By on May 19, 2011

Some folks in the industry believe that Toyota has decontented themselves out of the top tier of quality. I don’t know if that’s true… yet. But I do know that they are not the only non-domestic manufacturer to have gone down that path. Not long after Mercedes turned the W124 model into a glorified Taurus, the Swedes begin sauntering into the path of cheap redesigns.

The goal as always was profit. To make the cheaper product (the 1998 Volvo S70) resemble the better one (the much loved 1993 – 1997 Volvo 850). The outcome became very profitable… for me.

Rent: Back in the 2003 to 2005 period I began to see Volvo S70’s all over the dealers auctions. ‘Engine Needs Service’ would almost always be announced for these vehicles. Why? Volvo had a nasty defect with the Throttle Body Control Modules that would make the Volvo’s engine as buggy and jerky as a 240 running on old gas. Not a good thing given that the cheap(er) S70 still cost over $30k when new.

Volvo decided to have a recall. Not one of those grand, “We should tell the world and honor our commitment to our customers’ recalls. More like a, “Our sales are diving. So let’s milk the public, plead ignorance, and not repair the vehicle until we absolutely have to”, recalls. For that 2003 through 2005 period I almost always had a Volvo S70 in my fleet that was traded in for peanuts by the prior owner to Carmax or a new car dealer.

One visit to a friendly Volvo service advisor and those engine defects mysteriously disappeared. Eventually other dealers caught on. But there was almost always a steady stream of $2000 to $3000 retail licks for me during that entire period thanks to the Volvo S70.

Lease: The one I bought last week was a 1998 model. 118k, cloth interior, non-turbo, $2500.  It has no electric throttle body at all which is a good thing since Volvo dealers no longer offer free repairs for the factory defect.

The 1998 model year was by far the best of the worst as S70’s go. Due to the lack of throttle issues, and no five-speed automatic. The later weren’t defective at all. Toyota even sourced a similar five-speeds from Aisin for their 2003 Camry. It was just that Volvo decided to lie their teeth off when they told customers about their wonderful ‘lifetime’ transmission fluid. . For these reasons and many, many more, I will not be renting or leasing this cheaply bought S70.

Sell: Are you ready for the list? OK then. Deep breath. ABS Control Modules. Constant brake jobs. Defective Steering Racks. Inoperative odometer clusters. Speakers that are constantly on the fritz. Seats that rip, tear, and decompose with age. Cheap glue that turns the door panels into pale shriveled banana peels. Hypersensitive check engine lights. Oil leaks. Leaking heater cores. Strut towers that eventually rest and rub against the frame due to cheap factory shocks. Bad EGR valves and A/C compressor clutches. Leaking condensers…. and the electronics of a typical old Volvo. That’s just a partial list.

There are three things that will hold up in an S70. The engine. The transmission. The safety of the chassis. These can be great family vehicles in wagon form for those three reasons if you are willing to deal with dozens of if’s.

Keep: If’ you want a car loaded up with all the features of a true luxury car, and consider weekend wrenching a truly great joy in life, this car may be for you. Especially if you want to opt for a GLT Turbo, R, or T5, model. Manual trannies are as rare as hen’s teeth for S70’s. Even as rare as finding a turbo model for sale that doesn’t leak like a sieve. You want a durable Volvo wagon? Opt for the 850.

As terrible as all this sounds, I did keep one. Back in 2006 I had a 2000 Volvo S70 wagon with 100k that I bought for about $4500. It went everywhere for two years. Even a 2000 mile road trip through the Southeast U.S. where it yielded 30.5 mpg in mostly highway driving. I’ve always loved how these wagons were packaged with a family first and foremeonst in mind. But once the transmission started giving the occasional jerk from reverse to drive (five-speed auto defect), I wholesaled it. I didn’t lose any money. But it would be far from the last time I would see them at the auctions.

By late 2010 I started seeing these orphaned children at public auctions instead of dealer sales. The public auctions are where every 2.7 Liter Chrysler, Northstar Cadillac, and Volvo S70 goes to die. Tis a pity really. They all had so much potential. None more so than the last cheap Swede. At least it came from an older brother with a helluva record in the Volvo 850. Check here.

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24 Comments on “Rent, Lease, Sell or Keep: 1998 Volvo S70...”

  • avatar

    If I was looking to buy a car and if one of these came along and if I knew all the issues you mentioned, I wouldn’t have bought it in the first place.

    Having said that, you folks on the “inside” of the business have connections and resources that you can draw on to make vehicles like this viable for you. Case in point: When my 1992 LeBaron blew up in Sept. 2007, I sold it to my mechanic for $500.00. It would’ve cost me to repair the thing around $3600.00. He turned and sold it to his assistant who replaced the engine, fixed the A/C, replaced the control module and everything else that was wrong for less than half what it would’ve cost me. It’s still running around town!

    So, either rent or lease it, get your money out of it then sell it, fast!

