Volvo 960 (facelift) and S90 / V90 buyer’s guide

By | January 25, 2017

The 1995-1998 RWD Volvos were the last ones we got here in the US and to some, the most desirable of the RWD cars.
Prior to 1995, they had a slightly boxier front-clip on the cars and you had slightly more power, at the expense of mid-range torque due to different camshafts.

The changes between these years (95-98) were minimal and easiest identified by the seats (960 are relatively straight edges, S90/V90 have more rounded “boat seats”) and center console, which is much rounder in the newer cars.

1996 Volvo 965

1996 Volvo 965

Porous blocks: They were in the early years (some say ’92-’93) and at this point, even the cars with the bad blocks would have failed by now.  1995-1998 don’t have porous blocks.

Power/Torque: The earlier 204 hp cams were replaced with the 180 hp cams for better mid-range torque.  You can swap back if you prefer.

Automatic rear locker: Model G-80, locks automatically at speeds under 25 mph if one wheel slips. From experience, I know this is a fantastic feature in the snow. With a good set of snow tires, the car is unstoppable!

The car itself has lots of room, particularly if you don’t have the third-row seats in the back.  I never had any rust on mine (1996-2008 in San Francisco, 2008-2012 in Denver, 2012-current in San Antonio) though in the rust-belt you want to take a look at the area where the firewall meets the frame rails.

Things to look for:
Missing front bumper lip. It’s the thin plastic strip that goes the entire width of the front bumper.  This is frequently scraped off on curbs, snow banks and concrete parking lot stoppers.  This piece also holds the air dam, which splits air to the radiator and AC condenser. The air dam in turn holds the temperature sensor.
In short, if you lose the bumper lip, you are likely to lose or miss the air dam and temp sensor.  None of these parts are that expensive, and cheaper still at a junk yard.

The bumper lip is rarely found in junk yards as the BMW guys found it fits some of their cars too!

Frozen headlight wipers. The motors get water in them as it drips off of the headlights and they corrode. The common ‘fix’ is to remove them and the wiper rests (the little gray tabs) to clean up the looks of the car a bit.

Frozen or really slow tailgate wiper. Dust gets in the shaft and slows it down until it fails. A bit of lubrication helps, alternatively using it frequently enough to keep it moving.

Dash vents ‘fail’ at hard throttle. There’s a dual-action AC bellow above the gas pedal that fails. What happens is lower vacuum during hard acceleration lets the bellow push air to defrost/floor instead of the dash vents. When you get off the gas, the dash vents get the air back.
This is a pain to replace, so the easy fix is to pull the yellow vacuum hose and cap it.  Otherwise you’re either removing the dash or cutting the airbox to get to the bellow for replacement. The latter option is probably best.

Ignition coils: Misfires aren’t necessarily the coils. The wiring to the coils crumbles from the heat and eventual oil spray and then fail.  They’re on top of the engine under the plastic cover and easy to get to.

Sagging rear. Not always a problem. If the car has the self-leveling Nivomat shocks, they’ll sag if the car sits for a bit and they ‘pump up’ to normal ride height within a couple of miles of driving. You can identify them by the “Michelin man” bellow and that they look to be mounted upside-down.  I haven’t personally seen many cars with the Nivomat shocks, and never any wagons. I suspect it was a relatively rare option in the US.  I’d happily pay extra for those shocks for the self-leveling vs. the standard ones.

Speaking of suspension, because of the transverse rear leaf spring, performance suspension parts are very rare.  OEM parts are available via the usual places, FCP, IPD, Tasca, etc.

Interior water leaks. The sunroof drains plug up with dust and leaves and then back up and leak into the car.  In a heavy rain you can hear it, or even see/feel water around the dome light.  You can typically feed a nylon fish-tape or weed trimmer line down the drains and gently open them up.  Be careful to not dislodge the drains or you’ll have to remove the headliner to push them back on.
Another issue that can lead to leaks is the sunroof seal. As they are about impossible to find, the solution here is to inject a little polyurethane goop ( between the hatch and the seal to “push it out” to where it seals better against the car when the roof is closed.

Vacuum leaks. There’s a little vacuum ‘tree’ on the driver side of the intake manifold where the hoses dry and crack.  There is also a pass-through on the passenger side of the firewall by the shock tower where three vacuum hoses connect and they crack there too.

Maintenance stuff:

The Whiteblock B6304s2 engine needs full synthetic oil to be happy. Part of this is the alleged narrow oil passages that can gum up with stop & go traffic and sub-par oil, but also that it’s a more modern engine than the old I4 Redblocks.  You will likely also pay attention to the PCV system. The most obvious symptom is the oil leaks on the driver side of the block, under the intake manifold. Parts are cheap, but the manifold is a bear to remove to get to the oil separator.

Transmission flush. For smoother shifting and transmission longevity, a transmission flush is a good idea. It took me 13 quarts before my fluid came out the same color it went in.  I used Mobil 1 synthetic oil.

Instrument cluster lights.  These cars are old enough that some are bound to have gone out. Removing the cluster isn’t a big deal, but it’s no fun.  If you’re in there, replace them all.  If you want to limp along with used ones, check the 1996+ 850’s in the junk yards. They have the same switches and bulbs that you can pilfer and some are bound to work for a while longer.

Hood and tailgate struts.  These are getting cheaper to get new, but when they were dealership-only and over $100 each, I used to pick up decent ones from the junk yards for $4 each. They fail next time it gets real cold (or not, if you’re lucky) and you go back to the yard for another set. The hood struts still have the locking tab, so even if they don’t hold the hood up on their own, you can lock the hood open if you need to.

Shocks/struts (along with sway bar links, strut bearings etc.) are simple to change and largely follow along the 700/900 series in methodology.  I found that 100K miles is about the time these things start to need attention, with the sway bar links being the most common issue.  You’ll start hearing a loud rattle when they fail, and if you grab and shake the links, you’ll feel the ‘give’ and a clicking of the failed joints.
Another relatively common issue is the rubber REAR bushings in the lower control arms. When you go in for an alignment, the shop will point out that these are bad and need replacing before the alignment can be done. Get OEM parts.

Brakes. You will need to lubricate the sliding calipers!  Mine were almost completely frozen when I got my car. The very uneven wear on the front pads was the clue and not being able to insert the new pads forced the issue.  I put the caliper in a vice, soaked the sliding pin in penetrating fluid and twisted a little with pliers. I repeated this every hour all day and finally it all broke free. I could then clean it, lube it and reassemble the caliper and it worked like new.

  • I am a big proponent of tinted windows and use 3M tint on all my cars. If your car doesn’t have it, the tan interior will be pink and the black interior gets a little grayer. You’ll notice the drastic difference if you pull back on the wooden board that leans up against the back of the back seats. The carpet under it will have the original tint.
  • The ride quality is far better on the 15″ wheels than it is on 17″s. There was a factory option for 16″ wheels which I think might be the perfect balance for looks and performance.  The turning radius on these cars is amazing, but you do end up wearing the outside edge of the front tires quicker.

The temp sensor I mentioned in the “missing bumper lip” section above is easy to retrofit if your car doesn’t have it. The cars all have the wiring in there. The thermometer goes into the lower left of the instrument cluster and the sensor plugs in to the wire harness under the driver-side frame rail.

Thermometer and temp sensor

Thermometer and temp sensor

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