by Natalie Neff
This once utilitarian Scandinavian warms up with style.
Base Price $35,820
As Tested $37,345
Think safety. Now think cars. No doubt the image of a boxy road tank is lumbering through your head, replete with an immaculately coifed soccer mom behind the wheel and 2.2 well-mannered kids buckled securely in the back seat.
And the boxy road tank is a Volvo.
The traditionally stolid automaker hopes to change that image with its new S80. Not completely, mind you. After all, Volvo is quick to point out that the S80 is the safest car it has ever built. And with its abundance of safety features, it's a difficult claim to argue.
In addition to dual front airbags, the S80 has specially designed headrests that reduce whiplash in a rear collision by "cupping" the front passengers, buffeting their contact with the seats. Inflatable window curtains, as well as side air bags, protect the head and torso in a side impact. And all S80s come equipped with antilock brakes and traction control.
But Volvo wants us to believe that its flagship sedan can be super safe -- and a little sexy -- at the same time. Volvo? Sexy? Sure, in a sophisticated sort of way, of course. One look is all you'll need to be convinced.
The S80 is available in two versions. The $35,820 S80 2.9 comes with a 2.9-liter 6-cylinder engine that produces 197 horsepower. The $40,385 S80 T-6 is equipped with a twin-turbocharged 2.8-liter inline-6 that delivers 268 horsepower. (Destination charge adds $575.)
Volvo's navigational system is available for either model for $2,495. A Homelink Security System is available for $595. Dynamic Stability Traction Control is a $1,095 option, while 17-inch alloy wheels are available for an additional $395. Leather upholstery adds $1,195.
At first glance it's difficult to identify the S80 as a Volvo -- unless you're facing the signature grille, with its chromed vertical bars and diagonal slash. Gone is the box-on-box construction that distinguished the Volvo profile for a generation. It's replaced by softer, less decisive lines: a gently sloping hood line, steeply raked windscreen, slightly bowed roofline and almost coupe-like rear window line. A short rear deck-lid completes the seductive silhouette. Every corner has been rounded to ease the severe angles one expects from a Volvo. And lightly sculpted doors and side panels flank its body in sensuous contrast to the big, slab-sided Volvos of old.
Flared wheel-wells circle 215/55R16 all-season tires. Our test car sat on classically styled alloy wheels featuring an interesting scalloped edge detail. The wheels, like so much of the S80, manage to be understated, and yet stylized, simultaneously. (Optional 17-inch alloy wheels come with 225/50R17 tires.)
All of the styling gambles Volvo took in designing the S80 culminate in the rear. Prominent, jewel-like taillights sit high on either side of the trunk, the lenses themselves forming the car's rear corners. They're molded in an interesting notched shape, giving the S80 a distinctive flavor that sets it apart from anything else on the road.
Styling enhancements exercised on the S80's body flow seamlessly inside. A tasteful two-tone color scheme in cool, muted hues ties the whole cabin together, from the dashboard and glove box to the doors and kick panels. The spare use of a simple, dark simulated wood lends a nice, understated accent. It's only used on the shifter, the perimeter of the center console and in a single swath of trim that rings the cabin.
The front leather seats feel rich and firm and provide ample support, with just enough bolstering for a snug fit. Getting in and out of them takes little effort as the seating position tends to be upright and the doors open wide. But just in case a little help is needed, Volvo added a driver's side grab handle, a convenience found in only a few trucks and fewer cars. If you want a warm seat, however, turning on the driver's side seat heater can be a bit awkward because the controls for both front seat heaters sit closer to the passenger.
Volvo paid as much attention to providing the S80's back seat passengers with as much comfort as the front. The wide rear seat easily accommodates three adults, with legroom compromised only when the front seats are in their rearmost position. And forever with an eye on safety, all three rear seats have headrests to minimize whiplash, and three-point seat belts.
Carrying a lot of cargo is no problem. The S80 has a large, deep trunk made all the more accessible by its low lift-over height, trunk-mounted rear seat back releases and a pass-through space.
The S80's instrument panel is particularly clean. The gauges fit logically and don't overwhelm with unnecessary clutter. Wherever the driver positions the tilt steering wheel, the center-placed speedometer and tachometer remain in plain view.
Climate controls are intuitive and well designed. Dual climate controls allow adjustments for driver and passenger temperature preferences. The radio uses a dial to control the choice of programmed stations in place of the now more familiar row of buttons. A dial is also used to choose between AM, FM or CD sources. Additional radio controls are on the steering wheel.
As much as the S80 is about safety and styling, it's also a car that wants to be driven. The S80 engines are the first transversely mounted inline 6-cylinder engines in modern times.
The S80 2.9 model's 2.9-liter engine enjoys accelerating quickly, particularly during brisk highway entrances of the 0-to-80 mph variety. If a little sluggish immediately off the line, the S80 has a fat power band -- thanks to the 2.9-liter's variable valve timing -- and virtually leaps at 2,500 rpm, the revs slamming the 5,500-rpm mark in a blink.
At speed, the 197-horsepower engine has plenty of power in reserve, making passing at high speeds an effortless maneuver. The transmission responds in kind, crisply kicking down to third gear at the tap of the gas pedal for added oomph.
Throttle response in the 268-horsepower T6 is even more impressive. Its dual turbochargers are small units that spool up more quickly than larger ones, erasing almost all apparent lag to make for exhilarating standing start acceleration. Swift starts do require two hands on the wheel, however, as the front-wheel-drive S80's torque steer becomes quickly evident.
On the road, the S80 handles straightaways and turns with assuredness, if a little softly. Its smooth handling and easy ride feel neutralize most road imperfections without totally eliminating road feel. Steering effort is firm, although steering feel itself, like the ride, remains a tad soft.
The brakes just may be the most appealing feature of the S80 driving experience. They grab decisively and pull the big S80 to a stop with authority, even in panic situations. On one stop-and-go-filled test drive, braking distances were consistently overestimated: This car can stop much quicker than you'd think. The S80 came to a stop well behind every stopped car, stop sign and red light.
The 4-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, most notably at higher loads. But occasionally at lower speeds, a quick stomp on the gas causes the 4-speed unit to trip over itself on downshifts. The momentary bog creates a slight response delay and lurch of the car once the downshift takes place.
Volvo is betting the S80 wins American drivers over big. Taking advantage of the resources available from new parent Ford Motor Co. should help it to this end.
Its combination of world-class safety features and sporty driving manners also help make the S80 a sure contender in the mid-level luxury market, especially for the Boomer looking for something different and unique -- in other words, something other than your run-of-the-mill BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
Certainly a dash of sex appeal doesn't hurt. The S80's seductive styling surely will be enough to lure prospective buyers into showrooms.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.