Volvo 960 Automatic

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Volvo 960 3 Litre Estate Buying, owning and troubleshooting

The Volvo 960 has either a 2.5 litre engine or a straight-six 3 litre engine.  The car is rear-wheel drive.  The 3 litre estate is the most sought after, though there are fewer 3 litres on the market than 2.5 variants.

Fuel Consumption
On a 55 mph clear run with no start/stop driving 25-26mpg is possible with 26 being the top-end figure which is just achievable. 25 mpg with sedate uninterrupted driving is the norm.  In stop-start city driving, heavy traffic and higher motorway speeds, use 18-20 mpg as a realistic working figure.  the 2.5 gives a couple of miles extra to the gallon. 

The Auto Gearbox
The achilles heel of the automatic 960 is that arrow which sometimes will flash on the dashboard.  The flashing arrow actually means 'transmission failure'.  It's a very common problem which does cause panic amongst 960 owners.

   The removed inhibitor unit

At the same time as the arrow flashes on the dashboard, the gear selector switch next to the gear lever will also flash across the E-S-W buttons.  These buttons are for selecting the mode - W means winter.  When the W button is pressed the car remains in low gear and will not change up (for going through snow/deep water).  S stands for 'Sport' -  when selected, S keeps the automatic gearbox in a lower gear for longer before changing up (better acceleration).  E just means 'Economy' -  normal driving: the gearbox changes up and down as it normally would.

When that dashboard arrow and ESW switch is flashing the car usually drives as normal.       The cause of the warning arrow/lights MAY be caused by the inhibitor switch that is located on the side of the transmission, hidden by the exhaust downpipes.  It can be an electrical fault - caused by a sticky switch inside the inhibitor switch, probably because over time, the electrical grease inside the alloy unit dries out with age/proximity to the exhaust.  Though be aware - that unit may be ok and the true fault is electrical - within the onboard computer.

If the car still drives normally -up and down through the gears, albeit you can't select the different Winter-Sport-Economy mode, then the auto transmission is probably still ok.  Don't panic and begin looking for replacement gearboxes.  My wife's 960 has had the flashing lights (and a replacement inhibitor switch) for 2 years. 20,000 miles later the lights still flash and the car drives fine.  All the flashing light actually means is that you can't manually select the E-S-W modes.

Crossways through the the gearbox there is a rod, which 'pokes' out of the side of the gearbox.  All the inhibitor switch ( pnp) does is move that rod   when you select E-S- or W.  In reality you could remove the pnp unit from the gearbox and the car would still drive normally.
You can have a replacement inhibitor switch (also called the PNP) fitted and still find those lights flash.  This is because that the onboard computer still recognises the original fault. It is often the case that there is nothing wrong with the inhibitor switch and and it is nothing more than a 'fault' inside the computer chip... and needs to be reset (If you can find somebody to reset it.. You may have to go to a main Volvo agent)

The cost of an after-market inhibitor switch (i.e from Scan Tech) is around £50, which is less than half the cost of a genuine Volvo part.   You can of course remove the old unit, clean it and put in new electrical grease.  Whichever option you choose those flashing lights will remain until the computer error is 'reset'.  Bear in mind that it is probably just an electrical problem in the first place - and the pnp unit is ok .  The best advice that can be offered is if the car drives normally, lift out the E-S-W switch and disconnect it.  Then put a bit of  black sticky tape over that flashing arrow on the dashboard.  How often do you change into 'sports mode'?  Your car will still drive fine.


Draining transmission fluid.  You an do it yourself with a 14mm spanner, a length of tubing and a funnel plus about £20 for 4.5 litres of transmission fluid (you don't need it all).  The difference a transmission fluid change makes is incredible. The filter inside the transmission should be changed,too.  To change the filter just remove the sump from the gearbox (not difficult).  If you don't change the filter,make a point of changing the fluid.

The Camshaft Drive Belt
It must be replaced every 30,000 miles max.  It must be.  Neglect this and you're likely to have an unsaleable 960 with a wrecked engine on your hands.  A timing belt costs around £30 and £25 to be fitted.


What to pay?  Estates command higher prices than saloons.  Regional differences play a part in how much to pay as well of course.  The most realistic way of looking at it is to take a guide price from a car auction as these very much reflect a car's true market value - what it is worth to the 'trade'. Privately, 960s are sold for more of course.    Now, in 2010, prices of scrap have risen and an old car is worth 80 quid to a breaker.  With the exception of early 960 estates - which are sliding towards 'classic car status' the cost of a 960 is now rock bottom.  Ignore the 'silly priced' cars you see advertised.  They won't be sold.

