By the time the Redblock started [really] showing its age at the end of the 80s, Volvo had already been experimenting with a new generation of engines. I use the term generation loosely, as Volvo had the long game in mind. This wouldn’t be really a single new generation, but a design architecture that would allow them to add, subtract, change, and reconfigure however they saw fit. That would allow Volvo to have a single basic powerplant that could go in everything from the smallest economy car all the way up to the tall wagons and eventually SUV’s that would come later. This new modular motor would come to be known as the Whiteblock, and is no evolution to the Redblock.
Introducing the Volvo Whiteblock
Known officially as the ‘N’ engine, it was a total about-face in materials, layout, and basic design. The new modular engine would be an all aluminum alloy open deck block, rather than the cast iron in the B20x predecessor. This is presumably why it’s called a ‘Whiteblock’ due to the very light color of the alloy. The connecting rods would be forged (don’t get your hopes up), and the cylinder heads would have a ‘sandwich’ style, with twin overhead camshafts and commonly 4 valves per cylinder. There were only a handful of engines that had 2 valves per cylinder. A belt lives underneath the timing cover, with a lifespan of around 50,000 miles.
The new modular series of engines would be introduced in a transverse format, vs the traditional longitudinal mounting that Volvo had always used. Afterall transverse engine front wheel drive cars were pretty much a no-brainer by the time the 90s arrived. They are good in snow, safe in impacts, and allowed plenty of room in the cabin with the deletion of the pesky rearward drivetrain. For many however, this marked ‘the end’ of the Volvo glory years. It wasn’t until 1995 where Volvo started to get traction again (no pun intended). A number of AWD models were then being offered as an attachment to the whiteblock, and when the 850R came out, Volvo was back. People were realizing that Volvo’s investment worked, and that these were great engines.
The year before in 1994, a pair of 850 wagons were entered in the British Touring Car Championship. Unfortunately, the ‘Estates’ never produced any noteworthy finishes. However, the next two years resulted in much better results with a Volvo placing 3rd in the championship for both consecutive years. In 1999, the N block went under the knife for its first major revision, and by 2001 all models got the Revised N engine (RN). The RN engines had mostly changes internally, with the most significant changes surrounding the central rotating assembly. Connecting rods and pistons changed height and weight, and so did the crank to stay balanced. Oil squirters were added as standard to all engines, not just turbos, and hydraulic valve lifters transitioned to solid.
There is a reason they called it the Volvo Modular Engine. Throughout the long run between 1990 and 2016, Volvo produced around 80 different variations. That’s a Whiteblock for every application. Inline 4, 5, or 6 cylinder. Every type of fuel injection and ignition system under the sun. Variable intakes, variable valve timing, all manners of turbochargers. So, to keep all that straight, fortunately their forethought on the matter also resulted in a very easy to understand naming convention. I’ll use the very-popular-in-the-tuning-community B5244T5, which shipped out of Sweden in 05-09 S60 T5’s and 05-07 V70 T5’s.
Volvo Whiteblock B5244T5
– The first digit is the fuel type. B means Benzin (Gasoline). Other options include D for Diesel and oddly enough GB for Gas/Benzin which is the ‘bi-fuel’ natural gas option.
– The second digit is the number of cylinders. 5cyl in this case. You can also have a 4cyl or a 6cyl.
– The third and fourth go together, and represents engine displacement in liters. 2.4l
– The fifth digit from the left would be valves per cylinder, almost always 4 (as in this case), but rarely you’ll see a 2 there as well.
– The sixth digit is type of induction. For our purposes, the most important types are T (Turbo) and S (Standard/Natural). You’ll also occasionally come across an F (fuel injected) and FS here, which is a fairly redundant Fuel Injected Standard With Catalyst… and in some markets a G, meaning the engine is fine with leaded fuel.
– The final digit is the generation number, as there will be subtle changes throughout the service life of the engine. The engine listed above was in the 5th generation in the mid 00 when it powered S60s and V70s. The very popular 2.5l 5cyl Turbo (B5254T) went though 14 generations spanning the 20 years it served the fleet! Generations can change for a number of reasons, from different transmissions, engine management, exhaust manifolds, subtle compression change, addition or subtraction of VVT etc.. therefore everyone has a favorite generation. Generally, Volvo will pair generation changes with facelifts and other model updates, so it’s common to come across different generations of different models in the same model year. This is not to be confused with the “SI6” engine, which was enough of an evolution of the Whiteblock 6cyl to get its own name.
Volvo produced the Whiteblock up until 2016, where it was eventually replaced by the new ‘VEA’ series of engines meant to eschew the new generation of electric hybrids. If you remember, Volvo is fully focused on electric, so these new small engines are meant to be very fuel efficient in their own right, and easily paired with hybrid systems. If you have a favorite Whiteblock engine, drop it in the comments below! Also, if you need parts for your Volvo, don’t forget to check out our extensive Volvo catalog at eEuroparts.com