The next big Volvo

The new S80 isn't going to win any prizes for original design. And while it's only a small leap ahead of its predecessor, it's still the company's best big saloon ever, says John Simister

Model: Volvo S80 3.2
Price from: £30,955 (range spans £24,375 to £41,725)
Engine: 3,192cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, 238bhp at 6,200rpm, 236lb ft at 3,200rpm
Transmission: six-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 149mph, 0-60 in 7.4sec, 28.8mpg official average
CO2: 234g/km

This is the next big Volvo. And you thought it was the previous one. Have another look: the new S80 has a rounder snout, with the Euro NCAP cut-line between bonnet and the giant buffer-bumper that is becoming endemic on new cars. It has a chrome strip across the boot, the doors have lost their pre-dented look, and there's no longer a third side window. That means the side view is now that of an enlarged S60, not an even-more-enlarged S40.

Joking apart, the old S80's style lasted well during its seven years. The new car actually looks smaller then its predecessor despite being an inch longer in the wheelbase and an inch wider overall, but it's a trick of the eye brought about by the short-bonnet proportions. The result is a handsome saloon that looks less ostentatious than its rivals: think higher-management transport for the non-attention-seeking buyer.

Volvo hopes these buyers will be swayed by the good looks and satisfying driving qualities - attributes that scored low in reasons to buy the old one, Volvo's research said. The usual Volvo safety/comfort/durability stuff continues, so with its new sexiness, this S80 should be close to irresistible. That's Volvo's aspiration, anyway.

Is it achieved? The style you judge for yourself: I like it. The driving dynamics get a head start thanks to choice ingredients from the Ford empire, specifically much of the new S-Max/Galaxy platform that will underpin the next Mondeo. It might be dangerous ground, building a "premium" car on a non-premium base, and Volvo's Jaguar stablemate took a lot of stick for doing just that with the X-type. But if the engineering is done the right way, and the final car isn't cheapened by the shared technologies, it's hard to see where exactly the problem lies.

Expediently shared bits can go too far - last week's Cadillac BLS illustrates that - but we've seen how good the new-generation Ford platform can be under an MPV. That bodes well for a version wearing Volvo clothes and - crucially - powered by Volvo engines.

Apart from the top model, that is, which features a Yamaha-built but Volvo-specific V8 engine already seen in the XC90 SUV. This 4.4-litre, 315bhp unit, matched to a four-wheel-drive transmission, is aimed at the US market, Volvo's biggest, where it has been disadvantaged by European rivals offering a V8 in this size car.

It's an unusual V8, thanks to the narrow 60-degree angle (V8s usually set the banks at 90 degrees). The narrower engine takes up less space when cross-mounted, allowing more crumple room in a crash, but it needs a pair of balancer shafts and a sophisticated crankshaft to make it run smoothly.

Which it does, emitting a throbby V8. The ample pace is managed via a six-speed automatic transmission with a Tiptronic-type manual control but no shift buttons on the steering wheel. What you do get on the back of the wheel is a collection of buttons for the sat-nav: confusing at first, as it's all done by touch, but fine once you're used to it. The V8 is rapid - 155mph and 6.3 seconds to 60mph - but the only way you can sense it has four-wheel drive is by what it doesn't do. It doesn't scrabble for grip or tug at the steering wheel; it doesn't spin its front wheels on a brisk getaway. Various buttons and menus suggest opportunities for much driving fun, but the S80 is much too polite for that.

Three of the buttons let you choose comfort, sport or "advanced" settings for the Four-C adaptive suspension. The first two alter the damping according to the forces acting on the car, keeping it comfortable or sporty as required. "Advanced" converts the suspension into a firmer, conventional system. Unlike the smaller S60R, in which none of these same three modes was much good, the S80's system works well - if almost too subtly. Differences between the extremes are not massive, but the big Volvo always rides well.

You can also alter the weighting of the steering. Boulevard cruise mode is finger-light and vague, the middle one feels about right for a big, comfortable car, and the weightiest mode fits well with the forces acting elsewhere, even if it still doesn't give true road feel.

In fully firm road-attack mode, the S80 handles tidily and gets on capably. It feels less "connected" than the Ford MPVs, but maybe that's one way of distinguishing it. Few people will buy the V8 in Europe, though; they'll go for the D5 turbodiesel (163 or 185bhp); the 2.5-litre, five-cylinder petrol engine with a turbocharger and 200bhp; or the new in-line, Welsh-built straight-six of 3.2 litres.

This is the best engine. It has variable valve timing and lift using a system similar to Porsche's VarioCam; it's very compact because the ancillary components are mounted in the otherwise wasted space above the gearbox; and it delivers 238bhp. A 285bhp turbo version arrives next year.

It's very smooth, and it pulls creamily. It, too, has a six-speed automatic (lesser S80s can be had as manuals), and the power isn't too much for front-wheel drive to handle, although both this and the D5 will be offered later with four-wheel drive. Being lighter than the V8, this S80 3.2 is more agile and a better bet for someone who enjoys driving.

Can these S80s compete with mighty German rivals and their exquisite interiors? The cabin is roomy and very comfy, and Volvo says an S80 has about £1,000 worth more equipment than a comparably-priced German car. That same amount will buy you an active cruise control and collision mitigation system - it alters your speed to maintain a safe distance and adds to your braking effort if it senses an obstruction ahead - but we've seen this technology from Mercedes and Lexus.

You can specify a system to alert you to a car in your over-the-shoulder blind spot, called BLIS. You get an electric parking brake, and you can have a clever keyless-entry system that tells you if you've locked your car or if it has been spirited away provided it is (or was) within 100 metres.

But the air of quality isn't as pervasive as in the German alternatives. The rear doors resonate when pulled shut, the stalks feel hollow and the graphics on the information screen look basic. I like the backless, "floating" centre console, like the S40's but grander and extending further back.

So, a better S80? Yes, but it's hardly a leap. It merely catches up with its best rivals. Still, if you want to buy a big Volvo saloon, there has never been a better one.

The rivals

Audi A6 3.2 FSI: from £31,040

We've got used to the Audi's fierce front and dramatic styling now, and this version's V6 engine is an efficient direct-injection unit. It's very nicely made, pleasing both to drive and to be in.

BMW 530i: from £32,645

Public opinion may be mellowing towards the BMW's 'flame-surfaced' looks, and it is still a fine car to drive. Ride can be firm, though, and the iDrive control system remains frustrating.

Lexus GS 300: from £30,400

Another direct-injection V6 powers the svelte and stylish GS. It's laden with feel-good technology and is truly beautifully made. Rear-wheel drive gives it much of the BMW's driving appeal, too.

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