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The Volvo S80 is a comfortable way to cover long distances, but it fails to excite in a way the class best can

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Sometimes, different is enough. There are those who want an executive car but don’t want a BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 or Mercedes-Benz E-Class. So they opt for a Volvo S80 (now Volvo S90), a Jaguar XF, or a Lexus GS. Sometimes those cars are excellent, sometimes they’re not. But they are different.

The old Volvo S80 was good enough, in its own way. Its cabin was airy, spacious and light – almost Ikea-like – and offered just about the highest levels of comfort in the business. If you wanted dynamism, though, you’d be disappointed.

What the S80 lacks in dynamics, it more than makes up for with comfort

Evidently Volvo was happy with the image the original S80 purveyed, because it kept this generation looking very similar. Peter Horbury was behind the designs of both cars, as well as the Volvo ECC concept of 1992, the styling of which the S80 continues to draw heavily from.

Volvo reckons the dimensions give the big saloon a more imposing stance and greater presence. See old and new S80s side by side and you almost believe it’s true. And this is a neatly designed, attractive car. But alone, the new S80 barely registers the interest of passers-by. When Volvo created the Volvo S90, it was a big departure from the understated, demure look of the S80 for a more elegant and striking looking saloon and estate.

It’s necessary to view the Volvo S80 with a sense of proportion. This car is never going to be an Autocar driver’s favourite. But it could make a case for business drivers who rarely leave the motorway because they need to get where they are going.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volvo S80 rear
Curves help to disguise the S80's bulk well. It looks elegant too

The Peter Horbury-designed shape of the Volvo S80 will surely go down in the history books as one of the least evolved cars. Not that it needed much evolution.

It was, and remains, a handsome car, dominated by the waterfall-effect styling on the bonnet and bootlid, which hides much of the bulk at the front and rear of the car.

With a drag figure of 0.29, the S80 is pretty slippery

That line continues along the side, which makes the car appear lower. The result is a surprisingly sleek saloon that marked Volvo’s first move away from boxy design, but is one of the last to be brought in line with the latest Volvo design language.

Volvo buyers are usually after a slightly left-field choice, so don’t expect stacks of chrome bling, massive grilles or 20-inch alloy wheels; the exterior design echoes the car’s unflustered demeanour. There’s an understated appeal that’s missing from the S80’s German rivals in particular. If you’re looking for a car that will go about its business without shouting about it, the Volvo S80 is a worthy contender for your pounds, over the more predictable BMW 5 Series, Audi A6s and Mercedes-Benz E-Classes of the world

R-Design models feature additional design details for a slightly sportier look, and recent changes across the range include LED indicators integrated into the door mirrors and redesigned headlights.

INTERIOR

Volvo S80 interior
Nice change for a relaxed executive car to bin the wood and get scuffed ally

Inside, the Volvo S80 feels instantly relaxing. The cabin is bright and airy – especially with the light leather of our test car and the cross-brushed aluminium trim. It’s spacious in the back and front.

Most of the cabin controls are fine, but there are four rotary knobs – two each side – for the stereo and cabin temperature. And it’s all too easy to grab the wrong one when your concentration is focused on the road. You want Smooth FM and get a chilled cabin. You want TalkSport and get a blast of unwanted hot air. Come to think of it…

The Sensus infotainment system allows the car to be locked or unlocked remotely

Otherwise, the S80’s cabin is beyond criticism. The driving position, particularly the steering wheel, is hugely adjustable, while rear passengers don’t want for comfort or space. All seats are large enough that you can shift yourself around in them, fending off long-distance aches and pains before they’ve even emerged. This is a cabin designed with long-distance travelling very much in mind.

The S80 is fitted with the Volvo Sensus infotainment system, which offers much of the secondary instrumentation on a five-inch or seven-inch screen. If the multimedia system is specified, it can display information and images from the navigation system, phone, reversing camera, panorama camera, DVD player or digital TV.

Eight out of 10 S80 buyers specify leather seats, and the soft hide is wonderful to the touch. If the car is equipped with power-operated front seats, they can be optionally upholstered with perforated and ventilated leather, which is excellent during particularly hot or cold weather.

The S80's upgrade - the Volvo S90 - follows on the luxury theme garnered by its predecessor but comes with a modern minimalistic interior something that the Volvo XC90 has managed to do very well.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo S80 side profile
Small capacity petrol and diesel units work surprisingly well in the S80, which is best suited to cruising

Given the strong likelihood of a Volvo S80 spending its days hacking along the nation’s motorways, it is surprising how wide the choice of petrol engines is.

The T4 is a punchy 1.6-litre four-pot that produces 180bhp at 5700rpm and 178lb ft, with overboost taking this figure to 199lb ft. Performance figures for this engine are equally impressive, with an 8.5sec 0-62mph and a 137mph top speed.

The S80 is particularly adept at racking up big miles in big comfort

The smooth 2.0-litre T5 cuts the acceleration time to 7.5sec and raises the top speed to 143mph, thanks to 240bhp and 236lb ft, while the 304bhp, 324lb ft T6 offers up 6.7sec and 155mph benchmarks.

