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Volvo S80

Volvos are often thought of as the automotive equivalent of sensible shoes: safe, practical and conservative. But things are changing. The recent introduction of the C70 coupe and convertible was the beginning, but now there's the revolutionary S80, a front-wheel drive, four-door sedan so hot you wonder if someone put jalapenos in the recipe for Swedish meatballs. It replaces the aging, rear-wheel drive S90. Volvo says this totally new car is "the culmination of everything the company has learned about the art of carmaking for the last 27 years,'' and it shows. You will notice immediately that it looks different. The boxy look so often favored by Volvo is gone, replaced by a rounder, sleeker style that slips through the air with a minimum of fuss. Its aerodynamic efficiency is reflected in the 0.28 coefficient of drag, among the lowest for a production car. A consequence of this slipperiness is better fuel economy and less noise in the cabin at highway speeds.

There are two versions, the base model (base price $36,395) and the T6 (base price $40,960). Both are powered by transversely mounted, inline 6-cylinder engines that sport dual-overhead-cams (DOHCs), variable valve timing and four valves per cylinder. The one in the base car is a 2.9-liter and puts out 201 horsepower. The one in the T6 is a 2.8-liter, and it sparkles with 268 horsepower. I sampled the top-of-the-line twin-turbo T6 from Volvo's press fleet which was not only sporty and fast, but as tight as a newlywed's budget and as stout as a brick warehouse. The interior looked like a high-tech office but was as comfortable as the well-worn couch in your family room. While other Volvos may not have the most user-friendly interiors, this one is great. The center console is angled so that it is easily read, and switches have large, soft knobs. The seat heater buttons are mounted on the right side of the center console, which is a bit of a reach. The radio uses an unconventional system of knobs to change stations and bands, but it was a breeze once I read the manual to see how it worked. A gray, rubberlike texture covers the center of the dash, while a strip of dark wood is used as an accent around the upper part of the cabin.

The S80 is built on a 109.9-inch wheelbase, and has an overall length of 189.8 inches. Five people can fit inside, and the trunk is generous. Sizewise, it is comparable to the Mercedes-Benz E320, Lexus GS300 and BMW 540i. The T6 uses two small turbochargers because they respond quicker than one large one, resulting in the throttle response of a larger, non-turbo aspirated power plant. Step into the throttle gently and you're greeted with a pleasing surge of power. Stomp it, however, and you're rewarded with strong acceleration. Continuously variable valve timing also enables this engine to have a broad power band so that it drives bigger than it is. A Geartronic automatic transmission accompanies the T6 engine. This unit enables the driver to slip the lever to one side and change gears manually for more control. Similar to Porsche's Tiptronic and Chrysler's AutoStick, Geartronic is an appealing feature for those who like the control of a manual in some occasions and the ease of an automatic in others.

Volvo has long been known for its emphasis on safety, and the S80 takes that to a new level. They say the stiffer body structure does a better job of protecting passengers in a crash. Front and side airbags are standard, but they are supplemented by two inflatable curtains, one on each side, that deploy from the ceiling and protect occupants' heads in a side impact. These curtains are stowed in the headliner above the doors. They remain inflated for three seconds, which, Volvo says, provides added protection from secondary impacts and helps keep occupants from being thrown from the vehicle.

An additional safety feature is a whiplash protection system built into the seats. In the event of a rear-end collision, this system helps cushion the impact while the upper part of the seat moves up and forward to provide extra support for the head and neck. Anti-lock brakes as well as the Stability and Traction Control (STC) aid traction in poor weather conditions and contribute to safety as well. Volvo's previous traction control system only worked below 25 mph, while STC works to stop a spinning wheel at any speed. Large rotors for the disc brakes on all four wheels account for impressive stopping power. Some drivers might even think they are overly sensitive, but I like the security they create.

Volvo indicates that the S80 is the first of a family of vehicles that will carry them into the next century. It is such a tight, solid platform, with absolutely no squeaks or flexing of the body, that it provides them an excellent base for more products to come.

Price

The base price of the T6 is $40,960. Options on our test consisted of leather upholstery, power sunroof, in-dash CD player, walnut wood trim and an interior movement sensor. The sticker price was $44,715. Warranty: Four years or 50,000 miles.

Point: The S80 is a considerable departure from the styling of previous Volvos. But it also offers great seats, a tight body structure, innovative safety features and invigorating performance.

Counterpoint: Figuring out how to work the radio required reading the manual, but it was simple when I figured it out.

Vehicle Type:

front-drive sedan, four-door, five-passenger

Base Price:

$40,860

Engine Type:

2.8-liter, 6-cyl.

Power (SAE net):

268-hp

Transmission:

automatic

Wheelbase:

109.9 inches

Length:

189.8 inches

Curb Weight:

3,682 pounds

EPA fuel economy, city driving:

18 city, 27 hwy

 

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