Smooth, comfortable and luxurious.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $36,900
As Tested (MSRP) $37,925
Volvo's S80 is luxurious, roomy and safe. Its styling is representative of the new direction Volvo has taken away from the boxy designs of the past. Silky-smooth power is available from a pair of highly evolved six-cylinder engines, along with a choice of sophisticated stability and traction control systems.
Ride quality is emphasized over handling to reduce road vibration. The twin-turbocharged engine on the T6 is much more powerful than the standard 2.9. Volvo's interior ergonomics are excellent with handsome switchgear and comfortable leather seats.
S80 is available in two models.
S80 2.9 ($36,900) comes with a 2.9-liter six-cylinder engine that produces 197 horsepower.
S80 T6 ($40,900) is equipped with a twin-turbocharged 2.8-liter inline-6 that delivers 268 horsepower. It also comes with slightly wider tires (P225/55R16 Michelins in place of the 2.9's P215/55R16 Michelins).
All S80s come equipped with antilock brakes.
The S80 comes standard with everything associated with a premium luxury sedan, including leather seating surfaces, automatic air conditioning with dual controls, power windows, and alloy wheels. (Volvo designed the S80 to compete with the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6, Jaguar S-Type, Acura 3.5 RL, Cadillac Seville, Lexus GS, Lincoln LS, Oldsmobile Aurora, and Saab 9-5.)
Options include Volvo's navigational system ($2,500); Dynamic Stability Traction Control ($1,100); and 17-inch alloy wheels.
There's also a special limousine model, the S80 T6 Executive ($46,300). It uses the T6 engine, but comes with a redesigned interior designed to maximize rear seating space. Uniquely styled rear seating and an additional two inches of rear legroom ensures comfortable seating for two rear passengers. The rear seat is equipped with a DVD player, 68-channel color TV, video screen, 12-volt refrigerator and audio/video remote control. A wide center rear console provides space for video screen, additional DC voltage plugs, and controls for heated rear seats, electric rear window sun shade and the DVD player. A wireless fax/copier ($900) is an option.
At first glance the S80 doesn't look like 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 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.
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.
Leather seating is standard on both the 2.9 and the T6.
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. 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.
The S80's instrument panel is particularly clean. The gauges fit logically and don't overwhelm the driver 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, well designed, and attractive. 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. The rear-view mirror has automatic dimming and the adjustable outside mirrors have a memory feature. A nicely designed hand brake lever is used in place of the foot pedals often found in this class.
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 2001 S80 comes with a dual-stage airbag system for both driver and passenger in the front seat to help further reduce the risk of injury. Specially designed headrests reduce whiplash in a rear collision by cupping the front passengers, and buffeting their contact with the seats. Inflatable window curtains, as well as side air bags, protect the head and torso in a side impact.
All three rear seats have headrests to minimize whiplash, and three-point seat belts. Rear-seat retractable head restraints are back by popular demand for 2001; pressing a button on the center stack gets them out of the way for improved rearward visibility.
The first thing we noticed about the S80 is its quietude. Crank the ignition key and you can barely hear the starter motor. Once the engine starts, it purrs at idle.
The S80 engines are the first transversely mounted inline 6-cylinder engines in modern times. The engine hums when it's working, very lightly and muted. You can scarcely hear it, even when pulling steadily uphill at 80 mph with good momentum. Wind noise and tire noise are heard as much as the engine; there isn't much of it, but it can be heard because the engine is so quiet. You don't hear the engine at all when the transmission downshifts. All you see is the upward twitch of the tachometer needle.
The power produced by the basic 2.9-liter inline six seems on the light side for a luxury car. It's a bit sluggish off the line. It's also noticeable when traveling with a heavy load. We took a 200-mile trip in the 2.9 sedan with four adults and a heavily loaded trunk, and, not unexpectedly, the engine definitely noticed the difference. Its 207 pounds-feet of torque developed at 4200 rpm aren't enough on long grades, particularly at higher altitudes, and the 197 horsepower isn't fully developed until 6000 rpm.
The T6 model is at the other end of the performance spectrum. Mash the throttle and the response is instantaneous. Its small twin turbochargers spool up quickly to develop maximum power at low rpm: 280 pounds-feet of torque at just 2100 rpm (and 268 horsepower at 5400 rpm). As a result, the T6 is quite responsive when cruising at moderate speeds, say 25-50 mph. And there's easily enough power to light up the front wheels. Volvo's traction control system steps in to ensure the front tires only momentarily lose grip, unless you've pressed the STC button to turn it off, that is.
The ride is comfortable, and the suspension takes bumps well, eliminating road imperfections. The S80 handled our full load very well. The luxury-tuned suspension, maybe combined with the front-wheel drive and steering geometry, allows the car to move around on the road a bit, however. Coupled with a vague spot at the center of the steering, the S80 wanders ever so slightly, requiring small steering corrections. In Volvo tradition, the steering is a bit on the slow side, demanding more steering input than other cars in this class. Overall, the S80 doesn't have the handling precision and poise of the BMW 5 Series and some of the other cars in this class.
The brakes are adequate, although the pedal feel isn't particularly sensitive. The suspension does a good job of keeping the S80 level under hard braking: Nose dive during a hard application of the brakes at 80 mph was minimal.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, most notably at higher loads. But occasionally at lower speeds, a quick stomp on the gas causes it to trip over itself on downshifts. The momentary bog creates a slight response delay and lurch of the car once the downshift takes place.
Premium luxury trim and world-class safety features make the S80 an alternative to BMW or Mercedes-Benz for someone who wants something different. It's comfortable and quiet with a smooth ride.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.