, and custom aluminum piping for the turbo, including a low-mounted intercooler that won't block the radiator—that get him to 330 hp at the rear wheels. Doesn't sound like a lot in today's standards, but considering most Euro-spec Corollas got a 59hp 1.3L engine as standard equipment, Roland's buggy now has about five and a half times more power than stock.
Volvo's blown Five wasn't designed to carry its power to the rear wheels only, so Roland adapted a five-speed Getrag 260 transmission—available in most '80s-through-mid-'90s BMWs—and used a Volvo 240 solid-axle rear end, which is sort of the Swedish equivalent of a Ford 9" rear in terms of ubiquity and durability. A D2 hydraulic handbrake, located behind the Getrag's shift linkage, locks up the drive wheels whenever Roland wants to pitch it sideways.
You'd think that Volvo bodywork would be a natural home for a powerplant like this one, but there were issues. Newer Volvos, from the early '90s onward, were transverse-mounted front-wheel drive with all-wheel-drive capability. Older Volvos, from the 140/240- and 700/900-series generation, were way too heavy: 240s were in the 2,800-pound range, and 700-series cars topped a ton and a half. Roland immediately seized upon the weight advantage that a small, lightweight sedan would offer, found a KE71-generation Toyota Corolla (curb weight: well under a ton) and went to work.
It's even lighter now. The hood, doors, and trunk are all made of featherweight carbon-Kevlar, and left bare-naked for maximum effect. The passenger-side front fender was straked with vents at the forward edge to better allow the engine to breathe. All of the glass was removed, bar the windscreen, and replaced with Lexan. The interior is barely recognizable as a KE71 Corolla. Anything resembling upholstery is gone; the shell has been seam-welded for strength, and Roland built a custom rollcage using nearly 120 feet of tubing, with the result painted gleaming, antiseptic white. The shell of the KE71's dash remains, but inside is now a set of Auto Meter gauges: a central tach with boost, oil pressure, oil temp, and water temp surrounding it. In case the lack of a speedometer didn't clue you in, that single carbon-fiber chair leaves little question as to this car's one true purpose in life.
It's low enough to the tarmac that the exhaust is funneled through the interior, the pipe residing where a passenger's chair would be if a passenger didn't weigh so damned much; the integrated side-exit exhaust, between the passenger-side door and rear wheel opening, is a cleanly executed detail. The front control arms and rear axle links are both custom and totally adjustable, and all corners wear a set of three-way Ohlins dampers. The 16" Compomotive mesh wheels fill the flared openings; 12" D2 rotors are grabbed by six-piston calipers in front, with marginally smaller rotors and two-piston calipers arrears.
So what'd we learn? You might love it or might think it's crazy, but to us, Roland's Volvo-powered Corolla proves that big power and a featherweight chassis are always big fun, no matter who builds it or where the parts came from.
Five Cylinders: Let's Get Odd
When you live in Sweden, building a Volvo engine makes sense—raw material and technical know-how abound. But...why did Volvo go with five cylinders to begin with? It just sounds, if you pardon the pun, odd.
A five-cylinder is physically smaller than an inline-six, which means it fits better in transverse-mounted front-drive applications. Fives need fewer parts and generated less friction than a Six. Compared to a Four, a Five provides more power and torque and is smoother while doing it.
A four-stroke engine fires each cylinder once every 720° every two crank rotations. A given cylinder in a four-cylinder engine has two power strokes per revolution of the crank; a V-8 gets four. Five-cylinder engines have a crank with 72° angles. A power stroke cannot last for more than 180° of crank rotation, so a five gets a power stroke every 144° (720° ÷ 5 = 144°). This means that, like sixes and eights, the five-cylinder engine always has a power stroke. A counterweighted crankshaft, plus engine and transmission mounts and (usually) a 1-2-4-5-3 firing order help stamp out the DTs.
