The rain falls in sheets driven by near gale force Pacific winds. A Mercedes C-Class with a 4MATIC badge shoots by in a fit of “Schnell! Schnell!” Not an advisable action, North Vancouver’s Upper Levels Highway is run through with broad streams. Ahead the Mercedes slithers, hydroplanes and brakes. It’s my turn to pass, the Volvo S80 AWD plowing through the conditions with confident and secure ease. This night we’re on a fool’s errand, one that is defining a car whose personality was previously vague.
The rain intensifies, mixing with sleet. Nestled between the twin dials on the dash, the information panel displays a warning. The precipitation is now so heavy that the radar based collision warning system claims to be blocked. That won’t deter us from our task. There’s an Urban Myth in Vancouver, that you can be downtown on the beach, and twenty minutes later be at the ski hill. Tonight the clock is ticking.
The last time we attempted this Cypress Mountain run we had some advantages. It was daylight, the roads were wet but the snow clear, and most importantly I was riding a motorcycle. The BMW R1150GS didn’t quite make deadline, the skis strapped across my back kept me from splitting lanes. The Volvo doesn’t inspire such antisocial acts; it’s eminently sensible.
Well, except for the interior, we’ve managed to pull yet another press car with light-beige leather. To be theatrical about it this is, “No interior for young men.” Nor does it invoke a premium response, the design is elegant but the plastics rob it of being compellingly luxurious. We had an interior designer visit and the diagnosis was swift, “All they need to do is make the central console out of bent wood. Use that as an accent and the organic touch would bring it together.”
Lucky there’s an optional facing close to this elegant concept.
Color scheme aside, the S80’s interior is a lovely place to spend time. The controls can be operated with gloves… catch that skiers? The S80 AWD is well appointed with nearly all the options boxes ticked, the seats are comfortable, and the cabin is quiet and well insulated from road noise and the lashings of the weather outside.
By the exit for Cypress Mountain the rain has become sleet. I thumb off the confused collision warning system, and then the BLIS (Blind Spot Information System). The camera-based system that monitors your “blindspots” also seems to be baffled by the cow floating rain mixed with flakes the size of cotton balls.
I’ve already been up top to drop off friends for skiing earlier this evening, and that presented a good excuse to play in the ski hill’s empty secondary parking lots. That was time well misspent, revealing the S80 AWD is a hard car to provoke.
Only severe manhandling and wanton throttle abuse managed to get the car sledding sideways in these snow-covered playgrounds. That’s given me a taste of the limit, which is good, because conditions are worsening for this impromptu challenge and I’m running late to pick up the “ski team”.
I ditch Comfort (mushy) and Sport (squidgy) modes for the suspension’s Advanced (firm’ish) setting. The S80 no doubt handles better than the XC70 when pressed, but you’ll never mistake it for sporting.
It is comfortable though, you don’t feel the road’s every nuance; the suspension feeds the essentials of what you need to know regarding what the tires are up to. It’s not vague, just relaxing and civil in comparison to kidney punching sport sedans like the 535xi. For general use the cornering potential will happily exceed “acceptable road usage”.
Not that the S80’s exterior projects any pretenses of sport. It’s handsome enough, but proportions that work elegantly and stylishly in smaller Volvo’s like the S40 and S60 start to lose definition on a car of this stature. With the S80 the radii of the rounds feel off, the roofline loses its arc, and the car feels too broad to be European. Sadly there’s a whiff of old American about it.
Into the first major turn and the AWD isn’t even challenged by the running water and slush. The long uphill exercises the 3.2-litre inline six, which produces 235hp and 236lb.-ft. torque. In the Volvo XC70 it felt overmatched by the wagon’s heft, here in the lighter S80 it’s just about a bang on match. The S80 has no lack of punt for navigating traffic and overtaking.
Defiantly a Land Rover occupies the better part of both lanes, possibly assuming that there are no more sure-footed vehicles looking to pass. The hubris.
Flipping the automatic 6-Speed Geartronic over to manual mode for better control over shifting and power, we enter into the first real hairpin. Finally, the Land Rover edges over, taking the outside lane. The Volvo’s winter tires dig into the now snow-covered road, we sweep to the inside passing lane, tightening the corner. This reveals the S80’s biggest problem with winter driving… all the people getting in your way.
