Challenging the might of German executive cars isn't easy, but Volvo's willing to try with the new S80
By offering a blend of performance and luxury wrapped in a package that offers something a little different from the German brands, Volvo's V8-engined S80 is the most convincing rival to the traditionally dominant executive makes. Entry-level prices are appealing, too - petrol and diesel models are priced from £24,375 and £24,400 respectively.
A true rival to the established elite of the Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5-Series and Audi A6 has yet to emerge. But, with the arrival of a new Volvo S80, however, all that may change. Since being launched in 1998, its mix of comfort, style and safety has found a following keen for something different.
The new S80, set to hit the road in September, is the same length as its predecessor, but 27mm wider and 34mm taller. Its wheelbase is longer, too, creating a more imposing stance on the road, while the flanks are now convex rather than concave. With the extra space these changes have created, there's more room for all occupants. A host of other improvements include heated rear seats, Bluetooth wireless connectivity and an electronic parking brake. There is a fresh engine line-up, too, that's crowned by the eagerly anticipated V8 which will soon appear in the XC90 SUV.
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The 4.4-litre unit transforms the S80's appeal. Acceleration is impressive at all speeds, and the powerplant makes a fantastic noise when pushed hard. Mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox with manual override, the S80 is refined and fun to drive.
We drove the SE Sport spec model, which features the company's Four-C chassis. It has three settings - Comfort, Sport and Advanced - so drivers can choose their preferred ride and handling set-up. In Comfort mode, the electronically controlled suspension is at its softest, while throttle and steering responses are also dulled. Although suited to long-distance cruising, the option is unlikely to impress enthusiastic drivers, due to the body roll and poor steering feedback.
Sport offers a far better compromise. Although the ride is firmer, road bumps do not become an uncomfortable problem. The steering is slightly heavier, and the throttle response is sharpened. In Advanced, the ride is set hardest and the controls are at their most responsive. But it does not match the S80's character, and the car feels uncompromising rather than exciting.
Ultimately, the new Volvo cannot quite match the sporting edge delivered by the likes of BMW, nor can it equal the seemingly effortless chassis control of Mercedes. However, these are not the huge criticisms that they may at first appear. With all-wheel drive as standard on the V8, the S80 has plenty of grip and is an impressive motorway cruiser, but it's still enjoyable on twisty minor roads. As long as it isn't rushed too much, it's a rewarding drive.
Also new to the line-up is a 238bhp 3.2-litre petrol engine, which is due to appear in the S60, too. There's a proven 200bhp 2.5 turbo, as well, but the big sellers will be the two 2.4-litre diesels, one of which is the impressive D5.
The question remains, though, will busy executives be pleased to be seen behind the wheel of the new S80? We certainly think so, as long as the drivers in question are happy to be noticed in something a little different.