The new S80 is the best car Volvo has ever made.
Wait, wait, wait — don’t go running off to buy one quite yet. Just because this is the best car Volvo has ever made doesn’t mean it bests the luxury competition, but it sure does its darndest to stake Volvo a claim in the segment as a compelling alternative to BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Cadillac.
The new S80 is loaded with safety features — it is a Volvo after all — has an elegantly designed interior and can even have an optional throaty V-8 under its hood. At the end of each day I kept thinking, “This is a Volvo?”
The improvements are of course most noticeable by simply looking at the S80. I wouldn’t call it striking, but it is handsome — bordering on the masculine yet still able to appeal to the most feminine of moms.
The sculpted body mimics other recently redesigned Volvos, but the S80 uses the technique to its best effect to date. The headlights are more angled than ever before; it’s a subtle difference, but one that adds to the overall appearance. The rear is still dull as a doornail, though.
Inside, however, the S80 wins absolute raves. There are three things the interior has going for it:
1. Actual design: The dash flows into the instrument panel, creating an organic wave. The gauges are real metal with electronic readouts in the center, and the analog needles run on an inner ring. Even the turn-signal arrows fit into an arrow-shaped cutout in the gauge cluster.
2. Ergonomically simple: The S80 has buttons. Lots of them. They allow you to turn on the air, stereo, safety features and more with a simple push; there are no complicated menus for simple tasks, just buttons. Oh, the brilliance. The buttons are housed on Volvo’s trademark floating center stack, another nice design touch.
3. High quality: Unlike other Volvos, the flagship S80 is a real luxury car. The materials are all soft to the touch, the leather is plush and the seats are ultra comfortable. What’s left to want?
OK, it could have a bit more room in the backseat, but the space isn’t what you’d call confining. The small trunk was a bit of a surprise, however; it’s not exactly deep or tall, so large suitcases have to be wedged in tightly. I’m an infrequent golfer, but I don’t think I would be able to get more than two full-size bags in there without folding the rear seats, which wouldn’t leave room for a foursome.
While the interior is the S80’s standout area, the driver’s digs were never the old model’s main fault — a lackluster driving experience was. The S80’s newly optional V-8 engine adds some excitement, making 311 horsepower and 325 pounds-feet of torque. That power comes early when the gas pedal gets pushed, and it even makes a healthy little growl. That’s not very Volvo at all, and will probably be what car shoppers notice most about this new model’s performance. The S80 comes standard with an inline-six-cylinder that makes an incredibly less-sexy-sounding 235 hp and 236 pounds-feet of torque. We won’t say that the price bump of nearly $9,000 to move from the front-wheel-drive inline-six to the all-wheel-drive V-8 is insignificant, but even with a starting price of $47,350, the V-8 sounds like a value.
Like most Volvos, the S80’s steering is still floaty compared to almost every other luxury car on the market, and even with AWD this thing doesn’t take tightly curved off-ramps like a sports sedan. The only fun you’re really going to have driving it is revving that V-8, but there are worse things in the world.
The S80 is still a fine highway companion; it accelerates with gusto for passing and can be driven for hours on end with little fatigue. It’s not an Autobahn champ in other performance areas, but many Volvo buyers probably aren’t looking for one.
In the pothole-heaven known as Chicago, an adaptive suspension like the one offered on my test vehicle is a great idea. It’s part of a $2,495 sport package that also includes speed-sensitive steering, 18-inch wheels, xenon headlights and ventilated front seats. What did the adaptive suspension do? In theory, each of the three settings — Comfort, Sport and Advanced — are supposed to adjust the suspension to deliver a different driving feel depending on the driving surface and situation.
Volvo could’ve fooled me. Neither the Sport nor the Advanced setting did much to change my opinion of the car’s virtue as a performer. After playing around with the settings for the better part of two days I resigned myself to Comfort because that’s what the car delivered best.
The S80 excels at safety. Before the little bubble above your head fills with the word “Duh,” let me add that this Volvo has some breakthrough safety gizmos we hadn’t seen until very recently. There are optional cameras mounted to each side mirror that tell the car’s computer when a car is in your blind spot. When a car is in that spot, a dull orange light (so as to not overly distract you) illuminates in the bottom corner of the window, on whichever side the intruding car is on. The nice thing is, you can turn this feature off if it starts to annoy you.
I found the system so unobtrusive that I left it on all the time, and I don’t generally like nanny-ing devices. I was also impressed that the system seemed to know when a semi was next to you and didn’t illuminate when its trailer extended into your blind spot. This option costs $595.
The other relatively new safety feature is a collision warning system that alerts you when a car ahead of you has slowed down and an impact is imminent. A row of red lights illuminates in front of the driver, right at the edge of the dashboard, so the lights reflect off the windshield. Think this would be annoying in bumper-to-bumper traffic? It wasn’t. This thing is smart; I repeatedly tried to get it to go off during a commute by tailgating and waiting until the last second to brake, but it was no good. How do I know it works if I couldn’t simulate a near-impact? A few Chicago drivers gave me a hand.
I was stuck in traffic while driving home from the office one stormy night — by the way, if someone can tell me why people freak out when it rains, let me know — and there were a number of cars trying to merge into four lanes of traffic. One driver cut off the Mercedes-Benz in front of me, causing its driver to brake suddenly. The Volvo’s lights went red, flashed, and I slammed on the brakes. The system actually assisted me by preparing the brakes to be more effective for my reactionary, and more aggressive, stomp on the pedal. I guess that’s the reason Volvo doesn’t want you trying to fool the system. This feature comes packaged with adaptive cruise control at a hefty $1,495 option price, and I’m still unsure whether I’d add it if given the choice. Of course, it probably costs more than that to repair a bumper, so the collision system may be worth the investment.
The optional all-wheel drive and standard stability system are useful when driving in inclement weather, and there are an abundance of airbags and reinforced doors to protect you in case anything does go wrong. Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had crash tested the new S80 as of this writing.
The market for a large luxury sedan from Volvo has always been hampered by the fact that the people car buyers want to protect most are their family, and families often opt for wagons and SUVs. That’s why Volvo is launching redesigned, S80-based V70 and XC70 wagons later this year. The sedan is usually the executive car, and until now there’s been no overwhelming reason for today’s choosy executive to even consider the S80.
Now, the sedan buyer who wants high-minded interior design and extreme safety over performance can look at the new S80 as a sensible alternative. At a tested price of $56,025, with so many bells and whistles in addition to a V-8 engine, the S80 is also a darn good buy; its BMW and Mercedes counterparts are more expensive even when equipped with six-cylinder engines. There are still Volvo’s low reliability scores to worry about, and with this much technology crammed into a car there’s even more that could go wrong. Yet the fact remains that after a week of driving the S80, I was convinced that Volvo knows how to make cars that are more than just safe.