GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Volvo's traditional boxy chrome grille decorates virtually every second car seen on the streets of Gothenburg, an industrial port city on Sweden's western coast and headquarters for the Swedish automaker, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the country's economic output.
With so many Volvos evident on Sweden's roads, some dating back decades, one might suspect a test drive conducted in the prototype of a curvy new Volvo S80 flagship sedan would hardly attract attention — but it does.
Heads turn, fingers point, and eyes follow the vehicle wherever we steer it. And when we park it at the port of Marstrand during a tour through the rocky Bohuslan archipelago, pedestrians come up and surround this striking new Volvo. Cameras emerge from pockets, while people pose in front of the car’s bolder-looking front grille with its distinctive diagonal chrome slash. Countless photos are snapped, one after another.
Obviously, Swedes recognize a dramatic new Volvo when they see it, and this car certainly seems to excite them.
S80 stands out
The fact that this midsize sedan also has a slew of shapely curves and contours in its sheet metal — in stark contrast to the typical tanklike shapes of previous Volvos — causes the S80 to stand out, even in a veritable sea of Volvos. Swedes also take note of the car because Volvo has invested heavily in its creation, betting its future on successfully competing against some of the finest midsize performance sedans in the world.
As the front-wheel-drive replacement for the aged rear-wheel-drive Volvo S90 (960), this new S80 has the most curvaceous exterior ever crafted by Volvo. The sensuous skin carefully conceals a luxurious interior trimmed in leather and fit for five. Look beyond the slick exterior style to find agile handling traits and powerful performance.
For powerplants, we have our choice of a 2.9-liter inline six-cylinder engine that is either naturally aspirated or turbocharged. The S80 also comes with a sophisticated chassis, set up to deliver precise performance characteristics, not to mention some of the most advanced automotive safety systems on the planet. The car is tight and athletic in action yet rich and sensuous in feel and tone. In a word, the S80 is simply stunning.
1999 Volvo S80
The S80 gets shipped to the United States as a 1999 issue, available as either the base S80 2.9, priced from $35,820, or a turbocharged T-6, which starts at $40,385.
Volvo steps up safety
The S80 contains several innovative active and passive safety systems. First of all, a complicated system of airbags envelops riders. Driver and front passenger get front airbags that shield against a frontal impact, plus seat-mounted side airbags to cushion a side crash. In addition, long curtain airbags mount in the roof and extend along each side above front and rear doors to protect the heads of those in front and rear seats from a side strike or rollover.
For added protection, the car features a rigid body, with high-strength steel accounting for half of all structural components ringing the passenger compartment, and has crumple zones integrated in front and rear, as well as strong reinforcements for critical side areas vulnerable to side intrusions. To guard against whiplash effect from rear-end impacts, front seat backs incorporate innovative mechanisms that move the seat rearward during impact and reduce by half the acceleration forces induced on a rider's back and neck.
Turning to the active safety items, the S80 comes with quick-response rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes tied to a computerized anti-lock system, as well as a traction control mechanism that modulates engine torque flowing to the front drive wheels.
Brakes also use a force distribution system that monitors behavior of rear wheels in relation to the front ones and then controls braking force electronically to match the degree of braking and on-board load. Net effect: Full directional stability and steering ability is maintained at all times, regardless of load weight or how hard brakes may be applied.
Plenty of power
Getting back to the powerplants, both of the S80’s six-cylinder choices come mated to a smooth four-speed automatic transmission. The S80 2.9 features the naturally aspirated 2.9-liter aluminum six, which generates 201 horsepower. A light-pressure twin turbo 2.8-liter inline six for the S80 T-6 runs the power curve clear to 268 hp. With high torque achieved at relatively low engine speed and the typically pesky turbo lag minimized, this powertrain impresses with its quiet demeanor and quick surges when passing.
1999 Volvo S80
The electronic transmissions, developed with aid from General Motors and Aisin Warner of Japan, employ adaptive gearshift patterns that eliminate the need for separate economy and sport modes.
For the T-6, a Geartronic add-on permits shift-it-yourself maneuvers by simply throwing the gear selector lever to the left and locking it in the gate. Push the lever forward to bump up a gear, tip it rearward to back down.
The unibody frame of Volvo’s S80 boosts torsional stiffness to set up a firm foundation for the car’s suspension elements, borrowed from Volvo's 850 and the S70 successor. These include a MacPherson-type strut and lower link arm on each side up front and a rear independent multilink arrangement fitted to an aluminum subframe.
We push the S80 through tortuous road tests and it remains solidly anchored to pavement, with body maintaining a level stance; there's little lateral lean noted during turning maneuvers and seemingly no nose dive when standing on brakes hard nor any dip of tail during a sudden acceleration. It all adds up to an active but controllable car capable of sporty moves and high performance, yet the long wheelbase and refined suspension create plush ride sensations with the distinct flavor of luxury.
A thoughtful passenger cabin brings extremely comfortable front bucket seats and a rear bench for three. Power controls all functions for movement of front seats, doors, windows and mirrors, which have interior heat elements. Also, extensive security measures apply — perimeter lighting, programmable remote alarm system, and electronic immobilizer.
Turning to the car’s entertainment features, there's a 100-watt sound system with eight speakers and an in-dash CD and cassette decks.
Options include leather upholstery for S80 2.9, a power glass sunroof, Volvo's navigation system and dynamic stability
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