With unique electronic accident-avoidance equipment in the 2007 Volvo S80, the Swedish car maker maintains its focus on safety. Ford's stewardship of the Volvo brand has kept a steady stream of quality cars coming out of northern Europe. Both the Volvo C70 and the Volvo XC90 seemed mild-mannered at first, but quickly grew on us. The S80, a large sedan with a V-8, comes on a bit stronger than the other two, but we liked it no less by the end of our review period.
From the side, the S80 borders on bland, with the curved roofline used on so many other cars. But little touches, such as the beltline crease that melds into a hood bulge, keep its European refinement intact. The grille is classic Volvo, although the company shed its boxy look long ago. Dual exhaust pipes denote the car's performance character. And in keeping with its safety theme, the windows all around the car seem just a bit larger than other modern sedans.
This sedan is aimed squarely at the luxury market, with a bit of performance thrown in. Along with its powerful V-8 engine, it gets all-wheel drive. The interior looks and feels very good, with fine construction and materials. Our tester came with a number of very interesting options, including a blind-spot warning system, adaptive cruise control, and potential collision warning. We also got the premium Dynaudio stereo system, which sounded very good on paper, but not so good in the car.
Test the tech: Supreme Court of Sound
We introduced our Supreme Court of Sound in our review of the Land Rover LR2. When we saw that our S80 came with the Dynaudio premium sound system, we convened the court again. On this go-around, our Court is made up of Donald Bell and Jasmine France, editors on the CNET MP3 player beat, and Mike Tao from CNET Download.com Music. The stereo in the S80 uses 12 Dynaudio speakers, a five-channel amplifier, and Dolby ProLogic II 5.1 surround sound.
With the members of the court in the front and rear passenger seats, we drove around San Francisco, evaluating the audio quality under normal driving conditions. We listened to selected tracks by Gang Star, the Beatles, and Ursula 1000. From the back seat, both Donald and Mike were unimpressed with the stereo. We quickly found that, with the stereo set to Dolby ProLogic II, the rear-seat passengers could barely hear anything. We switched to the stereo's three-channel setting, which improved matters a bit.
Donald comments, "The only sound I was getting either spilled over from the front of the car or came up at me from my ankles by way of the in-door speakers. It was like being up against the back wall of a movie theater--with all the action in front of you or off to the side." He did mention that "the audio I could hear was rich and crisp." Mike offered similar comments concerning the back-seat listening experience, "Lacking speakers on the rear deck, you feel as if you're sitting in the cheap seats at a concert."
Jasmine, sitting in the front seat, had a very different audio experience. "The sound in the front seat was generally enveloping with warm mids and clear highs, but lacking in bass overall compared to other car systems." Overall, our Supreme Court of Sound gave the stereo a rating of 6.5. We had much higher expectations for this system, but, while it sounded very good in the front seats, we can't rate it highly because it totally ignores the rear seats.
In the cabin
With its clean, light-colored interior and contoured surfaces, the interior of the S80 reminded us more than a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey. We particularly like Volvo's design for its center stack, a panel that slants down from the dashboard to the console. It even leaves space behind it, enhancing the panel design. The dashboard itself curves up in a gentle hill over the instrument cluster. Even the arm rests, inset in the doors, form a nice curve. Straight lines seem unwelcome inside the S80.
We mentioned the disappointing performance of the stereo above, but we weren't disappointed by its audio sources. The six disc in-dash changer reads MP3 CDs, an auxiliary input jack is mounted in the center console, and our test car came with the optional Sirius satellite radio. Even though the interface is limited to a small radio display, its black text on off-white background is very readable, and Volvo does some clever design tricks to make it very usable. The system uses a standard radio layout (left volume knob and right tuning knob) that keeps the interface simple. Although we like selecting CD tracks by turning the tuning knob, it can be problematic for MP3 CDs with lots of music.