September 24, 2006
Smogen, Sweden – One of my all-time favourite movies is the 1990 comedy “Crazy People,” a comedy about an advertising agency based in a lunatic asylum. Having worked as an IT guy at several ad agencies, the setting seemed – still seems – like a perfectly logical one to me and many of the fake ads created by Dudley Moore and his gang of misfits remain memorable to this day. One of the earliest pieces of work shown in the movie is a print ad for the Volvo 740 headlined “boxy but good,” a tagline that brought lots of laughs at the time the film was still showing in theatres.
In 2006, and in a world where we’re surrounded by stylish Volvos, it’s sometimes easy to forget what the company’s cars looked like before the original S80. Based on the smooth, flowing lines and broad shoulders of what was originally an environmentally-friendly concept car, the first S80 turned Volvo from one of the most conservative car companies to one of the most progressive in one fell swoop. It was not only as stylish as it was comfortable; it also featured a transversely-mounted twin-turbocharged inline-six and staggering in-car electronic content, including one of the standard-setting audio systems of the time.
With the safe-and-stylish route pioneered by the first S80 having proven so profitable for Volvo – so much so that it proved an irresistible takeover target for Ford – it comes as no surprise that the second-generation car, on sale this fall, is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It’s a better car in every way than its predecessor, but is still recognizably an S80, from the diagonal cross-bar of its grille to the broad shoulders that define the sides of the car, to the clean Scandinavian lines of its interior. What Volvo has instead focused its efforts on is in refinements to the car’s drivetrain and technology that brings it in line with its major competitors. As well it should: final pricing has yet to be announced, but expect a bit of an increase from the $55,000 list for the 2006 S80 AWD for the base 3.2 model and perhaps $10,000 more for the all-singing, all-dancing V8 when the car goes on sale early next year.
For Canadian consumers, the biggest news is standard all-wheel drive on both the six-cylinder and V8 models (it was previously available in the S80, but not on the turbocharged T6) – there will no longer be a front-drive S80 in Canada. In principle, the system operates in a similar fashion to that in the S40; it’s primarily a front-drive car, but computers constantly monitor what’s going on not only at the wheels, but at the steering and the throttle as well, to shuttle torque to the rear wheels instantaneously (within a seventh of a turn of a wheel), rather than waiting for wheels to spin and differentials to lock up. In practice, it was hard to notice the system working in the S80s that we tested, especially as the Swedish roads we were driving on outside of Gothenburg were dry and well-paved.
The other big news is on the engine front. The top-of-the-line S80 is now powered by a V8 instead of the old twin-turbo six. Displacing 4.4 litres and producing 311 horsepower, the new engine, developed in cooperation with Yamaha, is similar to the one used in the XC90 SUV, but in this application produces a bit more power with a slightly different voice: the S80 sounds quieter, less throaty than the XC90 but with a more sophisticated, metallic-sounding wail as it revs to its redline. Base models – which Volvo estimates will account for about 70 per cent of the S80s sold in Canada – get the six-speed coupled to a 235-hp 3.2-litre inline-six instead of the V8. Power is diverted to the all-wheel-drive system through a six-speed automatic with manual shift capability; it’s smooth enough in most situations but can be a bit clunky in stop-and-go traffic.
Inside, the new S80 continues Volvo’s tradition of integrating the latest technology with controls that are the very model of simplicity and clarity. While it may offer gadgets like satellite navigation, a thumping great DynAudio stereo system, Bluetooth, trip computer, automatic climate control and other goodies, the S80′s controls are immediately intuitive and easy-to-use, in stark contrast to many of its European rivals. The climate control consists of a couple of knobs and a pictogram of a seated person which you touch to direct airflow to various points; the navigation system is controlled with a couple of switches on the steering wheel; and the rest of the car’s features are accessible through a menu system navigable by a four-way rocker switch. The gauges are easy-to-read and logically arranged and the all of the secondary controls are exactly where you would expect them to be.