  • avatar

    “Are you ready for the list? OK then. Deep breath. ABS Control Modules. Constant brake jobs. Defective Steering Racks. Inoperative odometer clusters. Speakers that are constantly on the fritz. Seats that rip, tear, and decompose with age. Cheap glue that turns the door panels into pale shriveled banana peels. Hypersensitive check engine lights. Oil leaks. Leaking heater cores. Strut towers that eventually rest and rub against the frame due to cheap factory shocks. Bad EGR valves and A/C compressor clutches. Leaking condensers…. and the electronics of a typical old Volvo”

    Did you make that list up?

    I have three J-body GMs in the driveway and (given their reputation for being crap) they don’t give me anywhere near this kind of trouble. Granted, they were a lot cheaper car to begin with, but really who would put up with this? Just for “safety”? Really?

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think that Steve is suggesting that each and every S70 will have all of these problems. I’m sure that there is a similar list somewhere for J-bodies, or for my (so far reliable) Focus.

    • 0 avatar

      Sadly he’s not kidding on a lot of those. My mom had a 98 V70 GLT and a lot of these things sound familiar. She got rid of it in February and replaced it with a 2007 V50 T5. The coolant was starting to leak into the motor so we knew its time was up.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      He didn’t make that list up. Those are all depressingly common trouble spots on S70s, V70s and S80s.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve owned a few used Volvos, in the list an 850 and C70. These problems fit. In fact I’d say the intermittent check engine light is likely the smog pump about to seize-up from experience, yet another weak part. Why did I buy them, safe, easy to work on, comfy, and that turbo.

  • avatar

    Very interesting. My go-to people for Volvos had nothing good to say about 850s, and the anecdotal evidence from people I know who had them was horrific. I thought the S70 was less bad, but that website doesn’t bear this out. People also didn’t like their Mitsubishi S40s.

  • avatar
    Ethan Gaines

    The S70 (And the fact that Ford owned Volvo for the period after the S70s inception) is a major reason that I will keep my 850 until it literally explodes.

  • avatar

    Dump and run, even if you don’t make a dime. I would kill and die for a brand-new 240, the FWD cars are all crap.

  • avatar

    Yes, those are all common problems, but they never all happen together! And for the most part, they are easily fixed and for not much money.

    Not all FWD Volvos are crap, either. They are generally more reliable than the German brands, and they are easy to wrench on your own, even the newest ones.

    Also, we LOVED our “mitsubishi” S40. Never would have sold it but it was too small for our family…

    Finally the whole “Ford owned Volvo” thing is a tired cliche. The only thing Ford did to Volvo that was bad was to not give them enough money to keep moving models forward to being more modern. That’s why until recently things like bluetooth, ipod integration, etc., were all stand-alone modules or dealer-installed accessories. As far as the quality of the cars goes, Ford did not make the Volvos any less reliable.

    • 0 avatar
      Ethan Gaines

      When I mentioned the “Ford owned Volvo” I meant exactly what you said, my fault for not being more detailed. The 850 was the last big leap forward Volvo embarked upon. I always embarrass my neighbor with how much more reliable my 850 is compared to his 90’s Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars he has taken chances on over time.

  • avatar

    The ABS module can be sent out to be re-soldered at a very reasonable price. Common failure point on these, but fairly easy to fix.

  • avatar

    If you want a cheap reliable Volvo, you want a 940. None of the above issues, more space, and much, much, much, much, much cheaper and easier to fix. The final evolution of the 240, with all the stupid 240 issues evolved out. I paid $1400 for the ’95 945 I just picked up, and fully expect to get a lot of use out of it for peanuts.

    None of the FWD Volvos are worth a damn until the S60, and even those are pretty expensive to maintain. If you want a more modern FWD European, Saab did it far, far, far better in that era. Assuming you can find one sans sludge, the 9-5 is a FAR better car for about 1/2 the price, and for cheap and cheerful the NG900 is hard to beat and harder to kill. Early old-gen (99-02) 9-3s are somewhere in between – not as good as a 9-5 but cheaper. Also beware sludge on them. But in either case, bought carefully they just keep on going.

    As I have LONG said to both my Saab and Volvo Club buddies – I would rather DRIVE a Saab but I would rather OWN a (rwd) Volvo.

    • 0 avatar

      The 99 9-3 has the t-5 engine management system and isn’t prone to sludging.

      The 200-2002 9-3, yes. And the good old days of SAAB owners being nice are long gone. You can’t assume regular oil changes.

      Other major issues are the low speed fan going out, and no warning. Built in safety switches to high speed fan, but it would be nice to know when you lose one setting.

  • avatar

    Mass transit sounds pretty good right now.

    Despite its shortcomings.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Steven, since it’s not the 850 you told me I ought to buy in my own personal “New or Used” then just go ahead and KILL IT WITH FIRE!

  • avatar

    The S/V70 is a perfect example of why Volvo needed a partner to inject more money, there was not enough for a new model, so they redid the interior and front end ahead of the doors.

    My 95 850 has been very reliable, with over 230,000 miles. No leaks, original radiator, alternator, injectors, etc. I have only replaced the timing belt and water pump, and front rotors twice (rears once). It does need r134a every summer but I can live with that. The power lock in the passenger door doesn’t work but I can still lock the car, so I am OK with that. I flushed my own trans fluid when it looked like hershey’s syrup and it has been good so far.

