What's New for 1999
This long overdue redesign of the S90 counts several firsts to its credit: first with a transverse inline six, first with fully integrated GSM phone, first to carry an environmental specification (Europe only at introduction) and the S80 boasts the world's smallest manual transmission.
The 1998 Volvo S90 defines long in the tooth, at least as far as automobiles go. The design dates back to the 1985 740, though updates, improvements, and model designations have changed over the course of the past 14 years. As commonly occurs with models that have been sitting on the shelf for too long a period of time, consumers weren't buying many S90 and V90 wagons in 1998. While fully loaded with equipment, the cars were smaller inside than the less expensive S70 and V70, performed only adequately, and had the stodgiest styling this side of a Bluebird school bus.
The new 1999 S80 ushers the moldy S90/V90 out to pasture, starting now. Volvo public relations types are bragging about the "firsts" that can be chalked up as evidence of the brilliance of their engineers and designers, but none of the items listed above in the "What's New?" section are relevant to most consumers. What matters is the way the car looks, the way the car drives, the way the car coddles, and the way the car protects.
Until we can get behind the wheel, we're going to have to make some educated guesses about the latter three points. The S80 certainly represents a departure for Volvo in terms of styling. See that strong character line running up both sides of the hood and forming the lower boundary of the greenhouse? It flows into the rear deck, creating sheetmetal shoulders above the wheels and an interesting ridge in the taillights. The radical (for Volvo) appearance of the S80 was first seen on an environmental concept car displayed at auto shows several years ago, and likely represents a new corporate design theme that will be transferred to the next 40- and 70-series models.
The car probably drives quite nicely. Body stiffness is improved over the old S90, and that always goes a long way toward making any car more enjoyable to drive. Volvo has carried over the smooth 2.9-liter inline six cylinder engine from the S90, but in the S80 the engine's weight has been reduced, internal engine components suffer less friction, the cylinder head has been updated, and continuously variable valve timing has been added. The S80 2.9 makes 204 horsepower. A high-performance version of the S80, called the T6, has twin-turbochargers tacked onto a 2.8-liter inline six. Horsepower is rated at 272. Available with the world's smallest manual or an automatic transmission, the latter type adapts to the driving style of the driver and includes a winter mode to make acceleration on icy surfaces more surefooted. The S80 T6, when equipped with an automatic, also provides a Geartronic feature, allowing for manual shifting, as the driver desires.
Comfort is a Volvo hallmark, and we don't expect anything less than the best from the new S80. Climate systems have been improved, and there are heat and A/C vents in the B-pillar for rear passengers. The astounding Dolby Pro Logic system that debuted in the C70 Coupe will be available with RDS technology. And the three rear seat head restraints can be folded down to improve visibility. However, they fold forward instead of rearward, which means that a rear seat rider must employ them if he or she expects to be comfortable. Many things might occur in the roomy back seat of an S80, but whiplash isn't one of them.
Front seat occupants are also protected from whiplash thanks to WHIPS, which stands for Whiplash Protection System. When some moron plows into the trunk of the S80 while the car is stopped in traffic, WHIPS allows the backrest and headrest to move backwards in a parallel movement with the passenger's body, thus cushioning the head and upper torso in a more delicate fashion. Also new to the S80 is an IC (Inflatable Curtain), part of the SIPS (Side Impact Protection System) common on Volvos. The IC is essentially an airbag for the head, and it pops out of the headliner to cushion the craniums of both front and rear seat riders. Other safety items on the S80 include seatbelt pretensioners for all five seating positions, and front airbags that measure the force with which they should deploy based upon crash severity and whether the seatbelt is in use or not.
There are myriad other improvements and innovations in the new S80, from laminated side window glass to a multiplex electrical system to full range traction and stability control. But we're out of space here. Let's just say that the S80 is a huge improvement over the S90, and that we're happy to see it in showrooms - finally.