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.
Our audio judges line up by the car.
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."
When set to Dolby ProLogic II, rear-seat passengers could barely hear the stereo.
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.
The stereo has a good variety of audio sources, and a good interface.
Our car didn't have the navigation system, which was probably just as well, because on the C70 we found the screen placement, which would be similar on the S80, subject to very bad glare. Surprisingly for a European car, especially a luxury sedan, Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't available, which might be an aspect of Volvo's safety theme.
Our car came with an optional keyless drive system. Unlike a smart key, you need to push this key into a slot in the dashboard. To start the engine, you need to push the engine start button next to it. This keyless system includes a heartbeat monitor that can inform you if a human or an animal is inside the car. Volvo offers an example of its use: if you get out and lock the door, but have left a sleeping child in the car, the key fob will alert you.
Under the hood
Driving the S80 is generally a very good experience, although its handling leaves something to be desired. We were very impressed with Volvo's Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which we think should be installed on every car on the road. BLIS uses sensors to detect if there is a car on either of your rear quarters, and turns on a light on the appropriate side's A pillar to let you know if something is there. Although we saw something similar on the Audi Q7,Audi Q7, BLIS works at all speeds, even if you are crawling through traffic. The Audi system only works at speeds above 35mph. In practice, we found BLIS extremely useful.
The BLIS light turns on when a car is riding in your blind spot.
Adaptive cruise control is another gadget that works while the car is in motion. This system lets you set the speed, but will slow down the car if its radar detects a car in the lane ahead. We used this type of system previously on the Lexus IS 350. We took the S80 on to Interstate 280, a freeway that winds through the hills south of San Francisco, and set our speed to 75mph, a typical speed for this road. As we caught up to another car doing 70mph in our lane, the S80 slowed down and paced the car for as long as it was in front of us. We drove quite a while without touching the brake or accelerator, which is an eerie feeling. The system impressed us in that it successfully tracked cars around turns, and even used the brakes when someone cut in front of us.
Collision warning is a part of the adaptive cruise control. We got a test of this system when a car going particularly slowly cut in front of us. For this situation, we felt compelled to override the adaptive cruise control and hit the brakes. As we got close to the car in front, the S80 projected a red light on the windshield, which definitely would have been attention-getting if we weren't already aware of the situation.
The car is set to 75mph, but slower traffic made the adaptive cruise control bring the speed down to 60mph.
Beyond the interesting electronics, the S80 uses some pretty able mechanicals. Its engine is a 4.4-liter V-8, an engine size almost unheard of for a Volvo sedan. This iron puts out 311 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. While driving the S80, we never felt like it was wanting for power. The six-speed automatic showed the usual amount of acceleration lag we've come to expect in drive mode, but it was reduced when we moved it over to sport mode. The transmission also has a manual selection mode, which we didn't find particularly useful.
Our S80 also came with all-wheel drive, which suggested we should throw it hard around corners and drive it on narrow mountain roads. Although the all-wheel drive probably helps in low traction conditions, we weren't impressed by the car's cornering abilities. We noticed a floaty feeling in a hard turn, as if the car was disconnected from its wheels. This feeling didn't give us confidence to really push the car. Our S80 came with the Sport package, which includes three settings for the suspension activated by buttons in front of the shifter. These settings are Comfort, Sport, and Advanced. While the ride became more rigid in Sport mode, the cornering didn't feel any better.
The EPA rates the S80 at 17mpg in the city and 25mpg on the highway. In our mixed freeway and city driving, we achieved 19.1mpg. Emissions ratings for this car haven't been posted yet, although the Department of Energy (DOE) says it puts out 9.3 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, right in the middle of the DOE's worst to best scale. The S80 is available with a smaller 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine, but it only improves on mileage somewhat, getting 18mpg in the city and 26mpg on the highway.
The base price for our 2007 Volvo S80, with the V-8 engine and all-wheel drive, was $47,350. We had it pretty well loaded with the Climate package ($725), the Sport package ($2,495), and the Audio package ($1,550). We also had some a la carte options, including the keyless drive ($495), the Blind Spot Information System ($595), adaptive cruise control ($1,495), park distance warning ($495), satellite radio ($95), and metallic paint ($625). With the $695 destination fee, the total comes out to $56,615.
There is a lot we liked about the S80, especially the driving safety gadgets. It is also a very comfortable car with a nice luxury feeling. We could shave off the price by dropping both the Sport and Audio packages--it's not a sports car and the premium audio system is only good for the front seats. For a real sports sedan, we would lean toward the less expensive Infiniti M35 Sport. Or, for a higher tech ride, the Lexus GS 450h makes good sense.