Which attributes does the word "Volvo" convey? Twenty years ago, the answer was clear. In market terms, Volvo "owned" safety and other manufacturers didn't get much of a look-in.
It's different now. The success of other car makers, notably Renault, in securing high scores in the Euro NCAP safety ratings has blurred the picture, and Volvo itself seems to go on about the subject less these days. But while perceptions have changed, Volvo's efforts in the field of safety are probably as great as ever.
Model: Volvo S80 D5 SE Lux automatic
Engine: 2.4 litre five cylinder turbodiesel; 182 bhp at 4,000 rpm
Performance: 140 mph, 0-60 mph in 8.5 seconds, 38.7 mpg;
CO2: 193 g/km
Worth considering: Audi A6, Mercedes E Class, Saab 9-5
Two products of Volvo's recent research were present in this week's test car, the latest version of the big S80 saloon. The first was Collision Warning and Brake Support, a system that warns of an impending collision, and, where the driver does not react, intervenes to put the car's brakes on. Nobody wants to test something like that on public roads, but I had the chance to try this feature at Volvo's test track in Sweden and I can confirm that it works well.
The second system, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), is useful on crowded British motorways, where it is often impractical to run for long periods at a constant speed with a conventional cruise control set-up. ACC gently brakes the car if the selected speed would take it too close to other traffic and accelerates in order to restore speed once it is safe to do so. A few rivals offer something similar, but Volvo's system is notable for operating in a pleasantly unobtrusive and confidence-inspiring fashion.
And "pleasantly unobtrusive" and "confidence-inspiring" are descriptions that apply to the S80 in general; the more you drive it, the more you appreciate its quiet comfort and abilities.
But it's a tough market; buyers of big saloons are still obsessed with German prestige brands, and I suspect that the new Skoda Superb will provide keen competition for the S80. Perhaps it's time for Volvo to look to its traditional strengths and start blowing its safety trumpet again.
Tim Hammond, 32
Telecoms manager, north London
Usual cars: Hire cars and Streetcar share scheme
With my last Volvo experience being an old family car – a 240 estate (or Wardrobe on wheels) – I was pleasantly surprised by the S80. It has the looks to compete in the executive saloon market and, on shutting the door, you could feel the quality. The driver's seat had plenty of legroom (even for me at 6ft 2ins). The ride was smooth, with the 2.4-litre diesel giving an impressive roar under acceleration. Gadget freaks are well catered for; I was impressed by the Adaptive Cruise Control and the individual heated and cooled seats. Volvos have had a real image change, but whether they can compete with Audi/BMW/Mercedes remains to be seen.
Justin Willett, 44
Sales/marketing consultant, Little Horwood, Bucks
Usual cars: Toyota Verso, Audi A4 Cabriolet, VW Golf.
If I was in the market for a large executive saloon, and wanted something different from the usual German options, then I would look at the S80. It offers all the comfort of the others, and the gadgets and toys, such as the Adaptive Cruise Control and the electronic parking brake (very easy to use), at a considerably lower price. I found the S80 comfortable and quiet, and the seats felt like I was sitting on a cushion. It's a great car for covering large motorway miles, carrying four or five adults and their luggage, and arriving relaxed. But most company car, badge-conscious drivers will probably choose one of the default options.
Pat Danzelman, 26
Teacher, Woodford Green, Essex
Usual Car: Alfa Romeo Spider 2.0 TS
Volvo. A name synonymous with Barbour jackets and the golden labrador. Not so the S80. This car exudes comfort and quality and has the solidity you would expect from the Swedes. The diesel unit, coupled with the smooth-shifting, 6-speed auto, pulled strongly and enthusiastically through the rev range right up to the red line. The cars natural cruising ability is enhanced further by the Adaptive Cruise Control. All the best bits of Volvo remain – top-notch build quality and pioneering safety devices – but Volvo has moved with the times and it has a much less staid image. Those looking for something understated and accomplished should give it a try.
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