2004 Volvo S80 AWD
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Review and photos by Laurance Yap

Picture, if you will, Volvo’s biggest sedan, the S80, sliding very, very sideways through a corner, spewing snow in beautiful roostertails, its turbocharged engine whooshing and screaming, its driver steering while looking out the side window. This is not some sort of twisted dream; this was me, a few weeks ago, in the new five-cylinder S80 AWD.

Surprised? I was. This thing – this big, luxurious boat of a thing with the big soft heated seats and its skinny 16-inch Gislaved Nordfrosts, was more fun than the S60R I drove this summer. Life, after all, is not what you make of it so much as about the difference between expectation and reality. What I was expecting was something like the last S80 I drove – a fast, comfortable cruiser that revelled in long highway journeys, not something you could pilot like some sort of demented blown-up rally car.

I should not, of course, have been so surprised, because cars are products of the environments from which they are born, and the S80 is as Swedish as cars come. That means that, in addition to all of the comfort and convenience expected of cars in the $60,000 class in which it competes, it must also contend with wicked Swedish winters, with big-time snow covering what are often narrow gravel roads. Power, speed, and luxury must combine with agility, stability and solidity, and should you need to do the Scandinavian thing and flick it around a hairpin sideways, then, by rights, you must be able to. Simply put, the S80 AWD was an unexpected blast, a relaxing car that, once in a while, could really get the blood flowing.

2004 Volvo S80 AWD

2004 Volvo S80 AWD

2004 Volvo S80 AWD

2004 Volvo S80 AWD

2004 Volvo S80 AWD
Click image to enlarge

The AWD’s agility and chuckability on back roads was a surprise partly because it certainly didn’t feel that nimble in town. While I’ve always had a soft spot for this car – it was the one that first bucked the boxy Volvo trend and went all radical – manoeuvring in tight quarters has never been its thing. In fact, at one office where I work in the historic Carpet Factory district, it often required three-point turns to simply make it around corners in the tightly packed parking lot. Going around corners seems to require all sorts of arm twirling, and at lower speeds the suspension certainly never seems all that sporty, floating gently over most pavement imperfections and clumping heavily over the worst of them. The brakes have an inconsistent, spongy-then-firm feel, and throttle response at lower revs is laggardly, even though this isn’t a particularly high-pressure turbo installation.

Still, once it’s rolling, this is some fine place to be. The Volvo’s seats are among the best in the business, even though they don’t have quite the same range of adjustments as some competitors. The climate-control system and seat heaters are top-notch. And the Volvo-designed Dolby Pro Logic audio system, with a big centre speaker, four-disc CD changer, is simply one of the best in the business, clean and clear no matter how high you crank the volume, with bass that’ll shake the car in the next lane over, should you choose to do so. Visibility out of the cabin is surprisingly good, thanks to a high seating position and lots of glass, and the rear headrests fold forward at the touch of a dash button for an even better view. In back, there’s plenty of room no matter how tall the front-seat riders are, and the trunk massive and conveniently box-shaped, with a wide opening to make loading any parcel easy. This car would be ideal for a long family road trip, or for a (successful) travelling salesperson who logs lots of miles.

As for the snow performance, take what I have to say with a grain of salt. Getting the S80 sideways requires quite deliberate provocation (and, should you have it, disabling the stability-control system by clicking the switch “five times at a certain rate”, according to the owner’s manual). Under most conditions, the S80 AWD behaves like any good front-wheel-drive car, plowing gently through corners if you go in too quickly, and remaining stable and easily controllable no matter what. It’s just when you give it a big bootful of throttle, and crank the languid steering into opposite lock, that the electronic Haldex clutch engages the rear wheels and begins what’s always a slow, gorgeous power slide. Don’t try this at home before you try it in a big, empty parking lot, though, because unlike some systems from Audi and Subaru, the Volvo AWD juggles power between the front and rear axles lightning-fast, and sometimes with not as much smoothness as you might like. Calling it part-time on-demand all-wheel-drive would probably be more accurate, though the badge might be too long to fit…

Surprise fun factor or not, I’m still not sure whether I’d take this S80 AWD over any other S80, or for that matter, any similarly-priced competitor. It’s well-priced for its size and feature content, but its place in the Volvo line-up is kind of weird, a five-cylinder model more powerful than the base six, but with less grunt than the top-level engine, which in my guess would be the one most people would want with all-wheel drive. Plus you’ve got the fact that even without a huge motor nestling in under that big hood, the turning circle is still huge, and the whole car under normal circumstances doesn’t feel any lighter and more agile. It’s still a fine car – and was a pioneer in its day – but the S80’s competition is a lot stronger than it used to be, and the traditional Volvo advantages of lots of airbags, great crash-test scores, and that vault-like feeling of solidity, maybe don’t count for as much as they once did.

Then again, there are going to be plenty of people out there with an affinity for the brand values that Volvo represents, and who simply want to add the extra safety margin that AWD offers in the snow to what’s already one of the safest cars in the world. In the end, what’s wrong with that?


Technical Data: 2004 Volvo S80 AWD

Base price $54,995
Freight $875
Type 4-door, 5-passenger luxury sedan
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel drive
Engine 2.5 Litre, 5 Cylinder Light Pressure Turbo, All Alloy, DOHC 20 Valve with CVVT
Horsepower 208 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 236 lbs.-ft. @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic with Winter mode
Curb weight 1,584 kg (3,492 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2,791 mm (109.9 in.)
Length 4,822 mm (189.8 in.)
Width 1,832 mm (72.1 in.)
Height 1,452 mm (57.2 in.)
Cargo area seats up: 402.1 litres (14.2 cu. ft)
  seats down: 765 litres (27 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.9 L/100 km (23.7 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.9 L/100 km (35.8 mpg)
Warranty 48 months/80,000 km.

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