The S80's makers have dubbed it `the exciting safe choice'. John Simister can only agree with the `safe' bit
What, no estate car? That's a rich seam of jokes well and truly sabotaged, then. We can't make fun of Volvo drivers if the stereotypical raw material - estate cars, square shapes, high-class secondhand furniture, etc - has been denied to us. But there it is: Volvo's S80, the Swedish company's newest and grandest creation, is available only as a saloon. A rather handsome saloon, too.

At Volvo, rounded is the new angular. We have the British designer, Peter Horbury, to thank for this, a man given the daunting task of making Volvos stylish while remaining visually Volvoid. He began the process with the S40 and V40, continued it with the C70 coupe, and brings the theme to its climax with this S80. What theme? Horbury talks a lot about the "Volvo shoulder", in which the bonnet and boot sit proud of the body sides, whose inward-curving upper edges form the shoulder. It's a device based on one used in Volvos of the 1950s and early 1960s, and it finds maximum new-age expression in the S80's remarkable, scallop-edged tail- lights.

Inside, this grandest of Volvos - it replaces the S90/V90 series, the final flounderings of the old rear-drive "tank" Volvos - is similarly curvy-chunky. There's much wood (not real) and leather (real), provided you specify an uprange version, and an aura of inviting quality not familiar from past big Volvos, which tended to the functional side of comfortable. Neat details abound, as do airbags (it even has these in the roof).

Some samples: the centre pillars contain air vents for the rear passengers; there are cup-holders in the front door pockets, the rear centre armrest and by the gearlever; a broad, retractable "band" in the boot can wrap around luggage to hold it in place; there's a soft light behind the hubs of the instruments' needles, giving an effect like an eclipse of the sun; you select the destination for the air-conditioning's output by pressing the desired body segment of a three-piece diagram of a sitting human; and, best of all, pressing a button on the steering wheel causes an (optional) satellite-navigation screen to rise up out of the dashboard's top, like a submarine breaking the surface of the sea.

Marketing people refer to such details as "surprise-and-delight" features. There should be some "s&d" in the way the Volvo feels to drive, too, because it comes with a hefty six-cylinder engine in a choice of two strengths: 2.9 litres and 204 bhp, or 2.8 litres, two turbochargers and 272bhp. Five- cylinder engines (two petrol, one turbo-diesel) will follow soon. All are mounted across the front of the car, and feed their power to the front wheels. Not since the British Leyland 2200s in their various forms has there been another car with both a transverse engine and six cylinders, a fact that students of motoring trivia will relish.

The 2.9-litre S80, the one I have been driving for the last few days, is uncannily quiet at idle. In fact it's so quiet, and the response to the accelerator is so soggy, that it's very easy to stall. You have to prod the pedal with real conviction to stir the engine into life, and dismiss the first one-third of the pedal's movement as wholly non-contributory to the job in hand. Once into the action zone, however, the engine proves smooth, tuneful and energetic. It needs an automatic transmission, I feel, to spare the driver ignominy and render it stall-proof. One is available, of course.

Pressing that accelerator calls for twice the effort normally needed for the brake pedal. Sneeze, and the Volvo will stand on its nose, or that's how it seems. This mis-matching of efforts is disconcerting, and does dreadful things to your driving flow. So does the anaesthetised steering, which makes the S80 strangely hard to place on the road. This Volvo doesn't lack roadholding; it corners crisply and changes direction smartly. It just doesn't tell you what is going on, unless a sharp bump shatters the relative serenity of normal progress.

So you see that the S80 is a car of conflicts. It has the looks, the quality of finish, the mechanical credentials, but it's a frustratingly interaction-free drive, a virtual-reality Volvo with the sensor pads deactivated. Volvo describes the S80, snappily, as "the exciting safe choice". However, this particular exciting is the new dull. You pay more for rival upmarket transport. But if you enjoy driving, you'll be pleased you spent the extra.

Specifications

VOLVO S80 2.9 SE

Price: pounds 30,780.

Engine: 2,922cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, 204bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 146mph, 0-60 in 8.0sec, 24-29mpg.

RIVALS

Audi A8 2.8: pounds 36,595. Lightweight, high-tech, all aluminium construction and slippery looks. A new, gently revised version has just been revealed.

BMW 728i: pounds 37,545. Not the most distinctive of shapes, but a beautifully engineered vehicle. Discreet, like a good butler.

Jaguar XJ8 3.2: pounds 36,405. Britain's contribution to this class of car has the strongest personality, the least room and the best engine - a V8.

Mercedes-Benz E320: pounds 39,030. This does everything with a sense of authority and without flamboyance. But, though easy to admire, it is hard to love.

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