A Nice, but Passionless, Ride 2004 Volvo S80 AWD

The trouble with "nice" is that it leaves you wanting more.

The 2004 Volvo S80 AWD sedan is nice. It is a luxury runner replete with leather-surface seats, plush carpeting and simulated wood accents. It feels rich, safe and invulnerable. It leaves something to be desired.

It would have been wonderful, for example, if Volvo could have found a way to use its adjustable Four-C suspension system in the all-wheel-drive S80 -- the newest car in the S80 model line.

Four-C allows the driver to choose ride feel and vehicle handling within two basic modes, "Comfort" and "Sport." Variations within "Comfort" offer a soft, limousine ride -- along with that ride's characteristic wiggle-yaw handling in sharp turns and along twisty roads.

"Sport" tightens up the ride and turns cars with the Four-C system into romp-mobiles, the kind you want to take around corners just for the joy of it.

I tested the Four-C system in the all-wheel-drive Volvo S60 R performance sedan. I expected to find it in the S80 AWD -- or at least available as an option in that car. A version of the system is optional for the front-wheel-drive S80 2.9, T6 and T6 premier sedans. But Four-C currently does not come with the S80 AWD in any form.

It's an omission that relegates the S80 AWD to permanent "Comfort" ride status, rendering it a dippy thing on undulating roads and a yaw-mobile in curves. That's too bad. A car that looks as good as the S80 AWD, which has a cosmetically freshened front end and some new rear work for 2004, deserves better.

There also is the matter of the test car's turbocharged, 2.5-liter, inline five-cylinder engine. It delivers 208 horsepower at 5,000 revolutions per minute and 236 foot-pounds of torque at 1,500 to 5,000 rpm.

That engine works fine in the Volvo S60, which has a curb weight (a vehicle's production weight minus passengers and cargo) of 3,400 pounds. But it's a bit of a laggard in the larger S80 AWD, which has a curb weight of 3,691 pounds. A little more horsepower is needed for the heavier automobile to enhance its highway panache.

Volvo is going for a compromise here. It is offering a bigger, more accommodating version of the S60 and providing all of the safety and solid build quality that are Volvo hallmarks at the lowest possible costs for product development and manufacturing.

Such compromises are necessary in the capital-intensive, money-draining auto industry. But compromise can be the enemy of passion and excitement, those intangible elements that help sell everything from lipstick to automobiles. Compromise almost succeeded in doing its dirty work here.

But Volvo escaped that unhappy fate by doing what Toyota Motor Corp., for example, failed to do with its 2004 Toyota Camry Solara "sport" coupe. Volvo, despite omitting the Four-C system, adequately managed co nsumer expectations of its S80 AWD.

Volvo played to its strengths. It told consumers that they were getting a solid, super-safe, large sedan with a fair amount of power capable of driving on snow-covered and rain-soaked streets, thanks to electronic all-wheel-drive technology. It did not over-promise. In fact, Volvo delivered exactly what it promised.

Toyota, on the other hand, raised expectations for its Solara, marketing it as a sports car when, in fact, it is really nothing more than another good 'ol, workaday family Camry sedan with two doors.

People can accept compromise -- and dream of one day getting or doing more. They have a substantially more difficult time dealing with disappointment. Volvo, with the S80 AWD sedan, did not disappoint. It did a nice job. I'm expecting more from this car in the future.

Nuts & Bolts

Upside: A truly safe, solid, upper-level family sedan.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Good in all thr e categories; but neither stunning nor remarkable in any.

Head-turning quotient: Authoritative, high, rich, mighty, a touch of class. People notice this car. They give it respect.

Engine/transmission: The S80 AWD's 2.5-liter, turbocharged, 208-horsepower, five-cylinder, 20-valve engine is mated to an electronically controlled, five-speed/overdrive automatic transmission.

Capacities: There is seating for five people. Cargo capacity is 14.2 cubic feet, but it can be expanded to a maximum 40 cubic feet by lowering the split-folding rear bench seat. Fuel capacity is 21.1 gallons. Premium unleaded gasoline is required.

Mileage: I averaged 26 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.

Safety: Excellent overall body structure; ventilated front discs and solid rear disc brakes; four-wheel anti-lock system; front side-mounted air bags; front and rear side bags; child safety-seat anchors.

Price: Base price of the tested 2004 S80 AWD is $37,200. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $35,003. Price as tested is $42,525, including $4,640 in options and a $685 transportation charge.

Purse-strings notes: Considering the cost of those options -- leather seating surfaces, power glass moonroof, 17-inch Interceptor alloy wheels -- one of them should have been the Four-C suspension system.

Correction: I erroneously referred to the rear-wheel-drive Audi Quattro RS6 in comments in last week's column. As the name implies, the RS6 Quattro is all-wheel-drive, as noted in the full review of that car in the Jan. 4 On Wheels column.