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Car reviews - Volvo - S80 - D5 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Value, individuality, diesel economy/performance combination, plush interior, subtle styling, quailty
Room for improvement
Vocal diesel, rear legroom not great, middling boot size, chassis not the sharpest

28 Mar 2008

LITTLE Volvo of Sweden’s three-point seatbelt creation of the 1950s – and the incredible benevolence of allowing all others free access to it – is one of the greatest ever corporate goodwill gestures.

This kick-started the Swedes’ long-running reputation for safety, and was quickly followed by crash-testing, daytime running lights, impact crumple zones and those big ugly bumper bars that blighted 1970s Volvos.

And how do we repay Volvo’s relentless safety crusade? By laughing or cringing at their pious safety image, that’s how.

But as the company rediscovered the style of its earlier vehicles in the 1990s, somehow the Swedes forgot how to make their cars drive beautifully. Get into any pre-140 series Volvo and marvel at the smoothness, balance and interactivity of the driving experience.

Somehow, the 1998—2006 S80 lacked this. Frankly, it drove like a large front-wheel drive barge, complete with feel-free steering, a reluctance to change direction with any sort of grace, a lumpy ride and gruff and thirsty (if punchy) six-cylinder engine choices.

So, last year, Volvo tried again with the second-generation S80 – a vehicle as different to its predecessor as can be. Co-developed with Land Rover and Ford, the car is related somewhat to the acclaimed Freelander II and MA Mondeo, among other models.

However, you may struggle to see the connection, since the new S80’s styling is too similar to the old car’s to be considered fresh and distinctive.

Yet, in S80 D5 guise tested here, where it does stand out is in its effortless ability to rise well above the $71,950 pricetag, to offer a true alternative to the established German and Japanese competition.

Check it out. The S80’s cabin boasts Audi levels of quality and sophistication, with Volvo’s signature ‘floating’ console surrounded by fine plastic and metallic trim, lovely supple leather facings and a real feeling of classiness.

There’s a unique Swedish flavour to the interior ambience that whispers ‘modern Volvo’ – except that the S80 is finished and presented in a standard high enough to worry the top Germans.

Beautifully simple instrumentation, combining crisp analogue with clear digital display info, further underlines the S80’s upmarket aspirations.

Other plus points include a driving position that is absolutely first-class, with all controls within easy grasp an automatic handbrake that works stupendously well an elegantly simple climate-control set-up a smart cruise control system and great storage solutions. All conspire to elevate the S80’s standing in life.

There is plenty of space for four occupants, including enough legroom for front-seat passengers to stretch out. And all four outboard seating positions are as plush as they are secure and supportive.

On the other hand, for a long-ish front-wheel drive flagship sedan, taller folk may find the rear seat a little restricted. The fast roof angle and tight door apertures mean that entry and egress is not as straightforward an affair as it could be. And the boot – rated at 422 litres – is not class-leading in size (although there is a full-sized spare under there), and also suffers from a smallish opening.

How cosseted the S80 D5’s occupants are from the harshness of our less-than-perfect road surfaces depends on the driver to some extent.

Should she/he select the soft ‘Comfort’ setting for the adjustable dampers, then bottoms will be satisfied but the resulting ‘roly poly’ body attitude might have the left hand fingering the firmer and more contained and controlled ‘Sport’ or ‘Advanced’ settings.

The latter are certainly best for the cut and thrust of city traffic, providing an adequate compromise between suppleness and dynamic capability.

Don’t kid yourself though: this Volvo is no sports sedan in the way a BMW is.

Yes, the steering allows for agile handling and flowing cornering abilities, but the level of feedback feels remote and it is unfashionably low geared. This is not the sort of car you drive on a winding road just for the sake of it.

Yet today’s S80 is far from the soggy drive its predecessor was. So sit back and relax, knowing that the D5 can boogie if required, and enjoy the hushed and cocooning interior instead.

No, the D5’s 136kW 2.4-litre powerplant is not as smooth or as quiet as a BMW or Mercedes diesel. But then, as the name suggests, it is a five-cylinder unit and so there is an inherent throaty beat to this layout that is this engine’s signature ‘voice’. It isn’t unpleasant, just present.

Note that there is ample vroom to match the volume, with forceful acceleration available, but only after a moment’s inertia. This means that when you prod the pedal, a slight hesitation happens, and then... bang! You’re flying.

Driven in anger, this sudden influx of torque (a not-inconsiderable 400Nm of it, in fact) can result in a quite violent thrust forward. Take off enthusiastically on a wet surface, and the front wheels can easily lose their grip and composure momentarily as they scrabble for traction.

But this is a Volvo, so the traction and stability super nannies step in swiftly yet subtly to iron out the rough bits.

Although the D5’s performance may seem a little like an on/off switch, familiarisation results in quick driver assimilation, and so progressive pedal pressure – and a more relaxed attitude – is rewarded with more seamless acceleration. And once the engine is in the 2500rpm sweet spot, there is a deep well of torque for it to draw upon. So stuff like overtaking is a breeze.

Here’s where the six-speed automatic impresses. Not an especially super-responsive gearbox, it is nevertheless unobtrusive in operation, and harmonises well with the diesel’s low-end torque characteristics. The Tiptronic-style gear selector is also pointless since the transmission does it thing so efficiently and effectively when left in ‘D.’

Over a week, we drove our D5 in both manic inner-urban stop-start gridlock and ultra-relaxed open-road conditions, and we still managed to average under 11 litres per 100km – with sub-9L/100km readings reachable during the latter runs.

During that time we came across scores of BMWs and Mercedes, and many Audis too. A few were even diesels, which prompted us to evaluate the exclusivity and value that the D5 driver would enjoy. Basically, for the German competition to match the size and specification of the Swede, their prices would spill into six-digit territory.

This lead to luxury-car soul-searching. For $71,950, the S80 has at least as much quality, torque, efficiency and security as its peers, and spades more space, uniqueness and individuality.

Then it occurred to us that this is the best big Volvo in years, shaping up as one of the most pleasant surprises over the last 12 months.

While not exactly benevolent then, Volvo once again gives us something a little unexpected.

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