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U.S.A.:Same look, better ride for Volvo S80

Adjustable chassis adds performance and comfort

By Dan Lienert / Special to The Detroit News

S80 updates
Optional adjustable chassis
Available all-wheel drive
Aerodynamic improvements
Chrome accents inside and out
New options include refrigerator, navigation system, reverse warning system, 17-inch alloy wheels, more
Source: Volvo

WASHINGTON --If you go to the Volvo S80 Owners Club discussion group at yahoo.com, you'll find it's pretty sleepy. In the past year, about the only exchange that stands out from more typical conversations about routine maintenance conjured up images of the movie "Star Wars." It began with one person writing, "I have a light saber," which elicited a recommendation to visit "lightsaberreplicas.com," which appears to be defunct.

Volvo S80 owners are low-key, but quirky.

The minimal online traffic suggests that the biggest changes to the S80 -- a new, adjustable chassis and available four-wheel drive -- will play well with drivers who probably prefer their car's look be left alone, but who value the increased performance and comfort of an advanced chassis.

For Volvo, the Swedish arm of Ford Motor Co., the new S80 is an overhaul to the flagship sedan the automaker originally released in September 1998. Production of the 2004 S80 began in March and the vehicle arrived on dealer lots in May.

Volvo expects that the button-controlled chassis -- which features "comfort" and "sport" settings (but not the super-stiff "advanced" setting from Volvo's hot-rod R cars) -- will go into production in August. All-wheel drive should be available later this year.

The new S80 does not look much different, featuring only minor cosmetic changes such as smaller tail lamps, a new instrument cluster, and chrome pieces on places like the door handles. New options include a reverse warning system, more powerful bi-xenon headlamps, and a stability control system that is standard with the turbocharged engine option.

Another standard feature with the turbo engine is Volvo OnCall Plus telematics. The information service complements a navigation system and, on the Premier model, twin rear-seat DVD screens.

You can spike the back seat's swank quotient even more with an optional refrigerator in the arm rest. Despite such accoutrements, however, the interior still has some junk, like too much black plastic -- a perennial Volvo issue.

But the vehicle drives pretty well. It feels powerful, and the "sport" setting of the new chassis makes the car and the steering a bit meatier. The vehicle now has lower body roll -- the amount of pitch you feel as the car's weight shifts during turning, braking or accelerating.

Volvo has made other aerodynamic improvements, especially in reducing the amount of lift force pulling up on the car and the amount of diving the nose takes during braking.

The S80 rides on Volvo's P2 platform -- the same architecture for the V70, XC70 Cross Country, S60, and XC90.

And the ride and handling are smooth and appropriate for a luxury sedan. The S80 has continuously regulated shocks, which means that sensors communicate with an output controller 500 times per second, and the shocks can respond by adjusting the damping 50 times per second.

Drivers have an engine choice: the 2.9-liter turbo straight-six, with 268 horsepower and 280 ft.-lbs. of torque, or a base 2.9-liter straight-six with 194 horsepower and 207 ft.-lbs. of torque. Vehicles equipped with a turbo engine also come with 17-inch wheels.

To silence complaints about the S80's vague steering -- which can make the steering wheel seem out of sync with the the front wheels and in need of correction -- Volvo hired German supplier ZF to provide a nicer rack-and-pinion system. Rack-and-pinion may be better than the old steering rod systems, but not all of the vagaries in the S80's settering have vaporized.

Still, the car feels powerful -- especially in tougher-steering sport mode -- and so we forgive it.

My test model faced a particular problem: When accelerating from a stop, the power occasionally cut out around 20-to-25 mph or 3,500-4,000 rpm as the automatic transmission appeared to take its time looking for second gear.

A passenger asked, "Did you just take your foot off the gas?"

Karl-Johan Ekman, a technical engineer for the P2 platform, said that the problem was with the software that monitors throttle adaptation -- a feature that allows the S80 to study drivers' throttle patterns and adjust the gearing.

Volvo officials said the computer was likely confused by a flotilla of journalists driving the S80 in the press fleet.

Ekman said I could re-program the software by applying 10 percent throttle off the line from 0-to-40 mph,then stopping and doing it again with 20 percent pressure, and so on.

Sounds reasonable. But if a bunch of arguably professional automotive journalists befuddled the software, how is it to respond to a family traveling without Swedish engineers who can easily explain such things?

Happily, the S80 is one of the safest cars in the world. The vehicle was not only the first with inflatable air bag curtains for both rows, but also the first and only sedan with four National Highway Traffic Safety Administration five-star ratings for both front and side crashes.

Volvo's flagship sedan is its most important product, especially amid its self-professed wish to become one of the premium brands. Like Jaguar, Volvo needs to make sure parent company Ford gives it enough attention.

The new S80 is slightly different from its predecessor, and for the most part exudes a feeling of power -- or maybe a re-assertion of Volvo's credentials in the mid-luxury segment -- both in its stately performance and in the apparent intelligence its buyers. And if its owners are evoking "Star Wars" online, Volvo still echoes among the eccentrics who have always loved the brand, and who have made it beloved.

How the 2004 Volvo S80 measures up to rivals
Volvo S80 Audi A6 Lexus ES 300 Acura RL
Wheelbase (in.) 109.9 108.6 107.1 114.6
Weight (lbs.) 3,576-3,653 3,600-4,100 3,450 3,900-3,950
Engine DOHC 2.9-liter inline-six or 2.9-liter turbocharged inline-six DOHC 3.0-liter V-6; DOHC 2.7-liter turbocharged V-6 DOHC 3.0-liter V-6 DOHC 3.5-liter V-6
Output (hp) 194 @ 5,200 (2.9-liter); 268 @ 5,200 (turbo) 220 (3.0-liter); 250 (turbo) 210 225
Torque (lbs.-ft) 207 @ 3,900 rpm (2.9-liter); 280 @ 1,800-5,000 (turbo) 221 (3.0-liter); 258 (turbo) 220 231
Fuel economy (mpg) 20/28 (2.9-liter); 19/26 (turbo) 19/25 (3.0-liter); 17/24 (turbo) 21/29 18/24
Where built Torslanda, Sweden Neckarsulm, Germany Tsutsumi, Japan Sayama, Japan
Base price $37,000-$45,000 $36,360-$82,000 (estimated) $32,200- $44,100 (estimated)
Source: Manufacturers

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