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2003 Volvo S80
Sam Moses

Easily the best-looking Volvo in more than a generation, the flagship S80 is luxurious, roomy and safe. It's terrific on the open highway with a smooth ride and Gibraltar stability. Inside, the S80 is welcoming, attractive and understated. A highly evolved six-cylinder engine smoothly powers the front wheels. The twin-turbocharged T6 version delivers outstanding acceleration.

Volvo designed the S80 to compete against the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6, Jaguar S-Type, Acura 3.5 RL, Cadillac Seville, Lexus GS, Lincoln LS and Saab 9-5. That's tough opposition, and a few of those cars offer significantly better handling. But the S80 compensates with its near-silent ride and unique look and personality, as well as Volvo's renowned engineering designed to protect its passengers.

For 2003, Volvo has deleted the power moonroof and leather upholstery from the base S80 2.9, and reduced its list price by nearly $2000. The T6 model now includes Volvo's On Call Plus communications system. And last year's 75th Anniversary Edition continues as the S80 T6 Elite.

Model Lineup
Volvo builds three versions of the S80.

The base-level S80 2.9 ($36,455) is powered by a 2.9-liter six-cylinder engine that produces 194 horsepower. Last year's leather upholstery and power moonroof have been deleted in favor of a lower list price. But a leather steering wheel is now standard, as are most of the other goodies associated with a luxury sedan, including automatic air conditioning with dual controls, power windows, alloy wheels, and anti-lock brakes. A $1995 Premium Package adds back the moonroof and leather upholstery that were standard last year (and brings the total price back to last year's $38,450). Ordered separately, leather costs $1400, and the moonroof $1200.

S80 T6 ($43,935) is equipped with twin turbochargers, boosting the output of that same 2.9-liter six to 268 horsepower. T6 also comes with traction control and lower-profile tires (P225/50HR17, in place of the 2.9's P215/55R16s). In both cases, the tires are Michelin MXM4s. For 2003, Volvo's On Call Plus telematics/mobile phone system is also standard, along with a 12-month subscription to the service.

Both the naturally aspirated and twin-turbo engines drive the front wheels through an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. But only the T6 has Volvo's Geartronic manual override.

The rear compartment of the S80 T6 Elite ($46,995) is re-configured for an additional two inches of legroom. Special hinges allow the rear doors to open wider. Other rear-seat amenities include seat heaters, burl wood trim, and a console with two 12-volt outlets. There's even a miniature DVD player with twin seven-inch thin-film transistor (TFT) screens. And if you like snacks with your flicks, you can add a small refrigerator for $700. Production will be limited to just 100 cars, so get your order in early.

On Call Plus is optional on the base model for $835. Traction control for the base model costs $695. A Warm Weather Package ($575) for all three models includes an air quality system (AQS), an infrared-reflective front windshield, an electric sun curtain for the rear window, and manual curtains for the rear side windows. For cold weather driving, the Climate Package ($625 on 2.9 and T6, standard on Elite) includes the air quality system, headlamp wipers and washers, heated front seats and Rainsensor Windshield Wipers. The Rainsensor wipers replace the intermittent wiper control and automatically adjust wiper speed based on the amount of water sensed on the windshield.

At first glance the S80 doesn't look like a Volvo, unless you're facing its signature grille, with its bright vertical bars and diagonal slash. Gone is the box-on-box design that distinguished the Volvo profile for a generation. It's replaced in the S80 by softer, less decisive lines: a gently sloping hood, steeply raked windscreen, slightly bowed roofline and almost coupe-like rear window. A short rear deck lid completes the seductive silhouette. Flared wheelwells circle alloy wheels. Every corner has been rounded and rid of severe angles. Lightly sculpted doors and side panels contrast sensuously with the slab-sided look of Volvos past.

The whole styling gamble pays off in the rear. Prominent, jewel-like taillights perch high on either side of the trunk, the lenses themselves forming the car's rear corners. They're molded in an interesting notched shape, giving the S80 a distinctive flavor that sets it apart from anything else on the road.

The same styling enhancements exercised on the Volvo S80's body flow seamlessly inside. A tasteful two-tone color scheme ties the cabin together in cool, muted hues, from the dashboard and glove box to the doors and kick panels. The spare use of a simple, dark simulated wood lends a nice, understated accent. Wood appears only on the shifter, the perimeter of the center console and in a single swath of trim that rings the cabin.

Leather front seats feel rich and firm and provide ample support, with just enough bolstering for a snug fit. Getting in and out of them takes little effort, as the seating position is upright and the doors open wide. But just in case a little help is needed, Volvo provides a driver's-side grab handle, a convenience found in only a few trucks and fewer cars.

Volvo paid every bit as much attention to the comfort of the S80's rear-seat passengers. The wide rear bench easily accommodates three adults, with legroom compromised only when the front seats are in their rearmost position.

The instrument panel is particularly clean. The gauges fit logically and don't overwhelm the driver with unnecessary clutter. Wherever the driver positions the tilt steering wheel, the center-placed speedometer and tachometer remain in plain view. The rear-view mirror dims automatically, and the adjustable outside mirrors have a memory function. A nicely designed hand-brake lever is used in place of the foot pedal often found in this class.

