On Christmas Day 1998, I wrote about a new Volvo, the flagship S80 sedan, which I both praised (``incredibly nice'') and damned (``generic European style'').

Now, almost four years later, I'm back in the S80 sedan, and not much has changed. It still has a refined driving feel and a sophisticated, if subtle, appeal.

So, I keep asking myself, why don't I like this car as much as I used to?

Perhaps I've changed, having gotten pickier and more crotchety with age.

My wife and kids might concur with that opinion, but I think the competitive landscape has made the S80 less enticing.

Certainly, buyers -- or, more precisely, non-buyers, agree. S80 sales are down substantially from 2001, falling 24.1 percent from 18,494 in the first 11 months of last year to 14,037 this year. The sour economy, plus ever-more luxury SUV choices, including Volvo's new XC90, which shares a platform with the S80, have contributed to slowing luxury car sales.

Perhaps Volvo's problem, in particular, is that it hasn't convinced buyers that it's building a luxury car worth $40,000.

Our test car, a Nautic blue T6 model, had a base price of $43,935. In its class of six-cylinder, luxury-marque sedans, only the Mercedes-Benz E320 is more expensive. That's right, the Volvo S80 T6 costs more than a BMW 530i, a Lexus GS 300, an Audi A6 3.0 or a Saab 9-5 Arc 3.0t.

It wasn't that long ago that Volvo was making safe, boxy sedans and wagons favored by college professors who disdained more ordinary choices. A Volvo was a nice step up from an American or Japanese sedan.

Volvo still makes those kinds of cars with price tags just north of $30,000 -- the S60 sedan and the V70 wagon -- but in recent years it has moved downward (the under $24,000 S40 and V40) and upward (the S80) and SUV-ward (the XC 70 Cross Country wagon and the XC 90). There's even a very expensive convertible, the C70.

Still, despite the product expansion, there's a sameness to all these Volvos. I'm sure the automaker would call it consistency, and I don't deny the solid, substantial feel of every Volvo that I drive. But, that trait favors the lower-end models and hurts the upper-end fare, like the front-wheel-drive S80.

Volvo certainly brings a competitive engine to this class. Although the 2.9-liter in-line six-cylinder motor is smaller than its rivals, Volvo installs a turbo-charger that boosts horsepower on the T6 to 268. That's substantially more than any rival -- most of the others have engines that rate in the 220-225 range.

On the road, the S80 T60 feels powerful, but, like its exterior styling, is more subtle than quick. The steering is a bit dull for my taste.

Leather seats and wood trim are expected in this class of car, and Volvo has a nice touch with these materials. Rear-seat passengers have a bit more room in the S80 than in the BMW 530i.

Volvo's partnership with Dolby results in a very nice stereo syst em. Our test car had the optional ($1,000) 200-watt, Dolby Pro Logic stereo with a four-disc, in-dash CD player. It sounded good when played loud.

On the safety front, Volvo continues to emphasize the trait that brought it to prominence originally. The S80 has front and side air bags for the front-seat passengers and a head-curtain air bag for those in both front and back. The vehicle has head restraints for every passenger, and specially engineered seats up front that helped prevent whiplash in the event of a fender-bender.

The S80 is due for a redesign in 2004.