Volvo S80 car reviews: pushing “active safety” to new heights

Review Notes: 2008 Volvo S80 I-6

jeep patriot car review

Personality Nice but overly concerned with safety
Why we’d buy Low insurance, styling, reputation
Why we wouldn’t What will all those electronics
cost after the warranty is over?
Gas mileage 19 city, 28 highway as tested

By Terry Parkhurst

Whereas the first generation of Volvo’s S80 was a supertanker, the second coming of Volvo’s large sedan is more like a sailing vessel. Front-wheel drive – only on the six-cylinder equipped cars, all wheel drive for those with the eight – allows a deep dive into a corner and an escape worthy of a leaping dolphin.  That other piece of Swedish steel – SAAB – knew this from rally racing; and it was why they kept the faith with front-wheel drive for years, finally to be joined by Volvo in 1993. But a lot has changed since then for both marques.

For Volvo, the biggest change has perhaps been on the outside. Long known as “Swedish bricks” due to the success of the long running 240-series, a change to more rounded and organic shapes took place with the debut of the C70 coupe in 1997, followed by the first generation of S80 in the summer of 1998. The current S80 is a car that owners of BMWs or Audis can enthusiastically offer their cars for in trade.

High taillights ensure that people behind you will know full well when you’re turning or braking. The slab sides are broken slightly by an indented beltline, up into a greenhouse area that is reminiscent of a three-series Beemer. The hood is elliptical in a manner similar to this car’s cousins, the C70 and S40. Both front and rear have drop-offs that would be great for off-road driving (not recommended, but good for snow going).

The underpinnings are shared with some other Volvos and even an SUV. When Volvo redesigned its flagship car last year, it shifted to corporate parent (at this writing) Ford’s midsize CD-EU (European Union) platform, which is the basis for the European Mondeo and the Land Rover Freelander/LR2. (With 2008 models, Volvo’s station wagons, the front-wheel drive V70 and all-wheel-drive XC70 will also ride on this same platform.)

The base engine in the S80 is a three-liter, double-overhead camshaft six-cylinder (in-line) engine that puts out 235 horsepower at 6200 rpm. Thanks to other enhancements such as variable-valve timing and a variable intake system, the torque picture is even better; with the twist factor being 236 lbs.-feet of a relatively low 3200-rpm.

You can also get a turbocharger on this same engine – taking those specs up to 285 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque – or the same Yamaha-built 60-degree V8 found in the XC-90. But the base in-line six-cylinder engine we tested had a relatively linear delivery; most daily commuters will be fine with that.

There’s a modifier in that last statement – relatively – because one fault noted of the electronic engine control module is that what you’d call the “tip-in” is pretty abrupt. A tiny tap of the accelerator opens the throttle quite a bit. Perhaps that’s a reason the EPA estimates of fuel economy for the base model of the S80 is a rather anemic 19-mpg in the city. Hit the open road and you can expect 28 mpg. (Those estimates seemed to match the observed mileage.)

Backing up any of the available engines is a Geartronic six-speed automatic transmission with adaptive shift logic and a manual mode. Might the tip-in issue lie in the algorithms of that shift logic?

The base model comes equipped only with front-wheel drive; same for the turbocharged car. If you pop for a V8, you will get all-wheel drive. However, since the S80 carries 61.5 percent of its 3,825 pounds (base weight) up towards the front, the car’s dynamics are pretty much equal to that of a front-driver, across the board. (For the record, when equipped with the turbocharged six, the S80’s weight rises to 4,016 pounds and then hits 4,100 pounds when the engine bay houses a V8.)

The interior is the type of warm, well-lighted place that Hemingway might have approved of. A modern wood inlay has replaced a classic wood inlay for the 2008 model year. In the center is the same floating center console you’d find in corporate cousin, the S40.

The speedometer and tachometer gauges set right next to each other in the instrument panel and house digital displays for fuel level, trip-computer read-outs and warning functions related to engine and drive train.

Since there are four doors on this car, notable is the fact that the rear seat room seems to be on a par with competitors, such as a BMW 5-series, Mercedes-Benz E-class or even the real target of this exercise, the Audi A6. Volvo does come from a country known for tall people, so maybe that’s not surprising.