Climate controls are intuitive and attractive. Dual controls allow separate temperature adjustment for driver and passenger. Controls for both front seat heaters sit closer to the passenger. The radio uses a dial to select programmed stations, in place of the once-familiar row of buttons. Volvo's radio controls take a little familiarization, but work well and give the driver more presets. A dial is also used to choose between AM, FM or CD modes. Additional radio controls are on the steering wheel.

The S80 has a large, deep trunk made all the more accessible by its low lift-over height. Carrying a lot of cargo is no problem. A release inside the trunk allows the rear seat back to fold down for even more cargo capacity (except on the T6 Elite, where the reconfigured seat does not fold).

All three rear seats have electrically retractable headrests as well; pressing a button on the center stack gets them out of the way for improved rearward visibility.

When it comes to safety engineering and features, Volvo has no peers. Dual-stage airbags for both driver and front-seat passenger adjust according to the force of the collision. Specially designed active headrests reduce whiplash in a rear collision. Inflatable window curtains, as well as side-impact airbags, protect the head and torso in a side collision. All three rear seating positions have three-point seat belts. Volvo benefits from an amazing facility in Sweden, the Volvo Cars Safety Centre, that conducts testing for crashworthiness, rollover, and other safety issues.

Driving Impressions
Volvo S80 is smooth, comfortable, and quiet. Turn the ignition key and the starter motor barely whispers. The engine purrs at idle. Only by listening carefully can you hear the pleasant mechanical whir of overhead cams, and the tapping of busy valve gear.

Once underway, the S80 hums softly, even while pulling steadily uphill at 80 mph with good momentum. Wind noise and tire noise are heard as much as the engine; both are light, but more noticeable, because the engine is so quiet. You don't hear the engine at all when the transmission downshifts. All you see is the upward twitch of the tachometer needle.

Last year, Volvo re-tuned the basic 2.9-liter inline-6 for improved response and quicker acceleration; still, it's a bit of a lightweight compared to the twin-turbocharged T6. The naturally aspirated 2.9 delivers just 207 foot-pounds of torque at 4200 rpm. By comparison, the T6 develops 280 foot-pounds at just 1800 rpm, and maintains it up to 5000 rpm. More torque at lower revs means stronger power for accelerating away from intersections or making passes on long, steep grades.

With its more powerful engine, the T6 is a rocket. Mash the throttle and the response is instantaneous. It has lots of power at the low end, enough to light up the front tires, assuming you've pressed the STC button to shut off the traction control. S80 T6 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6.5 seconds, quicker than a Lexus LS430 and much quicker than an Acura RL. Variable-valve timing enhances the performance of Volvo's T6, but most of the credit belongs to its two small turbochargers, which feed three cylinders each. Two small turbos spool up quicker than one larger unit, delivering maximum thrust at low rpm. As a result, the T6 is quite responsive when cruising at moderate speeds, say 25-50 mph. Leave the traction control system turned on when you stand on it, and the computer steps in to ensure the front tires lose their grip only momentarily. The system was updated last year with a more powerful processor.

The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, most notably at higher loads. But occasionally at lower speeds, a quick stomp on the gas causes it to trip over itself, so that it momentarily bogs down before downshifting, and then lurches as it finally finds the right gear.

Both base and T6 turbo models ride comfortably. The suspension absorbs bumps effectively, eliminating road imperfections. It rides and handles well even with a full load of passengers and luggage. The steering is a big vague at the center, and the S80 wanders ever so slightly, requiring small steering corrections. Also, the power assist is tuned so that the steering is on the light side for our tastes. That makes it easy to manage the S80 in parking lots, but we'd like a little more feedback in the steering. In Volvo tradition, the steering is a bit on the slow side, demanding more steering input than other cars in this class. Overall, the S80 doesn't have the handling precision and poise of some of its competitors, such as the BMW 5 Series or the Jaguar S-Type.

S80's brakes are easy to modulate for smooth stops. The suspension does a good job of keeping the S80 level under hard braking: Nosedive during an 80-mph stop was minimal. Braking distances are long for the class.

Premium luxury trim and world-class safety features make the S80 an alternative to BMW or Mercedes-Benz. The Volvo will reward the individualist with a comfortable, quiet and smooth ride.

Model as tested
S80 T6 ($44,935)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Torslanda, Sweden
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Climate Package ($625) includes heated front seats, headlight wipers/washers, Rainsense wipers, Air Quality System; metallic paint ($450)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
2.9 ($36,455); T6 ($44,935); T6 Elite ($46,995)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front airbags, dual front side air bags, dual front inflatable window curtains, Volvo whiplash protection system, front seat belt pretensioners, ABS
Safety equipment (optional)
2.9-liter dohc twin-turbocharged inline-6
4-speed automatic with Geartronic manual shift mode

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning, dual climate controls, power sunroof, steering wheel-mounted cruise control, AM/FM stereo w/CD, tilt and telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel w/radio controls, leather upholstery, remote keyless entry, 8-way power front seats, power windows, power heated side-view mirrors, cabin filtration system, folding rear seats w/pass-through, theft deterrent system, daytime running lights, mud flaps, floor mats, front fog lamps, P225/50R17 tires, 17-inch ``Interceptor'' alloy wheels, four-speed automatic transmission with Geartronic manual override

Engine & Transmission
2.9-liter dohc twin-turbocharged inline-6
Drivetrain type
front-engine, front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
268 @ 5200
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, a dash (—) is used in its place.

J.D. Power Ratings may not include all information used to determine J.D. Power awards, visit the Car Ratings page to learn more about awards and ratings.

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