Volvo S80: Playing It Too Safe?

As Volvo tries to move away from its conservative, "safe" persona, it risks losing whatever personality it has

Editor's Rating:

The Good: V-8 barks and bites, updated design, distinctive interior, some smart features, amazing seats, stand- out stereo, real value vs. V-8 rivals

The Bad: Essentially a front-wheeler in RWD territory, technology overkill, pricey options list, competition has more character

The Bottom Line: Better than its predecessor; optional V-8 a plus; but it's a bit less distinguished than top rivals

Up Front

Any American suburb worth its salt follows certain new-car etiquette. When your neighbor proudly pulls up in something shiny with dealer tags, you act excited and ask lots of questions. Well, let's say Ned Flanders rolls curbside in a brand new Volvo S80 V-8 AWD. The model designation alone, with all its numbers and letters, leaves much to talk about, too much in fact. This is where the problem of the S80 V-8's ambiguous, Swiss-army-knife personality arises. In trying to be all things to all people, the S80 V-8 lacks distinctive character in any one area.

Wherever I went in my test car, people said and observed different things."It's a beautiful car," said my Aunt Shari. Well, considering Volvo predicts that most V-8 buyers will be men, maybe beautiful is not the word we're looking for. O.K. what then? What is the one defining characteristic that will affect drivers and onlookers most? It's a Volvo, so you know it's safe. The beefy V-8 will get you there in a hurry. And the AWD badge conjures up warm and fuzzy thoughts of knit sweaters and a ski lodge fireplace. In the looks department, it's certainly handsome enough, with those pronounced, sweeping shoulders. And the interior feel is certainly one of luxury and coddling amenities.

But what stands out among these product attributes? If the competing BMW 550i stands for the ultimate driving machine, what does this S80 V-8 stand for? It's kind of like trying to sell a friend to a potential blind date. He's nice and successful and smart and funny and handsome and caring, etc. Yeah, that's great, but what will make her call back for a second date? Reviewing this car would have been a little more straightforward had Volvo handed me the keys to a six-cylinder S80, but the V-8 changes the game because the car must then be compared to other V-8 powered midsize luxury sport sedans from BMW and Mercedes (DCX). Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed my time behind the thick, leather-swathed steering wheel. But in this insanely competitive class, listing qualities on your fingers is just not good enough anymore. Whether you stand for emotive style or sporting drive dynamics, it is defining characteristics that move metal these days. And to S80 V-8's detriment, much of the competition is more distinctive in the aforementioned ways.

Volvo's flagship S80 is new from the ground up for the 2007 model year. Aside from a new platform, revisited interior and exterior design, and safety innovations galore, the biggest news is near the hood, where a Yamaha-sourced 4.4-liter V-8 (this motor can also be found in the XC90 SUV) lurks beneath the sheet metal. This is the first time a V-8 has been offered in a Volvo sedan. At introduction, there were two configurations to choose from. The base model ($38,705) is FWD and features a 3.2-liter, inline six-cylinder engine. The V-8 ($47,350) boasts standard AWD. For the 2008 model year, Volvo adds a third S80 variant dubbed T6 ($42,045) with AWD and a turbocharged 3.0-liter, inline six. The addition of the T6 is targeted at consumers seeking performance in a package that is less thirsty.

More than 10 similar-size luxury sedans play ball in this general area of the market. S80 V-8 competes in a midsize luxury sedan sub-segment characterized by sporty driving dynamics and slightly more aggressive aesthetic add-ons. Common selling points are big engines, upgraded handling/breaks, larger wheels on grippier tires, body kits, dual exhaust, etc. In the case of this luxury-creampuff-turned-autobahn-burner subset, changing the engine has a drastic impact on performance, appeal, and sales. According to Volvo, the six-cylinder S80 is projected to snag 75% of total S80 North American sales volume in the 2007 model year. Of the 25% who opt for the V-8, Volvo figures nearly 70% will be men. So it is clear that adding a V-8 to the equation changes things. Annual sales volume will be near 53,000 units globally, with roughly 45% of production destined for North American shores. Volvo tells me that the new-for-2008 T6 is expected to capture 50% of S80 production in 2008, which means even fewer V-8s on the road.

