May 7, 2007
Many publications publish retrospective “the year that was” lists
every year to commemorate all the noteworthy events that made up the past
12 months. My personal year-end list is a shortlist of the vehicles that
really caught my attention that year.
The first of these for the 2007 model year came my way in mid March:
the new Volvo S80. As the company’s flagship, here’s a car
that sticks to Volvo’s understated design language. It’s not
much of a departure from the first-generation S80, which debuted in 1999,
and so it may not be obvious to many bystanders that this car – in
the case of my V8-powered tester – is indeed all new, and prices
out at about $75,000 with options. In fact, that might be my biggest beef
with this car: it looks a bit too much like its smaller, and cheaper,
brother, the S60 – and lacks the more expensive visual oomph of
competitors like the Audi A6 and BMW 5-series.
But at least the S80 – and by extension, the S60 – is attractive,
even if it’s not that distinctive. The new-for-2007 exterior features
smoother lines that makes the car look smaller than its forebear, while
by the numbers, it’s actually longer and wider by about 25 mm in
each direction, and about 38 mm taller.
The interior doesn’t break any ground looks-wise either, except
for the nifty “floating” centre stack and the flowing lines
of the dash top and door panels. These organic shapes help to relieve
the mostly right angles in the modern-looking interior. The light cream-coloured
leather and plastics that dominate are a nice change from the default
of black-on-black with an extra helping of black that so many European
carmakers seem to love.
My test car was a very well-equipped S80 V8 AWD, which, on top of its
$64,995 starting price, sported $7,600 worth of extras. A luxury package
provided perforated leather sport seats, Four-C active chassis suspension,
18-inch wheels, front and rear parking assist, rain sensing wipers and
heated rear seats for $3,250. The $3,150 security package added adaptive
cruise control with collision warning and brake support, retractable mirrors
with puddle lights, Personal Car Communicator with Keyless Drive and Volvo’s
Blind Spot Information System (BLIS). The 12-speaker Dynaudio sound system
was a $1,200 stand-alone extra, and worth every penny if you’re
A lot of that stuff sounds extraneous, and for most purposes, it is.
But here’s the thing: it all works really well. The Four-C suspension
allows the driver to tailor the ride pretty much perfectly to any road
surface. “Normal” turns the suspension to mush for rough roads,
but “Sport” tightens things up nicely, eliminating most of
the float from the ride but keeping things supple over all but the worst
roads. “Advanced” mode turns the car into a bit of a kidney
crusher; this setting is best suited to wrinkle-free highways. Sport and
Advanced modes also almost completely eliminate body roll in turns.
The adaptive cruise control system is the only one I’ve been able
to figure out how to use properly without studying the owner’s manual.
It’s very intuitive and allows the driver to choose how much space
to leave between the S80 and the car in front. If someone cuts in front
of you, the car slows itself right down to keep a safe following distance;
if that car in front keeps getting closer, the brakes grab – as
hard as they need to – and the collision warning system flashes
a bright red light at the driver in case all this is happening because
he or she’s not paying attention. And the blind spot warning setup
is pretty useful too, though the cameras – mounted in the outside rear-view
mirror housings that monitor the blind spots – can be fooled by bright
sunlight or rain, sometimes warning of a car that isn’t there. Still,
that’s safer than the other option. And if it drives you nuts, it
can be turned off easily via a button in the centre stack. In fact, there’s
a defeat button for just about every one of the S80’s safety features – a
nice plus for drivers who’d prefer a bit of fun driving unfettered
by electronic nannies (there’s even a button on the dash to unlatch
the split-folding rear seatbacks).
The 4.4-litre V8 – the first ever to be used in a Volvo car – is
a great piece of machinery. It’s smooth and very strong, and has
no problem hauling the car up to speed, whether from a standstill or in
passing manoeuvres, despite an approximately two-ton curb weight. Volvo’s
all-wheel drive system is a willing accomplice here, providing terrific
grip. Around quick corners, you can mash the throttle and the car simply
rockets forward. There’s no discernable under- or oversteer – the
all-wheel drive system and Volvo’s dynamic stability and traction
control team up to provide seamless acceleration. This traction control
system is so unobtrusive as to make you think it’s not even active.