    My mother’s 98 V70 base has been also good, but it did have the door panels replaced under recall for the glue issue. It is a rare Halifax NS built Canadian model. The Lambda lamp has been on for a while but still gives 28 mpg in a recent trip from MI to FL. It has been a good car except for the paint, the clear coat on the roof is peeling off, not good. My 850 paint looks great in contrast.

    I am leery of the newer Volvos as they are crammed with gadgets that will fail over time.

    I think any 90s era car is going to need some TLC. Many Volvo owners from new aren’t into maintenance so it really stacks up. I think Japanese cars from that decade are generally better, but the seats sure aren’t. It’s just hard to find a well-kept Volvo from that era.

    Nice to see an article about Volvos though!

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Interesting. All the Volvo boards that I frequented back when I owned RWD Volvos (Brickboard, etc) said that Volvo’s real downfall began with the 960 and its awful twin-cam inline Six, then continued with the 850. The S70 just seems like a slightly refined 850. An uncle of mine owns one bought new in ’98 that he got to replace a wrecked 240 that he bought new in the mid ’80s. He has 160k on it, but I understand he’s put a lot of money into it. For some reason, he doesn’t want to drive a nice Japanese luxury car and prefers the S70. I can see driving a W124 Benz or an E34 BMW for decades, but an S70?! Come on.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    A great list of the trouble with these cars. But, you forgot the door stop weld which fails on nearly every one! Lots of creative fixes have been bodged together to deal with that little bit of sloppy manufacturing.

    The 850 had many of the same faults as well. Short lived ABS modules, A/C evaporators and touchy OBD-II on the ’96 models come to mind.

    I used to be a Volvo fan boy, but I’ve long since moved on :).

  • avatar

    I grew up with Volvos. Learned to drive on a beautiful burgundy 760 turbo wagon. Mom had a 960 sedan after that, the one with the 5-link rear. Terrible car to drive, but bulletproof, and she loved it. After that came an S70 XC. Never once did any of them break, not even a little bit. Mom became friends with the local dealer, and I drove many Volvos. A spin in a 140k mile 240DL that felt better than the new ones solidified my faith in the infallibility of the Volvo.

    So, recently, girl wants new car. I notice S60s selling in her budget. Hm, stylish euro sedan, bulletproof reliability, 200hp, what could go wrong?

    Everything. Needed a new transmission. Apparently “lifetime fluid” ain’t, not to mention stupid software that shifts the car into neutral at stoplights. Every 01 trans will blow up. The throttle bodies, even if they don’t go bad will get gunked up and work horribly, causing it to lurch and stall in traffic. Cleaning is a 3+ hour job, or $600 at the dealer. Lights that don’t turn off mean it seems like you’re replacing some bulb once a week. Electrical gremlins. CEL light goes on all the damn time. Radio randomly changes stations. Seats tore. Sunroof came apart. Working on her car while she cooks dinner has become a weekly ritual. My hot tub misses us.

    I’ve gotten ahead of all the issues, and now it does indeed drive very nicely. Fantastic road trip car–great aerodynamics means it tracks straight as an arrow even in 50mph gusts. 25mpg on 4-point ticket speed desert intercity runs. 130mph before the governor kicks in (uh, in Mexico). Torque curve flat as a pan means you can beat anyone that’s not paying attention away from freeway meters. The steering is awful, as is the torque steer, but it was never meant to be a BMW anyway. But good gravy has it taken a lot of work (and $) to get to this point.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I’ve posted this several times over the years, but here goes. Our new ’98 S70 was a tank, perhaps the most solid, comfortable car we ever owned. Slow (5 cyl), but a great car to drive. Then came the repairs…the constant light bulbs, electric gremlins, rotors, etc. By 70k, it needed the ABS and a/c replaced. We took a bath and traded it in for a Toyota.

    1. Wished we had sprung the additional $3k for the last year of the RWD S90
    2. Still haven’t learned our lesson on European cars….

    If I’m not mistaken, ’98 was soon after Ford took over Volvo, so they had little to do with its development and reliability.

  • avatar

    I liked the 1998 S70 so much, I bought two. I had just been laid off in September 2009 and my ex boss drove out of my driveway with my company provided F-150, along with my blackberry, my laptop, and files. It was a Friday afternoon and raining, I stood there like Chuck Connors in the TV show “Branded”. I picked up my first S70 in October of 2009 with 72,000 miles for $3,200 and it now has 135,000 miles. In three years my repairs have been a set of tires, brakes, struts, and a rear torsion bar. A few bulbs, and an occasional check engine light, which I extinguish, it appears after a few hundred miles, it is something about a mass air leak. The car is not a screamer off the line, but it gets me onto the highway. There are a ton of videos on YouTube showing so it yourself repairs, there are a few message boards that also have information about repairs. I bought a second one a year later for $2400 with 89,000 miles. Admittedly, this one was unloved, and required a little more attention, but I was able to put 45,000 miles on the clock before its last ride to the junkyard. I think the S70 is the perfect combination of safety, performance, economy, utility, comfort and there are a ton of used parts in salvage yards. I feel much better with my kids driving this car rather than something from an Asian brand.

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