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When we took delivery of the 2008 Volvo S80, we immediately opened the boxes, pulled the various panels out, and tried to match up the bag of fasteners with the pictures in the assembly directions. Actually, new Volvos look nothing like flat-pack Ikea furniture, trading in their traditional boxy appearance for a modern, refined look. But safety remains paramount for Volvo, as evidenced by the large areas of glass around the cabin, affording an unobstructed view of the road.
Safety also makes its way into some innovative tech that we've been dying to test. Along with the BLIS blind-spot warning system we've seen before, Volvo includes lane-departure warning, collision warning, and a driver-alert system. We were also impressed by the comfortable cabin and the refined driving experience. With all-wheel drive and an adjustable suspension, the car is a sort of sporting dilettante.
Test the tech: Coffee cup search
Earlier this year, we heard about Volvo's new driver-alert system, which suggests a break with a little coffee cup icon if it thinks you are tired. Fortunately, our 2008 Volvo S80 came with the Collision Avoidance Package, which, with the driver-alert system, includes lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and collision warning. We really wanted to see the coffee cup icon appear on the tachometer display, so we tried to simulate the driving style that would lead to the warning.
The Volvo indicates driver fatigue with this coffee cup icon.
We took the S80 onto some long back roads north of San Francisco, looking for places where we could maintain speeds over 37 mph, the minimum for the driver-alert system, that would have sparse traffic. As we drove, we let the car drift over the right and left lane lines. Each time it did, the lane-departure warning sounded off with three quick chimes. We found this system much more audible than that on the Infiniti M45x, partly because in the S80 it actually faded the music we had playing.
You can choose what is displayed on the tachometer by turning a dial on the turn signal stalk. We turned it to show the current status of the driver-alert system. This display shows five bars for good driving, decreasing the more erratic you get. At one bar it should show the coffee cup. After a few warnings about lane departure, the system was down to four bars.
We tried to drive our worst, but couldn't get the driver-alert feature down to one bar.
We considered trying to compose a song from the lane-departure warnings, but the lack of different notes wouldn't make it very melodic. Simulating a tired driver was also difficult, as we didn't want to give the steering wheel too much input to cross the lane lines. After more time and more triple chimes, we worked the driver-alert system down to three bars, but we ran out of road. It seems it would take more than the 2 hours of drive time we had given the system to show the coffee cup, or a truly tired driver.
In the cabin
The general interior design of the 2008 Volvo S80 is one of the most refined we've seen. In good luxury style, it is muted, with nothing in particular calling attention to itself. We particularly like the wood trim, which uses a satin finish rather than the usual high gloss, making it easy to see that this is real wood. And we love Volvo's recent instrument panel, which floats down from dashboard to console. The instrument cluster and radio displays are also nicely done, eschewing color for simple monochrome.
Volvo makes a number of tech options available in the S80, such as a premium stereo with 12 Dynaudio speakers and 650 watts of amplification, and a navigation system with a screen that rises from the dashboard. Our test car didn't have either of these options, but we tested the premium stereo in the 2007 Volvo S80, where we found it was great in the front seats but lacking in the rear. The 2006 Volvo C70 used a similar navigation screen, which we found was subject to plenty of glare on sunny days.
The car lets you fine-tune the audio for the front and rear seats with five band equalizers.
Our Volvo had the stock stereo system, which is actually quite good. It uses eight speakers powered by four 80-watt amps. This setup reproduced our music well, but without any particular highlights. Along with a six-disc in-dash changer that can read MP3 CDs, we also had an auxiliary jack in the console. Unfortunately, the system doesn't let you easily navigate folders on an MP3 CD. Instead, you have to dial through one song at a time. What we are most impressed about with this audio system is that, beyond simple bass and treble adjustment, you can fine-tune the audio with separate five-band equalizers for the front and rear.