The established German offerings, the BMW 550i ($58,500), Mercedes E550 4MATIC ($61,500) and the Audi A6 4.2 Quattro ($55,300), lead the pack in enthusiast appeal, engineering prowess, and sporty drive dynamics (see, 1/31/06, "An Audi That Pampers and Protects"). The Japanese offerings, which have really raised the bar in the last few years, consist of the Infiniti M45 ($49,100) and the Lexus GS430 ($52,375). The Northstar V-8-powered Cadillac STS ($51,800) is the only real domestic competitor but to a lesser extent than the others. The BMW 5-Series, Lexus GS and Infiniti M models are available with AWD only in V-6 trim.

Conversely, the A6 4.2, E550, S80, and Caddy allow for V-8s and AWD in one tidy package. Power is no joke in these parts; average horsepower rating of the aforementioned group (including the S80) is 334. The GS430 is the "puniest" at 290 horsepower, and the E550 4MATIC is king at 382 hp. Ride quality in the aforementioned cars usually suffers a bit due to low-profile tires and firmer suspension settings, but people in this hot-rod end of the market value speed over comfort. As is true with many vehicles, a smooth ride requires a smooth road surface.

My $56,025 test car had nearly every option box ticked off (no navigation). All the optional equipment amounted to nearly $9,000 above the base price of $47,350. This immediately places the S80 V-8 well ahead of competitors in the value department. The value proposition increases further if you can do without many of the unnecessary safety/security options. Among the major options are the Sport Package ($2,495), the Blind Spot Information System ($595), the Climate Package ($725), the Audio Package ($1,550), the Adaptive Cruise Control ($1,495), and the Personal Car Communicator ($695). Based on my experience with the tester, I could easily shave off $2,700 in options. The car offers relative value "stripped down" or loaded up.

The future is uncertain for Ford's (F) luxury subsidiaries, collectively referred to as the Premier Automotive Group. The luxury group, which recently sold off Aston Martin, now consists of Land Rover, Volvo, and Jaguar. Ford, still seeking capital for their "Way Forward" plan, has publicly announced interest in unloading the remaining British marques, so it is not too out of line to think that Volvo could be next on the chopping block. This would be a shame for Ford considering Volvo's sales success as of late and valuable, unshakeable safety proposition.

The annual J.D. Power & Associates Initial Quality Study found Volvo at 129 reported problems per 100 vehicles, which is below the industry average (125) but ahead of established luxury marques like Audi (136), BMW (133), Acura (130), and Cadillac (135). (Like BusinessWeek, J.D. Power is a division of The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).) There has been unconfirmed talk of interest in a minority share from the original owner, AB Volvo, now solely the maker of heavy-grade commercial trucks of the tractor-trailer variety. AB Volvo sold Volvo to Ford some 10 years ago. U.S. S80 sales through May are up 47.5%, and May-over-May sales are up 21.6%, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Behind The Wheel

The biggest news from the pilot's seat is most definitely the addition of a throaty V-8, which adds speed to your safe journey. Hit the dash-mounted starter button and a pleasant symphony of grunts and gurgles commence from the organ pipes sticking out the rear. It gives this ride some much-needed attitude.

Probably the most entertaining thing you can do with the S80 V-8 is pull up to the stoplight and shoot a confident nod over to the hotshot idling next to you. Before he has time to say, "You can't win a race with safety," bury your foot into the gas and show him some Swedish taillight. The Yamaha-sourced alloy 4.4-liter V-8 pumps out 311 hp and 325 ft-lbs. of torque. Throttle response is excellent, as most of the torque (273 ft-lbs.) is available from 2,000 rpm. All this Swedish muscle hooks up to a six-speed transmission with "geartronic" sequential shifting.

This means you can shift gears manually without the hassle of a clutch pedal if you so choose. The performance tires that come with the Sport Package are rated for a top speed of 155 miles per hour and getting to 60 mph from a standstill happens in less than seven seconds. The V-8 S80 is rated at 17/25 mpg (city/highway), which I came nowhere near meeting during my weekend with the car. Admittedly, I was mashing the gas a lot, so I guess my combined city/highway average of 18 mpg was not so out of line.

When Volvo debuts new vehicles, there is a lot of pressure to live up to the safety hype established over the years. And the first-generation S80 was the first car to achieve a five-star crash-test rating in the U.S., so the lab coats really racked their brains when conceiving a new S80.

This thing is packed with passive and active safety features, some new and some carryover. Features like the Blind Spot Warning System, Personal Car Communicator, Adaptive Cruise Control, and Collision Warning with Brake Support felt unnecessary and not all that useful in everyday driving situations. In some cases, having all of this constant technology interference caused atypical driving paranoia. And drivers beware, these safety gizmos are meant to aid, not replace, the reaction speed and careful attention necessary to the driver at all times.