NO  MOT: No value other than what a scrap dealer would pay.  Don't be persuaded by a seller that the 'car should pass an mot easily'.  No mot - no value.  End of story.  A car that 'only'needs some rear brake work done is liable to cost you around £500 for calipers, disks and pads.  Unless you can get the parts and do the work yourself of course.  Prices for the 2.5:

Less than 100,000 On the Clock  

  1. Pristine and immaculate condition with full mot and a wealth of service history: £1200
  2. If it looks 'reasonable' and has some sort of service history AND a long MOT certificate. £750 for a saloon and £950 for an estate. * At a car auction this condition of car would sell for approx £350*

 100,000 - 120,000 On the clock

  1. Pristine estate with long mot and service history: £700.  Saloon: £500
  2. 'Well used but sound' and with longish mot: £500 for an estate and £350 for saloon

*Car auction prices: Around the £175-£250 mark

120,000 +  But less than 160,000 On the Clock

Around £300 for either the estate or saloon in a private sale.  Though much does depend on condition and service history/mot


 The Volvo 960 is now at a period of time when it is a 'banger' .. a fuel guzzling dinosaur of the past, just like the Rover SD1 used to be.  Car auction price is 'scrap value'- £80- as at August 2010)


The 3 litre is the 'rarer' car and as such they are now becoming collectable.  Prices for the 3 litre model can be higher, particularly the earlier ones (pre-'91).  These cars are now being restored by enthusiasts.  An early 3 litre estate without an mot but with a good body shell is likely to cost you a minimum of £400 as a restoration project.  Keep an eye on these cars if you're into restoration and classic cars.  It could turn out to be a long-term investment.

It's not uncommon to see these cars (or any car) advertised with a short or no mot.  Often there are comments along the lines of 'it should pass with out any problems.'  Perhaps, but it should be borne in mind that if the catalytic converter alone needs replacing then it will add an extra £200+  to the cost of the mot.  The front disks and brake pads will cost you around  £140 to have replaced (and be aware - automatic cars are 'heavier' on disks and pads than the manual version). Buy a car with a long mot or pay the seller the cost of an mot to see if it fails on anything.  If you end up with a car that needs a 'cat' and exhaust box and one or two other mot jobs such as a couple of brake pipes/ball joint/disks doing, then it's unlikely that you'll get any change out of £500.

Service History

The engines on these cars are good for 200,000 miles +- if they have been well maintained, though attention to the head gasket (involves skimming the head) may well be required at around this mileage). Don't become blinded by 'indestructible Volvo' stories.  An old high mileage car is still an old high mileage car, irrespective what make it is.  The stark reality is that when these cars hit the 160,000+ miles, they have almost no value - irrespective of an owner describing them as 'legendary and capable of millions of miles'.  Those high mileage cars that soldier on without any problems usually have had a lot of servicing/repairs and money invested in them.

 A second hand engine alone is liable to set you back at least £250 before labour charges are added.

Oil/filter change is quoted as every 10,000 miles unless there are adverse conditions.  Sound advice is to change the oil every 5000 miles.  The fluid in the automatic transmission should be changed every 24,000 miles (but never is ...).  Changing the transmission fluid prolongs the life of the auto gearbox and negates slow/reluctant gear changes.  The transmission is out of sight and out of mind. 

The Lambda (Oxygen) Sensor

 The lambda (oxygen) sensor is on the catalytic converter
If that lambda warning light (orange with a green triangle) stays lit on the dashboard don't jump to conclusions and presume it is actually the lambda unit (on the catalytic converter) at fault.  Any fault that affects the air/fuel on the Volvo can cause the lambda warning light to stay on. A temperature sensor unit located at the back of the cylinder head can cause the warning light to show and also result in less  mpg, as can a faulty camshaft timing sensor (a common item to fail).

Stuck in Low Gear

It's not a common complaint, though you do read comments along these lines from time to time.  It's applicable to virtually all automatic gearboxes of course, the Volvo 960 shouldn't be singled out.

Many of the complaints about an automatic transmission not changing up (or being extremely reluctant to do so) come down to the lack of transmission fluid and filter changes.  Whilst mechanical failure does happen with an auto box - springs become weak or break, clutch plates wear out  - a more common cause of 'being stuck in low gear' is that of a sticking valve within the transmission unit which works on pressure.  As one valve closes another opens, allowing the car to change gear.

You can  buy a tin of automatic gearbox additive/conditioner from your local auto factor which is designed to free sticky transmission valves.  The difference a transmission fluid change makes to the car can be incredible.  If your 960 is reluctant (or won't) change up .. don't accelerate.  Slow down and physically move the lever to 3  and low ... and then move back up the box to 'D' - it usually works.  My wife's car has been like that for 5 years.

Won't Start When Cold/Cuts Out at Junctions

On various Volvo forums and websites you may read comments along the lines that the Volvo 960 doesn't like starting below a certain temperature and indeed, can be extremely difficult to start if not impossible.  It's a nonsense.  

The symptoms are that it either will not start or is exceptionally difficult to start when cold.  When it does eventually start it runs rough, as if it was firing on 3 cylinders and not 6.  After a few minutes of rough running the engine suddenly picks up speed and sounds as sweet as a nut.  It drives perfectly and restarts immediately at the turn of the key.  And when stone-cold, the problem reappears.

There is something you can do yourself quite easily - and it's something that may be responsible for the non-starting/rough running or even cutting out at junctions with a warm engine.  All you need is a short, stubby flat-blade screwdriver and 30 minutes of your time.

 Locate the engine oil dipstick on the right hand side of the engine and then look a few inches to the left - where the aluminium inlet manifold is.  Follow the black plastic tubing from the air filter to the inlet manifold.  It's called the air/idle valve or air bypass sensor .

The air bypass/idle sensor -it acts as a 'choke' for cold starting.  Disconnect the electrical connector and remove the sensor.  It has a commutator inside.  With a screwdriver you should be able to turn the small valve/shaft.  If not, it may be seized.  Clean the inside of the valve with degreasant - even though the shaft turns, it may be sticking and not closing/opening properly.  If the shaft is seized you can undo the locking tags on the unit body and try cleaning it with a degreasant spray to get things moving.  Depending on what position it is seized in, it may either cause cold-starting problems or cutting out problems when warm.  Start with the cheapest and easiest option first - clean it and also clean the butterfly valve (photo below).


With the black plastic air tubes out of the way, look at the butterfly valve (photo).  This one is well and truly gunged up with grease and dirt that has found its way through the airfilter/system with age and mileage.  Clean the butterfly valve - you can pull the rod linkage to make it open/close it and make sure that the 2 small airholes in the aluminium body (blocked and not visible in the photo) are clear.  Also make sure that the small vacuum tubes aren't blocked (try blowing through them).  Clean everything with degreasant and lightly oil the butterfly spindle. 

Similarly,  a defective camshaft sensor (its on the rear of the engine) can cause a lack of power/misfire and even non starting problems.  The 960 can have one of two types of camshaft sensor.  Depending on which type, it can set you back £100.  They are a common item to fail.  There is also a cold start sensor which can fail.  the best and most effective option is to get a workshop to put the car onto their computer.  They will tell you straight away what the fault is (or may be).  Don't be tempted to try and fit one part after another in the hope that you can cure the fault.  It's better to spend 20-30 pounds to let a workshop identify a problem.  You can do the rectification work yourself if need be.Volvo parts aren't cheap, even second hand ones.

Fuel Pumps and Fuel Filter

The 960 has 2 fuel pumps which share the same fuel line.  One pump is located in the fuel tank.  Access is via  an inspection cover that can be removed from underneath the boarding behind the rear offside passenger seat (UK cars).  The in-tank pump does most of the work lifting the fuel into the fuel line.  The other pump is mounted in bracket together with the fuel filter and located underneath the car just behind the front passenger seat.  This pump pushes the fuel up to the engine.  The fuel filter is a service item that should be changed every 40,000 miles. A blocked fuel filter or erratic/failing fuel pump can also cause starting (and cutting-out) problems.

The bracket below and just aft of the front passenger seat houses another fuel pump and the filter

 Fuel pump visible - fuel filter is next to the pump.  The pump in the fuel tank does most of the hard work lifting the fuel out.  The under-car pump gives the fuel a helping hand up to the engine.  Both fuel pumps are on the same fuel line.  To check if the fuel pumps are working - crack open the fuel line connector on the passenger side of the engine (easily visible/done) and turn on the ignition.  Fuel should literally spray out at pressure.  The in-tank pump costs around £120.  The under-car fuel pump about £30 less.

Head Gasket

A faulty head gasket can cause similar problems.  Head gasket problems usually occur on starship-mileage cars (like all cars) or those which have overheated, maybe due to a leaking radiator.  Water loss is an indication that the gasket is defective.  There may not be a severe water loss.

An easy check is to remove the cap from the radiator expansion tank (where you fill it with water) when the engine is cold.  Never undo that cap when the engine is hot otherwise you may end up with a face full of boiling water. 

A classic symptom of a leaking head gasket are bubbles appearing in the coolant.  When cold and started up, bubbles probably will appear in the coolant as it circulates and gets rid of air.  Give it a few minutes until the coolant warms, and the bubbles should stop appearing.  If not, the head gasket may be faulty.  Another quick check is to look at the condition of the oil on the dipstick.  If it's yellowish/grey and creamy this may well indicate a head gasket problem, allowing coolant finding its way into the oil.


Shown above: The dipstick on the left is from my wife's 190,000 mile '93 model.  The oil looks perfect.  On the right is the dipstick from my 99,000 mile '91 model.  The oil is sludge-like; grey and creamy.  This suggests there is a cylinder head/gasket problem.  The car only uses a minimal amount of coolant but it almost impossible to start at times.  When started it runs rough for a couple of minutes and then 'clears' and drives fine. The problem needs to be dealt with.  The car already had a new radiator fitted when I bought it and it wasn't running 'hot'.  It will need a new head gasket.

Unless you carry out a cylinder head/gasket repair yourself it's unlikely that you will get any change out of £500 -£1000. It's a big job.

 As a most general rule of thumb, a leaking head gasket will only lose water when the car is running.  It may also 'pink', overheat to varying degrees and run rough.  Cars (any car) that has head gasket problems - the head must be skimmed before refitting it for the simple reason that alumunium cylinder heads tend to warp into a 'banana shape' - and refitting an unskimmed head hasn't cured the problem. 

Many years ago additives such as 'head weld' were popular temporary stop-gap measures to cure leaking head gaskets.  They are/were similar to a radiator leak fix called radweld or ce-lit.  They were temporary fixes which relied on floating particles in the additive to gather around the leak/crack and the water pressure of the coolant to keep them in place.  They're temporary get-you-home repairs.  These additives can also block the heater and cause other problems.  It's also a method used by unscrupulous sellers to disguise head problems.  Check the radiator expansion tank for discolouration/signs of overheating ('rusty' water) and anything that may look as if it has been added ..  The cooling system should contain antifreeze/water in a 50-50 mix.  Insufficient anti freeze can cause head gasket problems.

General Faults/Looking at the Car

Given the age of the cars now the air conditioning may not work as it needs recharging .  Using the air conditioning is likely to reduce overall fuel consumption by 4 mpg.  Cruise control may not work.  Ask around to see how many people use cruise control ...  They're all 'faults' we can live with.  The 960 is low priced - it gives you a lot for your money.  Don't be frightened to try and fix/service things yourself-  jobs that are within your capabilities.

When looking at any prospective purchase ask the seller to start the engine.  The engine should be cold  at start up.  A warm engine can hide cold-start problems. The oxygen sensor (lambda) warning light should go out immediately and definitely not reappear when the engine begins to warm up.  A lambda (oxygen) sensor costs around £100+ at  workshop prices, though you can do the job yourself in 30 minutes at half price by ordering the parts online).   Get it checked at a workshop on their computer.  You can always change duff parts yourself.

If possible take the car for a drive.  Once around the block isn't far enough. A minimum of 5 miles should do the trick - that gives the engine plenty of time to warm and any warning lights/faults should become evident.   That flashing gearbox failure arrow may not appear until the engine has warmed.  Failing that, let the engine tick over for a while.  Tell the seller what you want to do and why - a genuine seller won't object.

Catalytic Converter/Exhaust
It's the 'front box' of the exhaust system located beneath the driver's side.  With a warm engine any unusual smells/fumes from the area of the 'cat' (it has actually been likened to the smell of tom-cats pee) is a sure fire sign that the converter is dead and needs replacing.  If there's any sign of exhaust cement or exhaust bandages wrapped around the 'cat' it also indicates that it needs replacing.  You can't bodge a cat - if it leaks or becomes blocked/draws in air then it is history.  Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. A lambda fault (or a fuel/air fault) can cause the cat to overheat and melt its contents.

   Location of oxygen sensor on 'cat'
A catalytic converter costs around £220 to be replaced.  You can order the part online and do it your self for around £130.  Never use exhaust paste or gasket sealant in front of the 'cat' otherwise  you run the risk of damaging it/the lambda sensor. A complete exhaust system including catalytic converter is around £350 fitted.  Cast an eye over the exhaust system, too.  Don't dismiss a car that needs a new cat/exhaust - use the fact as a bargaining chip.

Tailgate Struts and Tailgate
Open the tailgate and see if it stays open.  It should 'lift' easily. The gas dampers - the struts -lose their pressure with age.  If the tailgate closes of its own accord or feels heavy to lift those struts need replacing.  Around £30 a pair and very straightforward to change.  It sounds naive to point this out - but just try removing things from the back of the car when a damn heavy tailgate keeps trying to fall on you.  Also check that the tailgate does in fact open from the outside.  With age and wear the locking mechanism may not work, which means that you have to lean over the rear seats to open the tailgate via the internal lever.  Though quite often a few squirts of WD40 over a few days frees things up.  More of niggles with an older car than a fault.

Electric Windows
Don't forget there are three other windows apart from the drivers window ...  Do they work?  You may find that the rear ones in particular are 'slow' to operate - this is mainly down to non-use.  Some well-aimed WD40 and a few minutes playing with the switches usually cures things.

Buy the condition of the car - not the year. Be aware of what faults it has.  There's no real reason why a 1995 model should cost more than a 1992 model.  These models have been out of production for well over a decade and as such are 'old hat' and not really wanted by the motoring trade.  This goes some way to explaining why later models advertised at 'silly prices' remain unsold.  Be aware that the 960 is sold on the strength of its engine 'capable of millions of miles' .. perhaps, but that's on a  superbly serviced car.  Like any car, the 960's brake disks need replacing at times, track rod ends wear out  ...

It sounds a bit 'frightening' ... but the 960 is a good car providing it has been regularly serviced..  All cars have troubles from time to time and it's that trouble you want to avoid when purchasing ... You'll get a 'feel' for the car and the seller.  Unless you know what you're doing, never buy a car advertised as 'having a slight misfire that should be easily sorted out' ... maybe .. A misfire can be caused by a dodgy spark plug (30 quid a set) - or it may be one of the 6 ignition packs (one for each plug) which cost £65 each.  Or it may be a sensor fault ... or even a failing head gasket.

Don't be blinded by a low-price bargain.  Like any car, look at the overall condition and service history, and how much mot is on it.  And if the seller's name isn't in the V5 ... it may be they are selling it for 'a friend' or 'relative' or their 'wife/ girlfriend bought it but found it is too big' ... or they may have bought it at an auction and have added a few hundred pounds to the price they paid ...  (and now you know who has voted that this guide was not helpful).

A lot of  960s advertised  tend to be re-advertised at a later date simply because the seller has an over-inflated idea of its value.  Not too long ago an Ebay member was trying sell a 1994 saloon with well in excess of 200,000 on the clock with starting price of £500.  Unsurprisingly, there were no bids. It was re-advertised a second time with no bids.  Realistically, that car had pocket money value.  Maybe £50...     Don't rush to bid for one.  An overpriced car (whatever model) is likely to keep being re-advertised.

Have a look around but don't buy somebody else's problem. A 960 with no MOT has no real value, irrespective of what the seller says.   A 960 that has combined overheating/starting/head problems isn't going to be cheaply repaired or fixed by a workshop.  Don't be afraid to ask why it is being sold... how long has that person owned it?  Don't be afraid to ask for a test drive for a few miles. Ask those questions like has it ever overheated?  Be brutally realistic.  It can cost you more to get the car into good working order than it did to buy the car in the first place.  It's your money.

Genuine Volvo parts are relatively expensive.  You won't find a lot of 3 litre 960 parts on Ebay apart from the usual spark plugs and indicator lenses.  A set of 6 spark plugs for the 960 cost around 30 quid.  You'll pick them up on Ebay for half that price. Try looking for a head gasket set  - you probably won't find one. A genuine 960 head gasket set will cost over £100.   Though the good news is that after-market products are cheaper (and just as good if not better) than genuine Volvo parts.   Don't rush off to Volvo for your parts - your local autofactor will be able to order you a cheaper (and just as good) alternative.