The Volvo S80 V8 is One of the Coolest Volvos We’ve Ever Driven
No other automaker has metamorphosed quite like Volvo. The Swedish marque's slow crawl from building rugged utilitarian boxes to languishing under Ford turned into a blinding sprint toward full luxury status in 2010 following its acquisition by Chinese automaker Geely. Now, Volvo builds sleek, futuristic cars for the eco-conscious crowd, incorporating a range of small-displacement engines, hybrids, and fully electric powertrains into sculptural designs that look more like renderings than reality. The new Volvo captures today's vehicular zeitgeist and continues to evolve as it marches toward a driverless and electrified future.
I chewed on the idea of this antiseptic future as I roared down near-empty Dallas streets in a Volvo from futures long past. Any pedestrians on the sidewalks were very likely befuddled by the grumbling, burbling soundtrack left in the wake of the sedate white sedan that, from a distance, looks just about like every other handsome, mostly anonymous Volvo produced prior to the Geely takeover.
This paradoxical four-door was a 2010 Volvo S80 V8, a strange, overlooked, and alluring high-point on Volvo's timeline. Yes, for four brief model years, well-to-do buyers could spec an S80 with the same 4.4-liter Yamaha-designed V-8 powering range-topping examples of the contemporary XC90 SUV. In essence, this was Volvo's answer to the E60 BMW 550i and Mercedes-Benz W211 E500, both of which packed similar proportions, equipment, and - most importantly -- eight cylinders.
Strange, I know. In order to fully understand the S80 V8, it helps to realize what type of company Volvo was at that time, the state of the luxury market, and the automaker's goals. Following record sales in the mid-1980s, Volvo's entry-level premium market share eroded with the launch of Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti, along with the growing popularity of both Subaru wagons and the steady rise of the SUV. Ford, seeing an opportunity to expand its Premier Auto Group (PAG) portfolio and snag some sales away from GM's Saab, purchased Volvo for a cool $6.45 billion in 1999 and slotted it in the PAG lineup that already included Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover.
On the surface, this influx of management and cash seemed like a perfect opportunity for Volvo to break into the luxury big leagues, eventually matching the Germans blow for blow. Ford had different plans for Volvo; instead of moving it upmarket, Ford worked to keep Volvo right where it already was in the entry-level premium segment. It diversified the Volvo lineup with many new product lines, but built them on global shared platforms.
The result was a family of inoffensive, mostly clean-cut sedans and eventually SUVs that kept Volvo just under the Germans and Japanese. Still, it's clear clusters of engineers and brand managers fought to keep the spirit of Volvo burning, much like dearly departed Saab under the thumb of General Motors. Volvo remained safety-first, and retained some of that quirky Swedish character that made it so unique to begin with. Very little of the interior componentry was shared with Ford, and some of the larger sedans and SUVs retained a range of powertrains unique to the brand.
Now let's fast-forward to take a look at the luxury market in the mid- to late-2000s. The Germans were only starting to take back market share they had lost to the Japanese in the early 1990s, and the Japanese themselves were dealing with a minor quality control shift that saw Lexus and Infiniti transition from impeccably engineered and well-crafted cars to designs that were friendlier to mass production and platform sharing. For the first time in decades, luxury was defined by more than engine, materials, size, and styling; technology and performance started to take precedence in the early 2000s.
Volvo, hungry for something - anything - to ruin the German's lunch, was given the green light for a tech-heavy full-size SUV to take on the burgeoning luxury SUV market, with extra attention paid to the then new-ish BMW X5. Tapping Volvo for this new SUV made sense; Land Rover was too rugged, Range Rover was too expensive, a Jaguar SUV would be ridiculous (at least back then), and a BMW buyer likely wouldn't even consider any offerings from Lincoln or Mercury.
The resulting 2002 XC90 sold like absolute gangbusters. In 2005, the XC90 begat the aforementioned V-8 engine, and went on to be a popular choice when gas was cheap and automakers played fast and loose with efficiency. Buoyed by the success of the SUV, the second-gen S80 launched with the XC90's eight-cylinder heart as a range-topping engine option.