A particularly silly feature, the Personal Car Communicator [key fob], is capable of relaying the presence of a human heartbeat from within the cabin as to avoid walking in on a preying carjacker. It does, however, serve as a means for "keyless go," which allows you to start the car with the touch of button while the key is in your pocket. The Blind Spot Warning System seems more marketing hype than anything else. Small, side-view-mounted cameras are designed to alert you when a car is in lurking in your blind spot. This sounds good enough, but actually makes your head snap around like a rag doll every time the A-pillar-mounted warning lights illuminate. I would rather just look before I turn or change lanes.

The S80 body is built onto a "box-section structure" using varying steel grades that provide for controlled deformation in the event of a collision. New side-impact airbags feature two separate inflation chambers, one at the chest and one at the hip level. Add this in with the other front and inflatable curtain airbags, the Whiplash Protection System, carryover dynamic stability and traction controls systems, and the body's reinforced structure, and the result is a seriously safe car. The proof of the pudding: The second-generation S80 scored the highest "good" rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash test performance for frontal impacts. And further supporting Volvo's safety spiel are the bank vault-heavy doors, which make a pleasing thud when closed.

On paper, one glaring point of difference between the S80 and its competitors is in its FWD underpinnings. While people tend to think of proper sports sedans synonymously with RWD, the S80 is built atop a FWD platform that has been equipped with an AWD system. Most every other player is RWD to start with. So unless road conditions or wheel slip force some level of torque transfer to the rear, most of the power is being fed to the Volvo's front wheels (the AWD system can reapportion up to 50% to the rear wheels) during normal driving conditions. But I never experienced wheel spin up front, since the AWD system also provides better stability under heavy acceleration. These controlled launches are reason enough to justify standard AWD on the V-8 S80.

The Sport package is worth looking into for the racer among us. It adds 18-inch alloys/performance tires, leather seating surfaces, ventilated front seats with unique perforation, active bi-xenon headlamps (light follows the direction of your turn), an enhanced version of the Four-C (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) "active" suspension (with three driver-selectable modes), and speed-sensitive power steering (with driver-adjustable assist levels). The "Active Chassis" automatically adjusts the suspension according to changing road conditions. It also allows drivers to select three distinct suspension settings (comfort, sport, advanced) depending on mood and road conditions. "Sport" mode offers more controlled body movements, faster steering response and added road contact.

I found the "Advanced" setting (minimized damper movement and maximum contact between the tires and road surface) to offer the most road feel, but you have to pay pretty close attention to notice a real difference between Sport and Advanced. Cruising on the highway is very pleasant no matter what setting is engaged, but engage Comfort if potholes are on the horizon. Overall, ride quality is soft but not too mushy, and all levels of exterior noise are blocked out from the plush, well-sealed cabin.

The distinctly Scandinavian interior is airy and inviting, with a lot of aluminum and light leather. Functionality and material finish is top-notch. Volvo's overall interior look nods more toward functionality than outright brashness. The front seats are like thrones with their optional perforated leather that heats and cools occupants. The cooling function is a pleasure on hot and sticky days while stuck in traffic. And the side bolstering really holds the body in place during cornering maneuvers. The heated seats are available in front and in back, a slick feature in any class. The highlight of the interior is definitely the "floating center stack," which can also be seen in the smaller Volvo S40/V50 models. This super-slim center console controls most of the interior functions and extends to the rear seats; it also offers some smart features like iPod connectivity and an electronic cooling box.

Buy it or Bag it?

I'm not sure what this car wants to be, which makes it difficult to judge. If I got behind the wheel of a Mazda Miata, I am not going to judge it on storage capacity and interior amenities. In the Mazda's case, the sporting personality is clear. With the S80 V-8, which parameters do I use to make a judgment?

This is a tough segment to compete in, no question. And in today's crowded car market, there's little room for products that can't establish a clear identity. But despite my craving for more character, I suppose it is O.K. to be a well-rounded luxury automobile that won't irritate or excite to any extreme degree. So when asked why you bought the S80 V-8, it seems like the answer should be about all-around driving pleasure, rather than any one quality. It's cushy and safe enough to boulevard the family in, but menacing enough to drive hard. And the price is certainly right. Overall, I had a good time while searching for the S80 V-8's defining attributes.

For more on the 2007 Volvo S80 V-8 AWD, see BusinessWeek's slide show.

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