Swedish cars seem to have a habit of evolving very slowly. Volvo's characteristic sturdy, boxy shape seemed to last an age until it was all change a few years ago when the current S80 was introduced.
It seemed radical at the time, and also quite elegant. However, the S80 has now been freshened up with subtle detail changes, setting off the whole evolution process once again, and the range has two new petrol engines.
Volvo also felt that for a car competing with the finest Germany has to offer, in the shape of the BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-class and Audi A6, the interior quality needed to be better.
There are also small alterations to the front and rear styling, which Volvo says gives the car a more elegant appearance.
The S80 has always had a reputation as a roomy and comfortable cruiser. It is smooth but dynamically flawed with steering more suited to wafting along boulevards than attacking challenging roads.
However, the S80 now comes with the option of the Four-C (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) adjustable suspension, a version of that used in the S60 R and V70 R high-performance cars.
Damping is adjusted continuously according to the road quality, with a comfort bias. However, a 'sport' mode can be selected that is aimed at sharpening up the S80's act.
The Four-C system receives input from a number of units. Dynamic body control is supposed to provide a magic carpet ride, other systems monitor and control pitch and dive, bump and rebound, speed and load dependency. The system provides up to 500 reading impulses per second and is always on, regardless of which mode is selected.
New steering promises to be more responsive than in the S80's previous incarnation, with the option of speed dependent steering on all but Bi-Fuel models (which also do without the option of Four-C).
Compared with most rivals where saloon variants outsell estates, the S80 seems to suffer at the hands of the V70 in the executive car sector (two-and-a-half times as many V70s were sold last year compared to the S80), which is a legacy of Volvo's eminence as a builder of estate cars.
Despite the saloon segment decreasing, S80 sales have held up well, increasing last year from 2001. They are now just hovering below the 4,000 mark. Fleet sales made up 62% of Volvo S80 sales last year, helped by improved availability of the potent, yet frugal, D5 common rail diesel engine, now the volume seller in the range.
Volvo's figures show that 35% of S80 drivers own their own business, while 29% are executives or senior management, with 8% other professionals. Style was the most popular reason given for people's choice, followed by safety, comfort and reliability, while 38% of customers list golf among their hobbies and interests.
Hugh Reid, managing director of Volvo Car UK, said: 'The S80 has always represented style, space and luxury, and been the most distinctive executive saloon in its class. Now it has added refinements to keep it fresh, more desirable and more rewarding to drive. With the new S80, Volvo will continue to make its mark on the prestige saloon market.'
Behind the wheel
GLANCE at the latest S80 and the number of detail changes to the car probably wouldn't register at all.
Gone is the 'waterfall' grille treatment (the most obvious change), although unlike other models in the range to get a new grille, the S80's is dark grey rather than black. There are chrome door handles and a few other chrome highlights on the bodywork, while the door mirrors have been redesigned to improve airflow around the side of the car and keep the windows cleaner.
The rear end is slightly lower, with a one-piece steel boot lid replacing the aluminium/plastic version on the previous model, while the rear light clusters are reduced in size, with LED brake lights filling the lower portion and rear lights at the top, accentuating the 'shoulder' profile.
Inside, there are new door panels and a darker plastic finish for the centre console that makes the controls and displays easier to read.
The instruments are the same style as the Volvo XC90 or high-performance R cars, depending on the model, while there is a new premium audio system offered, and new aluminium or walnut inlays for the dashboard and doors.
The interior was always inviting, offering more space than most in this class and the seats are the most comfortable you would find in any car – as relaxing as your favourite armchair.
Only the D5 and T6 models were available on the international launch in Washington DC, and the D5 models were fitted with the optional five-speed automatic transmission (few customers choose manual S80s).
The D5 offers almost as much torque as the petrol T6 but with acceptable fuel economy (36.2mpg for the D5 auto as opposed to 25mpg for the T6), the engine note is subdued and the five-speed transmission is responsive. The T6, with a four-speed automatic transmission, has a greater sense of urgency when pressing on.
The steering (speed-dependent on our test car) is vastly improved on the previous model, turning in a respectable, controlled performance in sport mode. Where the outgoing car failed to offer any useful information on what was happening up-front, the new steering is communicative and allows the driver to press on with a greater degree of confidence.
Barrel into a bend with a tightening radius (as we did on our approach to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia), hit the brakes and twist on some lock and the steering weights up, allowing you to hold a consistent line. Accelerate and exceed the level of grip and the front tyres scrub off some speed by edging wide. The adaptive damping keeps a lid on body roll in sport mode, while in comfort mode, the various railway crossings we traversed were well smothered.
THE S80 might not have the poise of a BMW 5-series, nor the image of a Mercedes-Benz E-class, but with the Four-C adjustable suspension system fitted it is a vastly improved drive and remains a comfortable and competent executive saloon.
|Volvo S80 fact file|
|2.4 140*||2.4 170||2.0T||2.5T||2.9 auto||T6 auto||D5|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||138/4,500||168/5,900||178/5,300||207/5,000||193/5,200||268/5,200||161/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||162/3,750||170/4,500||177/2,200||236/1,500||207/3,900||280/1,800||251/1,750|
|Max speed (mph):||127 (auto: 124)||137 (134)||140 (134)||146 (140)||140||155||130 (130)|
|0-62 (sec):||10.5 (11.4)||9.0 (9.9)||9.1 (9.8)||7.3 (7.7)||8.9||7.2||9.8 (10.2)|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||31.4 (29.1)||31.0 (28.8)||30.1 (28.8)||30.4 (28.2)||25.9||25.0||43.5 (36.2)|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||215 (232)||217 (235)||223 (246)||222 (239)||259||272||172 (207)|
|Service intervals (miles):||12,000||197,619||-7.5||876,276||866,182||1.2|