The big tech story in our S80 centered around the safety equipment. First off, Volvo's BLIS, or Blind Spot Information System, works incredibly well to let you know when cars are in your blind spot. Using cameras on the side mirror mounts, it detects cars to the rear sides of the S80 and alerts the driver with a red light on the A-pillar. We wish every car on the road had this system, as every time we looked in a side mirror, that light would be the first thing we noticed. It is also smart enough to know the difference between a parked car and one receding behind the car as the S80 passes.
The BLIS light tells you if there is a car in your blind spot.
Not exactly a safety feature, but reliant on the same technologies is the adaptive cruise control. This system uses forward-looking radar to measure the speed of the car in front of you, and match that speed if your cruise control is set higher. The system worked well most of the time, although we did notice instances where, when a car cut into the lane in front of us, the radar would lose its lock and the car would start to speed up. This behavior only lasted for a fraction of a second before our speed was down to that of the interceding car. With this system, you can also choose from five following distances, very long to very short.
The forward-looking radar is also used for a new system from Volvo: collision warning. This system projects a red warning light low on the windshield to alert the driver of cars in front. If you get too close, the light lengthens, flashes, and a warning sounds. And if you really are about to hit the car or object in front, the S80 applies the brakes, which should at least mitigate a collision. We didn't test it up to the point of braking, but we did find the light was a little over-reactive. Driving along in normal traffic, at what we considered a safe distance, the light stayed on. It's one of those things you would have to get used to, or turn off.
We also covered the lane-departure warning and driver-alert system above. Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration was one safety feature that was sadly lacking.
Under the hood
The 2008 Volvo S80 is available with three engines, a 4.4-liter V-8, a 3.2-liter inline six cylinder, and a turbocharged 3-liter inline six, which we had in our test car. The latter choice, dubbed T6, works as a great compromise between power and economy. Putting its 281 horsepower to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic, the whole power train moves the S80 along without drama. It gives you enough power to pass, but it won't throw you back in the seat. We noticed an occasional odd bump from the transmission when it shifted at low speeds, as if it became confused about when it should shift, but otherwise the power delivery is smooth. The 295 pound-feet of torque and the twin scroll intercooled turbocharger eliminated turbo lag, as far as we could tell.
These three buttons change the car's steering, suspension, and shift points to preset levels.
Volvo includes three performance settings, selectable at the push of a button on the instrument panel, labeled Comfort, Sport, and Advanced. Each setting changes the steering response, suspension tightness, and gearbox shift points. We didn't find dramatic differences between the settings--the car generally behaves well however they are set, and while sway is reduced in Sport and Advanced, it remains a little floaty in all. The shift points are the most obvious difference, unless you put the transmission in manual selection mode.
We ran the car along some winding roads, pushing it into the corners, and didn't feel any wheel slip. The all-wheel drive helps it maintain grip well. But the S80 isn't really a sports car--the comfortable cabin makes it a nice cruiser and daily commuter.
The EPA mileage, at 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, doesn't sound great, but in our combined city and highway driving, we came in with an average of 20.4 mpg. We don't often see a six-cylinder engine, especially one with a turbocharger, get better than 20 mpg. Even better, the car rates as a ULEV II under California emissions laws.
Volvos don't come cheap, a point made by the 2008 Volvo S80 T6 AWD's base price of $42,045. Our notable options were the Sport/Zubra package, which brings in the three performance settings, for $2,495, BLIS for $695, and the Collision Avoidance package for $1,695. A few other options and the $745 destination charge brought our car's total to $49,025. The premium Dynaudio stereo package would have cost another $1,650, while the navigation system adds $2,120.
Although our car didn't come with the premium stereo or the navigation system, we give it credit for having those options in our cabin tech rating. It really gets a big boost for the safety systems, as some of those technologies are not available from other automakers and BLIS works so well. We give it a good rating for performance tech, noting the good compromise between power and economy, but also the somewhat wallowing feel of the handling. The Volvo represents a good choice for its quiet refinement, but a BMW 535i is a sportier choice with better cabin tech.