Impressive stuff, but it’s the diesels that are the important engines here. The range kicks off with a 1.6-litre DRIVe model. While down on power and torque on many of its competitors (113bhp and 199lb ft), it is happy at motorway speeds, even if it takes a while to get there. More importantly, its 119g/km CO2 emissions rating has some very positive effects on tax.

The D3 is the low-power version of the D5’s 2.5-litre unit and is the big seller across most of Volvo’s models. It’s a respectable performer, and because it’s a five-cylinder unit it makes a nice noise, even if there is often too much of it.

Rounding out the engine line-up is the D5, which is punchy at low revs and in the mid-range. There is a healthy plateau of torque from 1500-3250rpm, making for smooth, effortless urge until the power starts to tail off around 4000rpm.

With any engine, the S80’s performance is perfectly adequate for the kind of driving it’s designed for. It impresses, without shouting, even if you’ll rarely feel like you’re making rapid progress.

If you are after a petrol option in the Volvo S90 then be prepared for a disappointment, with Volvo opting for a range of four-cylinder 2.0-litre diesels which may be followed by a hybrid unit.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volvo S80 front quarter
The ride is absorbant around town, and composed at speed

Volvo has made the S80's major controls light and easy to use. Step-off from a standstill is soft, and there’s a set of progressive brakes. In town, the ride is reasonably absorbent, though you’re not quite as isolated from sharp ridges as you could be.

At motorway speeds the ride is very good, straight-line stability is beyond question and noise levels are low. Add in those luscious seats and you have a car whose touring range will be limited more by the capacity of your bladder than that of the fuel tank. 

On the face of it, the S80's chassis will leave you cold. Dig deeper though and there are reserves of composure that come as a huge surprise.

So, comfy and spacious on the long haul, which means it’s rubbish on the twisties, right? Not entirely – well, as far as R-Design models go. Strangely, the more you put in, the more you get back. At four or five-tenths the S80 R-Design is fairly uninvolving.

The steering offers little feedback, the gearbox still isn’t listening and those comfy seats do little to hold you in place. But ask more serious questions of the chassis’ ability and it turns out that it does have most of the answers.

Body movements are very tightly controlled; it’s more agile than you’d ever give it credit for, and grips strongly. 

The story is a little squidgier for non-R-Design models, but there’s an unexpected amount of poise and body control. It’s never going to match a rear-drive Jaguar XF or BMW for entertainment, but the S80 is actually a relatively fun way to attack a B-road.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo S80
The S80 has appeal for drivers who spend their days on the motorway

Every model in the Volvo S80 range comes with a comprehensive equipment list. All models come with cruise control, Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system and an exceptional amount of safety kit.

Surprisingly, the S80 hasn’t been Euro NCAP crash tested yet, but we see few reasons why it shouldn’t perform as well as the V70, with which it shares many components.

The lack of a genuinely premium badge hurts residual values

Volvo’s City Safety is fitted as standard across the range. The system reduces the severity of (or entirely avoids) low-speed rear-end collisions at speeds of up to 18mph.

The 1.6-litre DRIVe is the running cost champion. With emissions of 119g/km, it is one of the cleanest models in its class, and an official figure of 62.8mpg on the combined cycle keeps running costs low. The D3 isn’t far behind with a combined figure of 67.3mpg and emissions of 129g/km.

Where the Volvo S60 appears more costly is when it comes to selling it. Despite costing around £3000 less than a BMW 520d Efficient Dynamics, it’ll be worth almost £6000 less after three years.

Maintenance costs are kept to a minimum, with longer-than-usual service intervals of two years or 18,000 miles.

VERDICT

4 star Volvo S80
The S80 represents a left-field choice in the exec car market. It's particularly appealing for business drivers

It’s difficult to sum up the Volvo S80 without stating that it’s a credible alternative to its German rivals. It’s priced keenly, comfortable and understated and the 1.6-litre DRIVe model is exceptionally cheap to run.

The D3 and D5 diesels are worthy options too, and there are few who would say the engines’ five-cylinder burble doesn’t appeal. But as refined and smooth as the petrol powerplants are, the performance they offer doesn’t warrant the running costs, particularly given the S80’s impressive ability to cover huge distances in a single sitting.

Sometimes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But not here.

However, it is still an alternative choice and has a long way to go before it is considered the default choice in this segment of the market.

The main problem is that while the chassis offers a decent level of entertainment, you need to put an awful lot in before you get something back, and in a class dominated by quality rear-drive saloons from Germany, that’s a shame.

Nevertheless, the S80 will have genuine appeal for buyers looking for a left-field choice that blends a fine interior and sublime cruising capability, particularly considering its potential as an executive car that’s within the grasp of business drivers. But now it has been superceded by the Volvo S90 is a suitable replacement, with its supreme motorway cruising ability still intact just in a more appealing wrapper.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volvo S80 2006-2016 First drives