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Volvo S80 D5 S Road Test

January 2004

I can't help thinking that, despite the amount of work Volvo has put into more compact machines in recent years, it's really at its happiest when designing cars as large as the S80.

There is good work elsewhere in the range, of course, but I do tend to emerge from Volvo tests with the feeling that there's a fairly equal distribution of advantages and disadvantages. My overall impression of the S80 D5 is generally more positive, though some reservations remain

The fact that this car was specifically a D5 was a help right from the start. Having bought in diesel engines for so long, Volvo has made a superb job of its own unit, which gives fine performance and splendid economy (heading towards 40mpg during my time with the car). It's also pleasantly quiet, though that's a question of installation - on the occasion when I opened the bonnet with the engine running I couldn't believe the amount of racket that was going on, but very little of this is transferred to the passenger compartment.

That is by no means the only thing to be said in favour of the S80 interior. There is also a huge amount of space. This is one of the very few cars in which it is possible for me to place the seat too far away from the wheel and pedals for comfort, yet there is also plenty of room in the rear. Back there I felt that legroom was only reasonable, but that may be a reaction to the fact there was so much air between the top of my head and the roof.

There's plenty of room for luggage too, though the compartment is more impressive in terms of length than of depth. You can make it very much longer again by folding down the rear seats, and while we're on that subject I liked the fact that you unclip each seat by pulling on a lever a few inches inboard of the bootlid. Of course, you then have to walk round the car to lean the seats forward, but this is still a more convenient system than any I can remember in which the unclipping is done by a lever mounted on the seat itself.

The Relativity Theory

All the seats are comfortable, and the steering wheel has a useful amount of adjustment in all directions. Another CARkeys bonus point is awarded for the relative weights of all the major controls. We've had cause in the past to criticise the fact that other Volvos require, say, the most delicate touch on the brakes and a smart heave on the throttle pedal. The balance in the S80 is much better, and if I say the clutch could do with being just a shade lighter I'm really only being picky.

I'm not, however, being picky at all in saying that the gear linkage requires a fundamental rethink. Unlike many other manufacturers, Volvo somehow manages to give nearly all its manual transmission cars quite different shift qualities, and they are all deserving of raised eyebrows and tuts of disapproval

In the case of the S80, the shift feels cheap and plasticky, and suggests that the linkage itself is more fragile than I imagine to be the actual case.

The lightly rippled, lightly coloured fascia trim of the test car also gave a quite undeserved impression of downmarketness. That's a pity, because the interior design is otherwise very attractive - interesting without being too wacky, if you see what I mean. The only real criticism here is that the door pockets, which contain loudspeakers for the audio system, are as a result very narrow. They are only suitable for carrying very small and fiddly objects (coins, for example) which are hard to retrieve when you next need them.

For a large car with no sporting pretensions, the S80 D5 handles reasonably well. On complicated roads you're aware that there is a heavy engine under the bonnet, but Volvo has mounted it pretty far back, with a decent proportion of the weight lying between the front wheels rather than ahead of them. Because of this, the car responds quite well when you turn it into a corner, a point which some German manufacturers of front-wheel drive cars might like to note.

That said, the S80 can become sluggish if you try to push it too hard. The suspension people have clearly concentrated on good ride quality, and to some extent they've succeeded - small bumps such as cats' eyes and the like are mopped up very well indeed.

Longer undulations are a different matter entirely. The car requires a moment or two to sort them out, and if you're not careful in these conditions you can find yourself lurching along the road. That's when the handling falls apart, and of course all hope of passenger comfort is briefly lost for the same reason. I think Volvo has to some extent fallen into the common trap of assuming that the softer the suspension, the better the ride quality - slightly firmer damping would almost certainly improve matters considerably.

On perfectly smooth road surfaces this isn't a problem (though how many roads like that are there in your area?) and as a luxurious but economical motorway cruiser the S80 D5 scores very highly. All the same, it does need some detailed adjustments in a lot of areas before it reaches the top of its class.

Price: £22,883
Capacity: 2401cc
Power: 163bhp
0-62mph: 9.8 seconds
Maximum speed: 130mph
Economy: 55.4mpg extra urban, 43.5mpg combined
CO2 emissions: 172g/km
Insurance: Group 13
Volvo figures.

Second opinion:
This is a car which makes agonising between German marques because of the perceived number of Brownie points to be gained by choosing one over the other a rather blindfold exercise. Some way north, the Swedes know exactly what they’re doing in designing cars of this kind, and the Volvo is an impressive long-distance mile-eater. In its ability to provide plenty of space for people and luggage the S80 is an excellent large-scale saloon, and I think that "only reasonable" (see above) as a description of the rear legroom is a miserly understatement. You do know the D5 is a turbo diesel when it’s pulling hard - with 250lb/ft of torque from as low as 1750rpm - but it settles down nicely on the cruise. The economy is certainly quite something, 55mpg extra urban being very frugal for a car this size. I’m gradually warming to the looks of the S80, although the rear-end design still has its awkward areas. And while I’d prefer a different approach to the fascia pattern and colouring, the test car had a certain amount of horizontal carbon-effect trim which helped to hold the whole thing visually together. Overall, there‘s no doubt about the safety features and the superior build quality, although the D5 isn‘t, and isn’t marketed as, one of the sports saloons in the S80 range.

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