Few of the S80′s competitors offer the same level of safety technology. The seats have active head restraints to help prevent whiplash in a rear-end collision and the seatbelts have pre-tensioners and load limiters. Plus, in addition to the expected airbags (front, side and side-curtain), crumple zones and ABS, the S80 also offers an optional electronic collision-warning system that tells you if you’re too rapidly approaching the car in front, and a device that tells you if there’s something in your blind spot. Both systems operate unobtrusively and stay out of your way in most driving conditions. Other gadgets include adaptive cruise control that can maintain a set distance from the car in front and a rear-view camera that makes parking this big car easier. V8 cars also get adaptive bi-xenon headlights that swivel as you go around corners, lighting the way forward.
Like most new cars these days, the S80 offers more room – not that the old one was anything but spacious to begin with. Careful sculpturing of the seats and door panels – as well as a warm, inviting colour palette – mean that the increase in interior space is magnified even more by the design details. The “floating” centre console first introduced in the S40 is a welcome addition here. While it’s of limited actual usefulness (stuff stored behind it tends to fall out during cornering), it does lend an air of Scandinavian grace to the cabin and visually lightens the bulk of the dashboard. Overall build quality is up several notches, with nicer materials everywhere your fingers wander, and touches of metallic “jewellry” all around. Best of all, the S80 is also more comfortable than ever, with increased head- and legroom and seats that are even more supportive than before. Ventilated seats are now available up front as part of an option package that includes a keyless entry and start system and other luxury-oriented toys.
Comfortable is how this car drives, too. Despite its newfound injection of power, the S80 remains a relaxed performer rather than a frenetic back-road sport sedan. This is in fact a welcome change in a class of high-end sedans that all seem to be trying to be sportier than the next. Given the conditions most of these cars will be driven in, Volvo’s emphasis on ride quality, smooth operation and quiet, seamless power seems more logical than the ever-increasing power outputs, lower-profile tires and aggressive suspension tuning of most German luxury sedans.
The overriding impression you get driving the S80 is one of seamlessness: it gathers speed deceptively quickly thanks to a linear throttle response and a smooth engine; it rides with smooth, well-damped motions; it steers with liquid precision if not a lot of road feel. The transmission slurs its shifts to the point where they’re almost imperceptible (save for the occasional clunk between first and second in town), meaning there’s always more than enough power for passing. The brakes are strong and smooth, connected to a pedal with a long travel but progressive feel.
None of which is to say that the S80 won’t do the corner-carving thing if you ask it to. Dig deep into the throttle, stiffen up the speed-sensitive steering with a couple of menu choices, switch the electronic suspension to “sport” or “advanced” mode and the engine and transmission step up with eager responses and entertaining noises. You can slide the transmission lever over to invoke a manual mode that cracks off shifts as fast as any other manumatic system, and unlike Volvo’s first-generation adaptive suspension, the S80′s exacts only a small penalty in ride quality for the vastly-improved cornering stability.
The big Volvo will maintain surprising velocities around corners and can cover ground at an impressive rate of speed, especially in adverse weather conditions with its standard all-wheel-drive and electronic traction and stability control. What you don’t get in the Volvo is the kind of driver involvement that something like a 5-series BMW or an Infiniti M45 Sport might offer – but then again, neither of those cars can match the level of long-distance comfort and quiet that the Volvo offers.
Given the expected rise in prices – with the V8 butting up against six-cylinder competition from Germany and the low end of the eight-cylinder models from Japan – the S80 should find a niche for itself in the fiercely-competitive luxury-car segment in Canada. Unlike most other cars in the segment, it offers a uniquely Scandinavian luxury feel: confident and stylish but more laid-back than some of the overtly sporty high-strung entries in the class. It’s come a long way from being boxy, but the flagship Volvo is very, very good.
At a glance: 2007 Volvo S80
Price (estimate): $56,000 (3.2) to $67,000 (V8)
Engines: 3.2-litre inline-six; 4.4-litre V8
Power (hp): 235 (I6)/311 (V8)
Torque (lb-ft) : 236 (I6)/325 (V8)
Fuel consumption (European combined): 9.8 (3.2)/12.3 (V8) L/100 km
Competitors: Infiniti M35X and M45; BMW 530xi; Mercedes E350 4Matic; Audi A6, Acura RL
Manufacturerâ€™s web site