In the premium midsize sedan segment, luxury that stands out is key to attract buyers that often see brands such as the E60 BMW 5-Series, the recently launched W212 Mercedes Benz E-Class, the Audi A6 and the Lexus ES 350. Volvo knows that it has a daunting task with its new S80, but can it veer away customers from the said Teutonic trio and the chrysanthemum competition?
Much like the other brands in the Volvo lineup, the S80 veers away from its forebears' stuffy exterior look and rolls off a lot of sex appeal. The wheelbase is a bit longer, the track a bit wider, and is more than an inch taller. The front sloping glass transfers from the rear window to the trunk panel, and the vertical tail creates a sensation of speed. As a result the subtle dimensions/sheet metal changes give it a more assertive stance.
Inside, lean surfaces, clean but congruous lines and relaxed minimalism ergonomics rule. The well-bolstered, perforated leather seats can be described as "soft but lean and lithe," and you're very much relaxed the moment your backside hits any of the buckets. The climate and audio controls are a great relief from the all-in-one interfaces favored of late by German marques. The head unit within the floating center stack also totes Bluetooth capability and a multi-operational menu (within the head unit screen) that toggles many interior features, such as automating the power-assisted side mirror folding/unfolding ability when locking/unlocking the doors via the key fob. There's a rear seat audio console (at the base of the center console) that incorporates two sockets for headphones, and allows occupants to toggle the head unit between musical sources, songs or playlists and adjusts the volume. It's nicer, though, if they were placed within the rear backrest divider so that rear occupants don't have to bend down and reach them. Speaking of audio, the audio entertainment has a great, strong balance of treble and bass that makes listening to all sorts of music fun. However, given the amenities of the competition - particularly the power-assisted rear sunshade, DVD capability and dual moonroofs of the new W212 E-Class, the floor mounted menu toggling and Bose sound system of the current Audi A6's MMIS (Multi-Media Integrated System), and the Lexus ES 350's power-assisted rear sunshade, the dual zone aircon and the unique thumbpads on all door handles (that allows occupants to lock/unlock the doors from the outside as long as the key fob's on one's person) - the S80's features seem mundane.
And if that's not enough, there's another knock with the S80's cabin features - its interior lighting and its optional portable satellite navigation (satnav) system. The former is great overall, but rear passengers just get a lamp at the middle of the ceiling. No doubt it's bright, but looking for small items on the rear floor is tough since there's only one light source. The A6, the E60, the ES 350 and the W212 have two to three light sources, they're all strategically placed in close proximity to the middle of the rear windshield and they're placed at an angle where it's easy to see small items on the rear floor. With regard to the satnav system, Viking Cars Inc. (official distributor of Volvo in the country) claims that for every S80 purchase this second quarter, there's a free portable satnav system attached to it. Unfortunately, when this writer got the unit there was no satnav system attached.
The S80's storage ability rivals its competition, but is somewhat wanting. The cabin is comfortable for four and decent for five, and with six footers in front you have a fistful of rear kneeroom left. The storage bin behind the floating center stack is more accessible for the shotgun occupant since it's parallel to the driver's knees. A paperback book and a 500 ml water bottle fit in the front door storage bins, but rear door storage is limited to three Western Digital external hard drives placed side by side. The trunk can store two golf bags and four to five duffel bags, but one might have trouble with storing odd-shaped loads, as the rear backrests fold flat but not flush with the cabin floor.
Making this S80 (to be specific, a P 3.25 million, turbocharged 20-valve 2.5L straight five petrol) move off the line is tough, but when it has momentum it can go mighty fast. It takes awhile to get into the powerband (3,500 rpm onwards), the turbo wakes up at a high 3,900-4,000 rpm, and you get full boost by 5,500 rpm. The a/t is willing to downshift at half throttle and the default "(D)rive" setting can also be used for acceleration from rest. However, for emergency lane changes it's best to use the manual mode since fourth and fifth gears are tall. Although top speed was limited to 220 kph top speed due to inclement weather, the S80 can go to 100 kph from rest in 9.79 seconds. However, since the 2.5L is pulling 1,490 kg of curb weight, fuel economy (6.73 km/l, four days mixed driving) is sacrificed. To this writer, Volvo should stick to the naturally aspirated 3.2L inline six or the 4.4L V8 for the S80's powerplant.
Handling is surprisingly good despite the dimensional increases. Grip from the Continental SportContact 2 225/50R17s break at 100-105 kph sans traction control. The heavy nose, though, tends to make the S80 understeer with a wicked determination and forces the driver to lean on the brakes a lot. Brake bite is strong (typical of Volvos), but be prepared to stock up on brake pads; you are gonna wear out the pads fast should you use the S80 as a frequent corner carver. At least the ride is generally comfortable, and steering feedback needs just a degree or two of steering wheel movement to make the car follow. In fact this writer feels that the latter betters that of the new E-Class - especially on sweeping turns and parallel parking maneuvers - but isn't as sharp as that of the 5-Series. One question - what's with the parking brake release location? You have to pull a lever that's parallel to the driver's abdomen and located under the headlight switches (below the leftmost aircon vent) to release the said brake. It would be better if the parking brake setup were like that of the Audi A6's, where turning on/off the parking brake is done via a lever at the seven o' clock side of the a/t stick.
Although by itself the Volvo S80 is a great example of opulence, but when ranged against its direct competition this flagship Scandinavian sedan becomes run-of-the-mill luxury.