Funny how things turn out. The bigger sedans from Ford of North America are based on the Volvo P2 platform that dates back to the 850 model of the early 1990s. Now the biggest Volvo sedan, the S80, has been replaced by a model that could be said to be based on a Ford. It uses Ford's global shared architecture, referred to internally as EUCD, a set of building blocks that also generate various European mid-size Fords and the upcoming Land Rover LR2.
Which explains why Volvo can claim that this is a completely new car when, at a glance, it looks like a face-lifted version of the old S80. Summarized simply, the new Swedish flagship has taken the best parts of the smaller S40/V50/C70 (and the Euro Ford Focus and Mazda 3) and incorporated them, enlarged and strengthened where appropriate, in a body shell the size of a BMW 5-series. As with the smaller relatives, Volvo played the lead role in safety engineering and electronics for the EUCD cars.
When it comes to the U.S. early in 2007, the S80 will be offered with two engines, both new to the model. One is familiar, from the Swedish automaker's XC90 — the 4.4-liter V-8 made in Japan by Yamaha. The other is a new Ford 3.2-liter inline six-cylinder, designed by Volvo but produced alongside the Jaguar V-8s at Ford's engine plant in Wales. These engines are mounted transversely and matched to an Aisin-Warner six-speed automatic transmission that Volvo calls Geartronic.
Volvo calls the new engine a "short inline-six" because of the clever way its length has been reduced. (The ancillary drives are arranged at the gearbox end, and the air-conditioning compressor and power-steering pump are housed above the transmission.) This version of the S80 is front-wheel drive; the V-8 model is all-wheel drive, engaging the rear wheels by a Haldex clutch system — again, like the XC90.
Volvo expects 70 percent of '07 S80 buyers to go for the six-cylinder. It's a classic straight-six: smooth and quiet, with progressive delivery of its adequate 235 horsepower. It has variable valve timing and two-position profile switching for the inlet camshaft. A turbocharged version will come later.
The 311-hp V-8 is quicker, of course — Volvo promises a 0-to-62-mph blast in 6.5 seconds versus 8.0 for the six — and has a more aggressive voice. Although it is good to have four-wheel drive, we can imagine that most Volvo owners will be satisfied with the less-expensive six-cylinder model.
Given the origin of its suspension design and components, it's not surprising that the S80 has crisp handling and excellent roadholding. There is the option of three-position automatic damping, but the standard setup is relatively stiff, in response to the German sports sedans with which the S80 seeks to compete. The steering, however, lacks the brilliant accuracy and communication of some of the Ford counterparts.
Several of the more interesting developments for the S80 are only available as extra-cost options, including, to Volvo's chagrin, some of its advanced safety features. These include a radar-based active cruise control that produces audible and visual warnings of a possible collision and works with brake assist when the driver takes evasive action; BLIS, a blind-spot warning system using tiny cameras built into the side mirrors; and PCC, an electronic key fob that can monitor the car's locking and alarm status and even detect the heartbeat of an intruder inside the car.
Volvo prides itself on being a sensible Swede, and there is a logical neatness to the S80's cabin and controls. The main instruments are similar to those of the Mercedes E-class: analog, with needles pointing to the perimeter and digital messages at the center. Most functions are controlled via buttons, a four-way switch pad, and a small screen on the Volvo's unique "floating" center console. The screen for the optional navigation system pops up at eye level from the top of the dash.
Existing Volvo owners will love the '07 S80, but will it attract newcomers to the marque? It should, because it is a definite step forward, but we wonder if it is different enough in looks and character to succeed.