Volvo's Sizzling S80

The redesigned S80 offers looks, luxury, and performance at a better price than the competition

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Decent price, multiple engine choices, Scandinavian interior design

The Bad: Gimmicky safety devices, tight headroom

The Bottom Line: A quick, classy luxury sedan for buyers on a budget

Up Front

In an otherwise terrible year for Volvo, the newly redesigned S80 luxury sedan is doing a booming business. While sales of most other Volvo models tanked, S80 sales nearly doubled, to 9,963 units in the first nine months of 2007.

There's a reason for that success. In the crowded market for performance-oriented luxury sedans, the S80 is a sleeper—a model from a second-tier brand that offers a powerful optional V-8 engine and many of the qualities of an Infiniti, BMW (BMWG), or Audi at a lower price. Further setting the S80 apart is its cool, minimalist Scandinavian interior styling.

I'd never claim that the S80 can match the speed and driving characteristics of, say, a BMW 535i. But if you're not into hard-core performance driving, it's plenty sporty for most. It has a feel to it that's similar to Honda's (HMC) Acura RL.

The S80 was redesigned for the '07 model year and is largely being carried over for '08, except that a third engine option has been added to the lineup. The front-wheel-drive base model, which is powered by a 3.2-liter, 235-hp inline six-cylinder engine, starts at $39,450.

Next up the food chain is the new T6, an all-wheel-drive version of the car that starts at $42,790 and is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-liter version of the inline six that generates an impressive 281 hp.

I test-drove the top-of-the-line model, featuring all-wheel drive and powered by a 4.4-liter, 311-hp V-8 that starts at $49,995. This engine, made by Yamaha (7272.T) and imported from Japan, is a gem. I drove the '07, but the V-8-powered S80 remains essentially the same for '08.

One big appeal of the S80 is its price. Even equipped with the V-8 engine and all-wheel drive, and well loaded with options, the S80 is considerably cheaper than the V-8-powered versions of such rivals as the Audi A6, Infiniti M45, Cadillac STS, and BMW 535i. It even matches or undercuts the Acura RL, which only comes with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine and lists for $47,000 to $54,500. And the slightly less fancy T6 costs seven grand less than the V-8-powered S80.

One option on all versions of the S80 that's well worth considering is the $2,495 Sport Package. It includes 18-inch alloy wheels and Pirelli high-performance tires, bi-Xenon headlamps, speed-sensitive power steering, and ventilated front seats. Also included is an electronic chassis control system that allows you to alter the tuning of the suspension at the push of a button.

The S80 has roughly the same fuel economy whichever engine you choose. The '08 base model is rated to get 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway, vs. 15/23 for both all-wheel-drive models. In 255 miles of mixed driving in the V-8 AWD, I got 19.8 mpg. The owner's manual recommends that you use premium gasoline.

One concern I have about Volvo is that it's a bit of an orphan company at the moment. Ford Motor (F), its financially troubled parent, is expected to make a final decision in coming weeks on whether to sell Volvo (as well as Jaguar and Land Rover) to raise cash, according to a Volvo spokesman.

Whatever Ford's decision, Volvo may be headed for better times. Its overall U.S. sales were down 9.9% in the first nine months of this year, to 80,991 units, but it has three new models—the XC70 crossover vehicle, the boldly designed C30 hatchback, and the V70 wagon—coming out over the next six months. Plus, so far this year, the S80 has outgrown rivals such as the BMW 5-Series (down 2.7% to 37,394 units), Infiniti M35/45 (down 15.7% to 16,413) and Audi A6/S6 (down 34.2% to 8,762). The arrival of the T6 in Volvo showrooms should boost sales even further.

Behind the Wheel

The Yamaha V-8 in the S80 is the same engine that's in the Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle, which is 700 lb. heavier, and this car really motors when you punch the gas. I timed the S80 at about six seconds in accelerating from zero to 60 mph, which is what Volvo figures it will do, but the car magazines have clocked it as low as 5.6 seconds. Not bad for a 4,100-pound sedan.

The V-8 engine, which is coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shifting function, has an appealing snarl when you hit the accelerator. The transmission steps down sharply at highway speed, and there's plenty of oomph for passing. The cabin is quite quiet, both on the highway and on bumpy back roads.

If you go with the Sport Package, you have three suspension settings to choose from—comfort, sport, and advanced. And, unlike with many of these systems, changing the setting makes a noticeable difference. The advanced setting, in particular, really stiffens the suspension and dramatically reduces body roll during hard turns. The ride is noticeably smoother on the highway when you switch to the comfort setting.

The interior has a mildly retro Scandinavian design that I really like. The dash is topped by a curvy, sculpted slab that looks like it was adapted from an illustration in a physics textbook, and there are odd, rectangular air ducts on either end of the dash that look like metal vacuum-cleaner accessories. The center stack is trimmed in pewter-colored plastic; the CD player input looks like the slot of a sleek chrome toaster. The curvy wood inserts in the door panels look as if they were modeled on boomerangs, and the front-seat floor rugs are ribbed. Improbably, all these oddball elements come together in an attractive package.

Hip and shoulder room in the S80 are excellent, both in the front and back seats. Front legroom, which is listed at 42 in., is fine. Rear legroom is listed at only 35 in., but I'm 5 ft. 10 in. tall and I had plenty of knee space in back with the front seat set for my height. The S80's low roof line makes headroom in both the front and rear seats pretty tight.

The S80 has excellent crash test ratings, and all the usual airbags and other safety gear found in luxury cars. But some of Volvo's latest safety innovations seem pretty gimmicky. An example is the $695 optional Blind Spot Information system, which flashes a light on the right or left side of the cabin to warn you when a car is overtaking you. Bad weather interferes with the system's performance: On the highway during a rainstorm, the light in my test car kept turning on for no reason. The warning lights also can be activated by trees and bushes on the roadside.

The optional $495 Personal Car Communicator seems even sillier—and a little creepy. It has a heartbeat sensor that can alert you from up to 300 feet away if a person or animal is hiding in your car. If you're that paranoid, why not just lock the doors when you leave the car?

Buy It or Bag It?

As mentioned above, one of the S80's big selling points is price. The 2007 S80 sold for an average of $38,429, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Preliminary data show that the '08 is going for more—$42,053 on average—but that's still thousands less than the S80's main rivals. The '08 BMW 5-Series is selling for an average of $55,293, the '07 Infiniti M45 for $52,125, the '08 Audi A6 for $52,356, the '08 Cadillac STS for $50,334, and the '08 Acura RL for $47,815, says PIN (which, like, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).

If you can afford it, the engine of choice in the S80 is the V-8. It has about the same fuel economy as the other engines, and more raw power. However, the new T6 is a very attractive alternative. It has less fancy leather and wood trim in its interior, less chrome on the outside, and Volvo says it only accelerates from zero to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. But the T6 costs about $7,000 less than its V-8-powered cousin, so Volvo expects it to account for about 50% of sales, as opposed to 10% to 15% for the V8 version of the car. Whichever S80 you choose, the price will be a relative bargain.

See BusinessWeek's slide show to see more of the Volvo S80.

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