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Car reviews - Volvo - S80 - T6 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Size, interior space, comfort, luxury feel, standard equipment list, performance, ride quality, safety credentials
Room for improvement
Pricetag (for a Volvo), lack of styling changes, cruise control switch, over-assisted steering, turning circle, four-speed auto, suspension progression

5 Aug 2004

VOLVO’s S80 may have had some success in its home market but it hasn’t come anywhere near the aspirations of Volvo executives at the time it was launched here six years ago.

Volvo’s attempt at seriously tackling the luxury market was viewed fairly sceptically by the press at the time, as the company talked of local sales reaching around 80 cars a month.

Not quite. At its peak, in 1998, the S80 achieved 38 cars a month and dwindled away to a virtually inconsequential four cars a month at the close of 2003.

The flagship Volvo isn’t a bad car. It carries all the normal virtues of clean styling by British stylist Peter Horbury, the highest levels of passive safety, a beautifully detailed interior and impeccable build quality.

The problem seems to lie in the reluctance of luxury car buyers to spend in excess of $100,000 on a Volvo.

Volvo undoubtedly hopes that might change with the introduction of the first S80 facelift, but surely tempers this with a certain degree of realism. The revised car might be better, but it’s still priced the same and looks much the same.

What may be important to some is the attention paid to what many see as Volvo’s Achilles heel – the suspension.

The S80 now offers the new Four-C system, which is basically semi-active suspension. It is able to react quickly to changing driving circumstances so it is smooth and absorbent one moment, firm and sporty the next.

Four-C was pioneered on the smaller, dynamic S60 R and was a joint development between Volvo Car and Ohlins Racing AB (the latter is a division of Tenneco, a US conglomerate that manufactures items as diverse as rubbish bags, car mufflers and Monroe shock absorbers).

The system is centred on shock absorbers that work in conjunction with Volvo’s dynamic stability and traction control system and allows multiple functions including comfort and sport modes, as well as a fully automatic mode. We’ll go into how that translates to reality a little later.

Other changes to the S80 are cosmetic and involve a new look for the front and rear, as well as an almost undetectable freshen-up of the interior.

Most noticeably changed is the front-end, which gets a new light cluster with wrap-over lenses, a new egg-crate grille and redesigned bumper.

The back-end is much more subtle, mainly relating to the tail-light lenses and licence plate recess, although there is some substance in that the bootlid goes from aluminium to steel construction – according to Volvo, without any gain in weight.

Inside, a much closer examination is required, with most attention paid to things like new walnut panels in the doors and dash (mesh aluminium is available as a no-cost choice), shiny metal instrument surrounds and chrome inserts in the air vents.

The door panels are new though, with easier-to-reach grab handles and there’s a choice of three-spoke (wood rim) or four-spoke (leather rim) steering wheels.

The rest of the S80 is basically as before. There’s only one model now, the previous range-topping T6 version with its turbocharged, 2.8-litre laterally-installed six-cylinder engine developing 200kW and 380Nm metres of torque.

This production of solid power, even with a slightly tubby body weight of 1675kg, translates to reasonably rapid acceleration. Its zero to 100km/h time of 7.2 seconds - about the same as a BMW 530i - is about par for the course in the $100,000 luxury segment.

In terms of body size, the Volvo measures up pretty well in the class too, vaguely approximating cars like the BMW, E-class Mercedes, Jaguar S-Type and Audi A6 – although it seems to fall slightly behind in practically every measurement.

That said, the Volvo is still a pretty decent size, roomy enough inside with a rear seat that won’t scare off 1.8-metre tall passengers.

In fact, the sense of sumptuousness is pretty impressive, with well-shaped seats, both power adjusted in the front, real-wood inserts on doors and dash (and steering wheel in the test car) and lots of neat Volvo touches like the easily understood graphics on the climate control and the radio/sound system with separate knobs for setting things like tone and balance, instead of the more commonly used multi-function buttons.

Rear passengers have air vents built into the B-pillars and the driver is able to fold-down the rear seat headrests for better rear vision when there’s no one in the back.

A bonus is the provision of a 60-40 split-fold rear seat, with release levers in the boot, that allows the S80 to carry surprising amounts of luggage.

The driver gets a sequential shifter with the usual and seemingly more intuitive up-down shift pattern (forward to change up, back to change down) and a number of steering wheel controls that work fine except for the cruise control master switch that is strangely difficult to activate.

The equipment list is quite complete, as it should be for the price, and includes things like heated front seats, Xenon headlights (with the slightly unsettling swivelling action as high and low beam are brought into play), in-car telephone, rear park assist and a thumping sound system.

Options include a self-levelling suspension, 10-disc in-boot CD player (the standard system is an in-dash, four-disc unit), power sunroof, laminated side windows and metallic paint.

At this stage there’s no satellite-navigation because Volvo is apparently switching to a DVD-based system and has not yet completed the changeover.

First impressions conveyed to the driver are of a seemingly over-assisted steering (this is new too, from ZF) that spins freely at parking speed but builds up resistance with rising speeds until it becomes quite acceptable in terms of rim weighting.

But the turning circle, in standard Volvo fashion, is appalling. At 12 metres from kerb to kerb it’s equal to many 4WDs.

The inline, laterally installed six-cylinder bi-turbo engine is smooth, sweet and immediately feels powerful. The only noticeable sign of its turbo-influenced torque is a slight delay from an initial start. This is momentary, however, and the Volvo proves very swift at all times, especially when overtaking.

The transmission has only four speeds but the torque of the S80 is such that this proves no impediment. It changes smoothly and intuitively, with sequential shifting available when required with a mere flick to the left.

And the ride quality available via the optional Four-C suspension?

Well, we suspect there’s a little more to the S80’s previous suspension shortcomings than mere shock absorber rates, but there do appear to be new levels of bump-absorption here.

The S80’s ride, in normal circumstances, feels as good as most cars in this class quiet and smooth. But there’s also the feeling - also noticeable in similarly equipped Volvo S60s - that the limits of wheel travel can be found, even in relatively normal road conditions.

We didn’t experience any bottoming-out as we had in a recent S60 R test, but the S80 doesn’t have the progressive, long-travel feel of the best of its competition.

The S80’s handling probably benefits from Four-C though (as well as the new steering), feeling quite responsive all the way through to the inevitably understeering, front-drive bitter end - which is generally kept at bay by the further upgraded (over standard) electronic stability control anyway.

Although memories of the original S80 have faded, there is definitely a feeling that the new car is dynamically improved.

The fact remains though that the S80 is far from matching the best of its peers in this quite significant area. It is not as smooth as a Benz by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it anywhere near as responsive as a BMW 5 Series. The soon to be superceded, front-drive Audi A6 is a better all-rounder too.

As part of the Ford empire, Volvo has ready access to some exceptional suspension technology. When is it going to put it to good use?

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