Five-cylinder engines were restricted to experiments until the '70s (Henry Ford looked at—and abandoned—a Five for his aborted pre-war "Light Car" project); carburetors didn't provide the needed fuel distribution. Only fuel injection, delivering measured pulses of gasoline directly to the cylinders, could eliminate those distribution issues. Diesel engines had pressurized fuel systems by design, and Mercedes-Benz introduced the first five-cylinder car engine in '74 as a diesel. Audi launched the first gas-powered five-cylinder production engine for the second-generation 100 (sold here as the 5000) in '77; a few carbureted versions were sold in Europe, but most (including all sold in the U.S.) were injected. Audi's Five was famously used in the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive, rally-winning Quattro. Mercedes and Audi were the sole proponents of the inline-five for most of the '70s and '80s.
The first Japanese five-cylinder engine came from Honda: Its all-aluminum, four-valve, SOHC G-series inline-five was introduced in the '89 Honda Vigor, a car that came to the States as an Acura from '92-'94. Volvo's five-cylinder launched in '92 and has been used in a variety of performance applications in the last quarter-century (see next sidebar). In the last decade and a half, Volkswagen has had a couple of Fives on its roster (including one that shares bore, stroke, and a cylinder head with Lamborghini's V-10 engine), as has Fiat (which trickled into Lancia and Alfa models). Plenty have ended up in trucks and SUVs, too: a turbodiesel Land Rover, Ford's 3.2L turbodiesel Five seen in the Transit, and a gas-powered Five built by GM in the Chevy Colorado pickup and Trailblazer SUV.
Their use is fading; improved electronic controls and the widespread use of turbocharging may make the five-cylinder engine obsolete. Of all the Fives that have entered production, Audi's and Volvo's have been the most performance-driven.
When Hot Volvos Became a Thing
For all of the '70s and most of the '80s, Volvo made one car: the 240 series. It looked like it was styled in Legoland (particularly the wagon, which accounted for a third of Volvo 240 sales), but it was a solid hand in the American suburbs for nearly 20 years. The image of solidity made it popular, but in the go-go '80s, "Volvo" and "fun" were not generally words that followed each other. The company launched a turbocharged version in '81, which had people scratching their heads. The company's upmarket 740/760 sedan and wagon (starting in '83) also received turbocharging, but these were strictly Q-ships for the well-heeled soccer mom. Volvo's European Touring Car exploits of the mid-'80s went little reported here.
So turning to turbocharging didn't do much for Volvo's image. Hell, everyone was bolting on turbos in the '80s. In the meantime, rear-wheel drive fell out of fashion and was replaced with front-wheel drive. The Volvo 850, as boxy as the models that had come before it, was the first front-drive Volvo sold in the States and was powered by a 20-valve inline-five (see previous sidebar); by the mid-'90s it topped Volvo's sales charts. Perhaps it was this position of safety—management thinking, "What could it hurt?"—that inspired Volvo to take a risk, mess with its stolid image, and go racing.
That car, a '94 Volvo 850 Estate (that's station wagon to you, Americano) unleashed on that year's British Touring Car Championship, was one of the most talked about race cars of the '90s. It was an accident, rather than an ironic play on Volvo's image: Volvo management chose homegrown specialists Steffanson Automotive (SAM) to build a test mule, and the day they went to the factory, only wagons were available. They got a sedan eventually also, but legend has it that wind tunnel results were favorable to the wagon. Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) stepped in to sort and built the racers, and the rest is history. If column inches determined race winners, the Volvo would have been on top—the idea of a racing estate quite tickled the press at the time—but its best race result was fifth, though drivers Jan Lammers and Rickard Rydell each qualified as high as Third during the season, and the brand-new team finished sixth in points overall.
The team switched to the sedan body for '95. Testing showed that the wagon's rearward weight distribution, not helped by the air pressing at the back of that long roof at speed, left the front driver scrambling for traction in slow corners. For '95, Rydell took four wins and made a play for the BTCC championship. By '98, Rydell had won the championship in his Volvo S40 (a face-lifted 850). Its image work done, Volvo faded out of the BTCC and big-name racing in general, once again by the end of the century.