The so-called B8444S V-8 was developed and built by Yamaha, and despite having suspiciously similar dimensions to the Ford/Yamaha SHO V-8 from 1996, all three companies involved claim the Volvo V-8 is an unrelated, clean-sheet design. Regardless of bloodline, it's a fascinating engine, with a V-6-esque 60-degree bank angle for transverse applications, which Volvo claimed was "helpful in maintaining the frontal crumple zones in the XC90 and thus not compromise on protective safety," according to a Sep. 2004 press release. For its 4.4-liter displacement, the B8444S was also the most compact V-8 produced at that time, and one of the cleanest burning V-8s available, being the first eight-cylinder to meet the competitive Ultra-low-emission vehicle (ULEV II) standard.
No matter what boxes you checked, every S80 V8 had the same power output and drivetrain; a then-heathy 311 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque sent through a standard Haldex all-wheel-drive system and six-speed automatic transmission. According to contemporary tests, this was enough for a 0-60 mph scramble in around 5.6 seconds, a time that is a smidge slower than the equivalent V-8 BMW or Mercedes, but much quicker than most six-cylinder luxury sedans at that time.
To a current Volvo owner, I'm sure this sounds like something out of a funky parallel universe. For one, no matter what 2020 model Volvo you pick, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the largest engine available, with additional hybrid drivetrains offered from top to bottom of the lineup. The new generation of Volvos feel light, delicate, and heavily damped. It's all streamlined, clean-air performance, with one ear to the wall of a Silicon Valley art museum and the other on the trunk of a redwood tree.
The S80 V8 I had in Dallas couldn't be more different. It feels heavy and extremely substantial, with thick-cut styling and an upright stance that was a mainstay of that era. The large wood-and-leather trimmed steering wheel is as meaty as one found in a truck, and the 4,179-pound mass lends a very tangible heft while muscling through traffic. When you're done plodding around, the V-8 up front comes alive, and turns the staid sedan into a rocket-powered battering ram. This, from the same company that recently announced it hopes electric cars make up half of its future sales in 2025.
That's not to say this S80 V8 doesn't succeed at being a luxury sedan - in reality, it's fantastic as a cushy daily cruiser. This 120,000-mile example, approached as a singular entity without comparing and contrasting with equivalent contemporary competitors, stands as an effortlessly comfortable and capable long-distance GT sedan. It's made even more coddling by the optional Executive package, adding aniline leather upholstery, massaging front seats, deep brown walnut trim, and if you spend a bit more, refrigerator compartment, analog clock, and DVD player for the rear occupants.
The dense, swollen leather seats are still extraordinarily comfortable given the mileage, and the acres of dark wood trim covering the dash, wheel, and shifter creates a cozy environment for anything between long distance sprints or simply shuttling family to holiday dinners. The signature floating center stack is covered top-to-bottom in buttons and knobs, making me pine for the days before massive glossy touchscreens became the norm. It's very clear that even under the watchful gaze of Ford, the team at Volvo retained more than a little individuality; the same proprietary font for switchgear and gauges is used in current Volvos, as are the same soft interior lines and flowing surfaces.
As you might have surmised, this is not a press car. I borrowed this enigmatic Swedish hunk from my buddy Clay, who by all accounts is an unabashed Volvo ultra-fan. Aside from owning close to double-digits of different Volvos over the years, he's an unending font of precise Volvo factoids. A large number of Volvos (and other cars) have passed through his hands at an alarming rate, but this one's a keeper. According to him, this is one of the most desirable and interesting cars ever built by the company, and I can't say that I disagree.
It's a fascinating slice of history from an equally fascinating automaker, and I reckon it's going to be a bit of an underappreciated car in the future. I posted a few angles of the S80 on Instagram, and I had a shocking influx of messages from curious onlookers and excited enthusiasts, most of whom informed me they had completely forgotten that existed, and had promptly scoured the ends of the web looking for a clean, low-mileage example for themselves.
Of course, not one of them followed through with any of their searches, and chances are they've already forgotten about it. A flash in the pan, a passing fancy - just like the four model years before the sale to Geely put the kibosh on the S80 V8 for good. Chances are, ten years later, the cleaner, leaner, and quieter Volvo wouldn't have it any other way.