By mid-Mountain the conditions are near whiteout and the adaptive bi-xenon headlight turn the onslaught of snow into a sci-fi hyperdrive effect.
Core to the S80 is that all the safety factors making it confident in hazardous conditions, also meet the demands of those looking for a safe and secure vehicle. While the rest of the automotive world is catching up thanks to standards and expectations, Volvo still has an edge. With the Swedish company’s longstanding history of safety, it seems to execute such features with finesse in comparison to many of its competitors. Take the ABS for instance, finesse is important be it a snowy run to school, a panic stop in traffic, or heading hot into a 20kph marked corner in an outright snowstorm – as is the case now.
Braking hard, I benefit from my ski-lot Ice-Capades having given me a good sense of the S80’s ABS braking, and slamming on the binders doesn’t even result in a slither.
I’m beginning to see this Volvo in a new light… It’s insurance for when things go “horrible” or even “horribly wrong”. Unarguably the S80 isn’t an exciting vehicle, but it’s transformed what should have be hair-raising drive, and made it calm enough for me to try find the right mood music on my iPod Touch.
The adaptive headlights do their trick, swiveling to aim into the corner, casting the best possible illumination on our intended track. There’s a Honda Element on the inside, mucking its way though the corner, leaving the outside of the hairpin open for the S80 to sweep through.
In weather like this, monster horsepower would only be trouble, and I’m not longing for the optional 4.4-liter V8’s 311hp or 325 lb. – ft. of torque. Well, maybe the torque, I prefer decisive passes. Even in the dry though, the inline-six matches the S80’s aspirations and the chassis’ capabilities nicely.
Powering out of the corner, electronic fairies swing into action tickling the traction control and the S80 remains stable and planted. Ahead a snowplow, yellow light flashing warning, has two cars following in its wake. If this were summer, and you could see the lane markers, then you’d know this section of road is three lanes wide.
We’re coming up on the cross-country ski area, and if that were the destination then the S80 may well have lived up to the mythical 20 minutes. But the downhill ski area is 2 kms off and the S80 is stuck behind the “slow” plow. Or is it?
It’s not my most rational move, but I push this sensible and stayed sedan out into the passing lane’s thick wet snow.
In a dump of white this thick, lanes are only a suggestion, one that oncoming traffic seems largely to be ignoring. It’s a tight squeeze, but we’re away. Feeling solid enough to survive a nuclear blast and the following winter I feed the S80 a little more throttle…
As if to make a point, Mother Nature has decorated the final turn with a BMW 535xi lodged in the oncoming lane’s snow bank, facing into traffic. The S80 sails onwards undeterred; not all sedans are created equal when it comes to these conditions.
At the lodge the three skiers are waiting, the heavy wet snow is picking up, but Volvo S80 on our side we’re not concerned… until we discover a fatal flaw. The pass-through between the rear seats can only accommodate three sets of downhill boards.
Given the 2008 Volvo S80 seats four comfortably that means someone will have to go play Ice-Capades in the overflow lots. I suppose I could volunteer my services.
2008 Volvo S80
Price As Tested: $62,095 CDN
Base Price: $54,995 CDN
Engine, Driveline & Chassis
- 3.2 Litre, in-line-6 Cylinder Engine
- 235 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 236 lb. – ft. @ 3,200 rpm
- Dual Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT)
- Electronically controlled AWD
- 6-speed automatic transmission
Safety and Security
- Four wheel Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)
- Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD)
- Dynamic Stability and Traction Control System (DSTC)
- Emergency Brake Assist (EBA)
- Whiplash Protection System (WHIPS)
- Inflatable Side Curtains (IC)
- Driver and front passenger multi-stage air bags
- Side Impact Protection System (SIPS), w/ Side Impact Air Bags (SIPSBAG)
- Collision energy management body structure
- ISO-FIX baby/child seat attachment
Appearance, Comfort & Convenience
- Intelligent Driver Information System (IDIS)
- Heated front seats
- Adjustable speed sensitive steering
- Power heated side view mirrors
- Tilt/telescoping steering wheel
Luxury Package – $3,300
Active Bi-Xenon headlights, Parking assist, front and rear, Four-C active chassis, