ROCKLEIGH, NJ -- Some cars you can look at, some cars you can read about, but to really appreciate the new 960 from Volvo, you need to drive it. Re-engineered from the inside out for 1995, this Volvo is the embodiment of the fine European car ideal.

At first glance there is no denying that this is a Volvo. It has the classic Volvo grille design, large glass areas for good visibility, and that solid appearance that makes you wonder if Volvos aren't carved from a single block of steel.

While there is no chance of confusing it with one of those jellybean shaped cars, there is something very stylish about the 960. The front lights, grille, and fenders are lower and smoother. The front and rear bumpers are now color keyed and beautifully integrated into the overall contour of the car. Even the door handles, body mouldings, and window trim have been refined. The overall effect is very modern, very smooth, very well integrated, while retaining Volvo's distinctive appearance. As you look at this car you can almost hear the Volvo designers saying, "We would never cut comers, but no one said we couldn't round a few." Opening the door reveals another area where Volvo has done its homework. The first thing you notice is the sculptured door panels with their rich textures and gently curved openings and controls. The driver and front seat passenger each have one of Volvo's fine orthopedically designed bucket seats for proper support and comfort. The leather facing on these seats is supple and brings to mind a fine piece of furniture. This feeling is followed up by the discrete use of wood in the instrument panel and wood grained accents on the door panels.

There is a quality to the interior of the new 960 that says richness rather than luxury. Color coordination of the interior is extremely well thought out and the overall impression is very harmonious. From a practical standpoint, it has everything you would expect in a car of this class: driver and front passenger airbags, electronic climate control, power glass sunroof, AM/FM stereo cassette Premium Sound System, leather wrapped tilt steering wheel, power adjustable front seats, power windows, electrically operated side mirrors, and three-point self adjusting safety belts for all five seating positions. And believe it or not, the new 960 comes with cup holders as an integral part of the center armrest!

Even a short drive will convince you that the changes in this car go much deeper than the skin. Power comes from Volvo's light alloy, 2.9 liter, in-line, six-cylinder, 24 valve engine. For 1995 this smooth running power plant has been retuned to provide increased torque in the low to medium rev range to enhance around town driveability. Volvo engineers traded away some peak horsepower, which was handy for the autobahn, for some more torque which is handy on highway entrance ramps.

You can feel this difference almost immediately, and the electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission does a fine job of getting the most performance and economy out of the engine with the least fuss. Any of three driving modes may be selected by the driver: Economy, for maximum fuel mileage and smooth shifts at low rpm's; Sport, for enhanced performance and shifts that occur at high rpm's; or Winter, which locks out the first two gears for enhanced starting ability in low traction conditions. All 960s utilize an automatic locking differential for enhanced traction at low speeds.

The first time you turn a corner you will recognize some of the other changes the Volvo engineers have made. There is 35% less roll in the new 960. It comers flatter, rides smoother, and handles with noticeably more dignity than its predecessor. The chassis and suspension under the 960 is virtually all new.

At the front is a McPherson strut system that makes extensive use of geometry and suspension settings Volvo engineers developed for their highly respected 850. Steering is very nimble, road feel is quite good, and the cars response always feels willing, predictable and linear.

Volvo first introduced its multi-link independent rear suspension in 1988. This sophisticated system delivers a quiet and smooth ride while minimizing any changes in wheel angle or track which might adversely affect handling. This year Volvo engineers have replaced the original stamped steel subframe with a compact and lightweight alloy casting. The steel coil springs on each side have been replaced by a single transversely mounted composite leaf spring. The only other vehicle presently using such a system is the Chevrolet Corvette!

An important benefit of this redesigned rear suspension is that, for the first time, the 960 wagon will also have the multi- link independent rear suspension. Driving the new 960 wagon is an experience with few, if any, parallels. It is quiet, competent, roomy, and stylish ... not to mention practical.

Safety considerations have not been overlooked either. In re-engineering the front suspension, Volvo engineers added an additional cross member tying the framerails together at the rear of the control arms. This significantly enhances the energy management in offset frontal accidents. An additional high strength steel insert in the front floor also helps to reduce footwell intrusion in severe frontal accidents. Even SIPS, the Side Impact Protection System which Volvo introduced years before government standards would require such protection, has been enhanced for 1995 with the addition of several energy absorbing plastic door inserts. Like all Volvos, the new 960 has four-wheel disc anti-locking brake system and a long list of other safety features as standard.

The new 960 from Volvo actually seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts. It truly feels like a new automobile - which it should, with more than half of its pieces re-engineered. It is a more willing, more enjoyable, and more lively car than many people would expect from Volvo. The new 960 is a very pleasant surprise to drive.

The final surprise Volvo offers in its "No Compromises" 960 for 1995 is an exceptional value for the money. When they arrive at Volvo dealerships this fall, the new fully equipped 960 will be introduced at a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price of only $29,900 for the sedan and $31,200 for the wagon.