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Volvo makes its move in luxury-car competition

It's the quickest Volvo ever built as well as the best. Combine the Swedish carmaker's most luxurious sedan, the Volvo 760 GLE, with an intercooled, 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder, turbo-equipped engine, and voila! A dreamboat on wheels.

Sweden's largest carmaker is trying to compete with its neighbor, West Germany, whose sporty, upper-crust, and, yes, high-priced vehicles have made deep inroads among luxury-car buyers in the United States and elsewhere.

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The intercooled Volvo 760 GLE turbo ($21,900) shows the distance the company has moved since the extremely prosaic cars of not too many years ago.

The engine produces maximum torque at a low 2,900 r.p.m., compared with 3,500 r.p.m. in the non-US version, and churns out 157 horsepower at 5,300 r.p.m.

The intercooler is really a radiator that lowers the temperature of the turbo-heated air before the air/fuel mixture flows into the combustion chamber to burn. The cool-off raises the compression ratio, lowers emissions, and reduces any tendency of the engine to knock.

Springs, shock absorbers, and sway bars are the same as on the V-6-equipped and turbodiesel GLEs, and therefore retain the same comfortable, well-controlled ride. The tires are top-quality Michelins designed to handle the whoosh of the engine without a whine.

The front seats adjust for height, cushion angle, back angle, and lumbar support. Leather upholstery, a $655 extra, can replace the velour.

A comfortable, cushioned cover snaps into the see-through headrests, making it a pleasanter place to rest one's head than the hard surface of the headrest itself. Kudos to Volvo on this one.

The handling is crisp, the braking sure, and the upshift and downshift movements smooth. Somehow I expected a 5-speed gearbox, and it took me a little time to realize there was no fifth gear.

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There is, however, Volvo's familiar overdrive button in the center of the shift stick in the floor. If the engine is turning 2,500 r.p.m in fourth gear on the tach, press the overdrive button and the r.p.m. drop to 2,000. You're saving gas.

It would be good if the Volvo engineers could get rid of, or at least reduce, the jerk that occurs every time the car goes into or out of overdrive.

I was able to eke out a little more than 20 m.p.g., combining rather average-type driving around town with commuting to work, but with very little time on an expressway. On an Interstate trip, expect a few more miles per gallon. Remember, the car weighs 3,038 pounds - and that's not a mini-weight. Wheelbase is 109.1 inches.

To help it boost its corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) for 1985 (271/2 m.p.g.), Volvo will bring in a higher-mileage version, dubbing it the 740.

The GLE 760 is a sedan by definition alone because its performance is akin to a sports car. Move over, Mercedes, BMW, General Motors, and Ford.

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