The six-speed transmission is nice and smooth too. Throttle-induced kickdowns
and full-throttle upshifts are quick, and happen without undue head-tossing
The engine note is mellifluous, but never gets annoying, as it’s
only audible when you’re in a hurry. Only high-speed cruising elicits
some road and wind noise, but even strong crosswinds don’t create
much extra noise inside the car. This car is a nice place to be in bad
The steering wheel is a wondrous piece, nice and thick in all the right
places and perfectly shaped for hands to be placed at the nine-and-three
position (if every car had a wheel like this, the world might just be
a better place). The steering itself has a great heft to it, and while
it doesn’t transmit a whole heap of road surface information to
the driver, turn-in is nice and sharp without making the car feel darty.
The car always feels solid and well-planted; only sharp bumps taken with
the adjustable suspension in firmest advanced mode create unseemly clomping
noises. The 17-inch wheels and tires you get in the base model might eliminate
some of this, but then you have to leave out the luxury package, which
means no Four-C chassis. If you value pure driving fun, though, you might
want to look elsewhere. The S80 is a terrific car to drive, and capable
and secure handling, but isn’t as involving as its German competitors.
The electric parking brake, like others of its kind, is kind of goofy,
when a ratcheting lever in the centre console or even a foot-operated
type works fine. But here’s a nifty trick: the S80’s, which
is operated by a button to the left of the steering wheel, will disengage
as soon as you touch the gas pedal. No forgetting and looking silly when
the car won’t move, and also, no cooking the brakes when you drive
away with it engaged. The parking sensor system works well, but it’s
too sensitive. This isn’t a huge car, and such an overactive system
is a bit superfluous here.
The Personal Car Communicator is a neat bit of geeky tech. I didn’t
get to test the heartbeat sensor that will tell you if someone’s
broken in and is lying in wait for your return – I didn’t
feel like asking someone to bust into a locked car that’s not mine – but
the system does also serve as a reminder of whether you locked the car.
The brakes can be a little grabby when they’re cold, or wet from
driving through water, but once dry and warmed up to operating temperature,
the pedal allows for easy modulation, and stopping power is as strong
as the engine’s go potential.
Helping to make the drive pleasant are the seats. Volvo makes some of
the most accommodating ones in the business, and these are no different.
You have no choice but to concoct reasons to go for long drives in a car
as comfy as this, so rare is it to drive something with such nice chairs
in it. As well as comfort, they also provide decent lateral support, though
the slippery leather doesn’t hang on to your backside as well as
it could. The back seat is nice too: there’s good space for two,
but I think three people could be a little cramped for longer trips. Headroom
is good, though, and there’s ample space under the front seats for
rear passengers’ feet.
Secondary controls are well-placed and ergonomics are generally very
good. The turn signal and wiper stalks are a flick of a finger from the
steering wheel; the radio and climate controls are well within reach too,
and Volvo’s useful “sitting man” vent selector system
makes a prominent appearance here. The only foible in the controls on
the centre stack are the temperature and volume knobs, which are a little
small and don’t have sufficient grip for use while wearing gloves.
Of course, these issues can be avoided by using the steering-wheel mounted
volume control and the automatic climate control setting, which is quite
Compared to its competitors – namely the Audi A6, BMW 5-series,
Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Cadillac STS – the S80 lacks the cachet
that some buyers in this class demand. But compared to the Germans, it’s
also a strong bargain and comes in at a similar price point to the Cadillac.
The Volvo is a less-involving drive than the Audi and BMW, with less of
the mechanical rawness that those cars possess, for all of their refinement.
The Volvo is perhaps closer to the E-Class in how it goes about its business:
quietly, smoothly and comfortably. But it’s also much simpler in
terms of how it interacts with the driver. There are no computer-controlled
menus to scroll through to change the radio station or change the fan
speed; I didn’t miss the unnecessary complication those systems
Sure, maybe it’s too early to start planning the official best-of ‘07
lists, but this car’s already earned a place on mine all the same.
Pricing: 2007 Volvo S80 V8 AWD
Base Price: $64,995
Options: $ 7,600: Luxury Package, $3,250 (perforated
leather sport seats, Four-C active chassis, 18-inch wheels, front and
rear parking sensor,
rain sensing wipers, heated rear seats); Security Package, $3,150 (Adaptive
cruise control with collision warning and brake support, retractable
mirrors with puddle lights, Personal Security Communicator with Keyless
Mass Movement and Level Sensors, Blind Spot Information System); 12-speaker
Dynaudio premium sound system, $1,200.
Freight: $ 1,515
A/C tax: $ 100
Price as tested: $74,210
Manufacturer’s web site