If you order the Sport Package – to the tune of $2,495 -- the S80 rides will come equipped with electronically controlled hydraulic shock absorbers that allow three settings of suspension hardness, ranging through “comfort,” “sport” and “advanced.” Along with that, steering wheel effort increases or decreases. The tested car did not come with that option, so we can’t comment on its effectiveness.

The independent suspension up front is MacPherson strut with asymmetrically mounted coil springs, hydraulic shock absorbers and an anti-sway bar. In the rear, there’s a multi-link independent suspension with coil springs and the same type of shocks, coupled with another anti-sway bar and a cast aluminum sub-frame.

As noted, the handling is firmly in the camp of front wheel drive: good on the straight-aways and a taking a bit of backing off into a turn; until you hit that sweet spot and then you’re good to go. While it might not be an able to ride the ragged edge as a BMW three-series, it certainly is competitive with that other mid-size Swede, the SAAB 9-5.

The one thing that eludes us for its usefulness is what Volvo calls Collision Warning with Auto Brake (similar to the Adaptive Cruise Control system in the current Jaguar XK series). Collision Warning uses a radar sensor up front to alert the driver when he or she is getting too close to the rear of a vehicle in front. It does that by flashing a LED (light-emitting diode) on the windshield and sounding a beeper. Maybe the driver could simply be more attentive to the task of driving?

If the driver still hasn’t gotten clued into the fact that a vehicle has slowed in front of him or her, or is (even) at a full stand still, Auto Brake determines that there’s going to be a crash; and it activates the brakes automatically. The purpose of that system is to ensure that the crash is at a lower speed – if it occurs at all – than might be true otherwise.

Volvo’s Jonas Tisell, who was the technical project manager for Collision Warning with Auto Brake has been quoted as saying (in a press release) that, “Statistics show that 50 percent of all rear-end collisions involve a stationary object, which means that Collision Warning with Auto Brake covers twice as many situations as with the present system.”

Indeed, in Washington State, an entire family was killed when a woman in a Ford Explorer drove into the rear of their car (disabled by the side of a freeway), while talking on a cell phone. (The driver of the Explorer received only a $500 fine, despite the Washington State Patrol producing records showing her on a cell phone at the estimated time of impact.) But is this perhaps a case of enabling bad driving habits or just accepting the fact that far too many of us aren’t paying attention when we drive? Adaptive Cruise Control is a $1,495 option, not on the tested vehicle; so you are the judge of that one.

An option that was on the tested car, which seems even more of questionable value, is the portion of the personal car communicator (PCC) option. It is all contained in what used to be called a “key fob” and for most manufacturers, is just another part of the digital umbilical cord. In the case of the S80, PCC will give you keyless entry and starting the engine. There’s an “i” button on the fob and if you press that, and the car is within range, a light will come on next to the words “lock” or “unlock” letting you know what condition the doors are in. Moreover, if the alarm is tripped, lighting around the hazard symbol on the fob comes on to tell you; and a “heartbeat sensor” is activated.

What’s a “heartbeat sensor”? It is a sensor that Volvo claims are sensitive enough to detect the beating of a human heart. The reason for such a device being on the fob is the possibility that you’re in what are these days called a “sketchy” part of the city and someone is waiting for you in your car to steal it (assuming you give them the keys, which in most cases is a choice easily made). While the tested S80 had this option, no one was asked to play “hide and seek” to verify. You can be the judge whether it is worth the $495 to have it as part of the package.

The base price for the tested S80 was $38,705 but it rose to $41,865 thanks to the following options: Adaptive cruise control at $1,495, Metallic paint (“Shimmer gold metallic”) at $475, and the aforementioned Personal Car Communicator ($495). There was also that old stand-by, the destination charge of $695. 

If you decide you need a V8 in the S80, you’ll see the base price rise to $56,025. While it might seem like heresy to hear it as this site, but the six-cylinder, equipped with a turbocharger, is plenty good enough for driving around most major American cities.