Think of Volvo and what words come to mind? "Safe", "solid", "boxy"...but probably not "stylish". The Swedes have marched to their own drummer when it comes to styling, and, like pickled herring or aquavit, Swedish styling has been an acquired taste. Also, while Volvo has built luxury cars for some time, previous top-level Volvos have primarily attracted existing Volvo owners.
Notice the past tense in the preceding paragraph. The box is gone. The new top-of-the-line S80 brings striking, unique style to the Volvo lineup, and hints at Volvo's future. It's as modern inside as out, with no compromise for comfort, convenience, or space. And, of course, there is no reduction in safety -- the S80 has all of the safety features expected in a premium car today and some unique ones as well. The S80 has all of the characteristics that appeal not only to the Volvo faithful, but to anyone looking for a contemporary luxury car.
The S80 is meant to, and will, bring new customers to Volvo. To broaden its appeal, two versions are offered in the U.S. market, the S80 2.9 and the S80 T6. Both feature front-wheel drive with a transversely-mounted inline six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. The 2.9 uses a 2.9-liter, 201-horsepower, naturally- aspirated engine; the high-performance T6 has a 2.8-liter, 268-hp twin- turbo powerplant and "Geartronic" automanual shifting for the transmission.
I just finished a week with an S80 2.9, and have had the opportunity to drive the T6 on roads near Gothenburg, Sweden last summer and, more recently, in a winter test on ice and snow in eastern Quebec. In either form, it is a quiet, comfortable luxury car, much closer to the automotive mainstream than previous Volvos but with distinctive style. The T6 adds a healthy dose of performance.
APPEARANCE: The S80 is the best-looking, most unique Volvo since the late P1800 sports car. The only obvious clue that the it's a Volvo is the trapezoidal chromed grille with its vertical bars and diagonal crossbar. And even that is rounded at the corners. The grille protrudes from the front of the car, and that raised section continues back to the rear of the car, sharply delineated from the rest of the body. Vee-shaped in the hood area, continuing past and through the passenger cabin, and tapering toward the trunk, this is the car's most notable styling feature. It subtly hints at some past Volvo styling without being obvious or self-consciously retrospective, and also gives the taillights their distinctive shape. The S80 looks, and is, very streamlined for improved fuel economy and improved behavior in strong winds.
COMFORT: The S80's interior is as good as its exterior. Think of Swedish Modern furniture -- elegantly simple in design, and ergonomically correct for maximum comfort. From the textured, anti- glare instrument panel top through the rear-seat air-conditioning vents in the B-pillar to the cargo curtain in the trunk, small details that make large improvements in comfort and convenience are the rule. The gray- over-cream color scheme adds airiness. A wood strip separates the two parts, although the European brushed aluminum trim may be special- ordered for a very distinctive interior appearance. The power- adjustable front seats are a cut above the excellent seats found in other Volvos, and the driver's has three-position memory. A first-rate instrument panel design uses the standard Volvo instrument cluster but very different auxiliary controls. Useful storage spaces add convenience. Dual zone climate control keeps the S80 comfortable whether the temperature is 0 or 100 degrees. The rear seat is comfortably contoured for two and will hold three, and folds with a 60/40 split. The trunk's large capacity can be further extended by a ski passthrough.
SAFETY: Volvo would like to be synonymous with safety, and the S80 is a Volvo. So it has a comprehensive list of standard safety features, including shoulder straps for all occupants, dual front airbags, the WHIPS whiplash protection system, an inflatable curtain (IC) on the side of the car to protect both front and rear-seat occupants during a side impact, and the STC traction control system. A dynamic stability control system is available for improved traction, handling, and safety in all conditions, including ice and snow.
ROADABILITY: On the road, the S80 is smooth, quiet, and supremely comfortable. It's the best-ever Volvo for a luxury ride, thanks to an all- new chassis with the greatest strength and stiffness of any Volvo. This allows a softer suspension and improved control and handling. The fully-independent MacPherson strut front / multilink rear suspension is an evolution of recent Volvo design, with improvements for better stability and handling. The S80 is enjoyable on a twisting road and solid on the highway.
PERFORMANCE: Inline 6-cylinder engines are extremely smooth- running, but long. The S80's engine is the first to be mounted transversely in a front-wheel drive car, for increased passenger space. The 201-horsepower non-turbo 2.9-liter 6-cylinder engine in the S80 2.9 is an appropriate luxury car engine, and is matched well for its task by the 4-speed automatic transmission. If more power is necessary, the T6 can readily supply it, with 268 turbocharged horses for very quick acceleration when needed, and "Geartronic" manual shifting added to its automatic transmission. Both engines are silky-smooth, quiet, and reasonably fuel-efficient.
CONCLUSIONS: The S80 redefines Volvo. No more boxes!
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Volvo S 80 2.9 Base Price $ 35,820 Price As Tested $ 39,240 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve inline 6-cylinder Engine Size 2.9 liters / 173 cu. in. Horsepower 201 @ 6,000 Torque (lb-ft) 243 @ 4,200 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 109.9 in. / 189.8 in. Curb Weight 3,602 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.9 Fuel Capacity 20.1 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium (91 octane) for best performance, unleaded regular (87 octane) acceptable Tires P215/55 HR16 Michelin Pilot MXM4 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive