Volvo‘s S80 was big news at its 1998 debut, as it introduced the marque’s new unsquare look and a new, transverse engine, front-wheel-drive P2 platform, which now underpins the V70 (and Cross Country), the S60, and the XC90. But in the intervening years, the S80 has receded into the shadows—not hard to do when you share the playing field with the likes of the Mercedes-Benz E-class, the BMW 5-series, the , and the Lexus GS, among others. North American sales of the S80 have slipped to nearly half their initial numbers. So for this sixth model year, the company has polished its flagship sedan, in the hopes of restoring some of its sparkle. The exterior has been subtly tweaked, with a new grille, new taillights, reshaped side mirrors, and additional chrome, minor changes that nonetheless combine to give the S80 more of a premium car look. Similarly, the interior has received a minor makeover, with new door panels, an optional wood-rim steering wheel, an available navigation system, more color-matched bits and less gray plastic.
The S80 model line-up is essentially the same, with the 194-horsepower S80 2.9 ($37,045) and the twin-turbocharged, 268-horsepower, T6 ($44,525). Both are front-wheel drive, although all-wheel-drive will be added this fall. The S80 Premier ($48,515) replaces last year’s T6 Elite, and is distinguished by its available rear-seat refrigerator (accessed by flipping down the center armrest) and standard dual video monitors (located on the back side of the front headrests). The screens can show DVDs, television, or video games, and operate separately from each other.
We confined our driving to the T6, which shares with its siblings two major chassis enhancements. A new power steering system (by ZF) provides greater precision but still light effort. And a new active damping system, called FOUR-C, brings the technology of Volvo’s sporty R cars to the S80. Although the system shares its name with that in the V70R and S60R, in this application it works somewhat differently. The FOUR-C system in the R cars uses continuously variable dampers, with the driver able to select from three settings: Comfort, Sport, and Advanced. In the S80, where the system is a $995 option, there is no Advanced—no loss, really, since Advanced is almost preposterously stiff. The Comfort and Sport settings are also programmed differently here than on the sporty R models, giving greater priority to a smooth ride. The FOUR-C system in the S80 is unlike some active suspension systems, which ask you to choose between a harsh Sport mode and a wallowy Comfort setting. Here, we found that the Sport mode provided good isolation from impacts on the beat-up pavement in Washington, D.C., while the Comfort setting effectively snubbed dive, squat, and roll in spirited driving in the Virginia countryside. Choosing between the settings quickly becomes a bore. Leave it alone and you find that the system just works. Kind of like the S80 itself. But will that be enough to get it noticed?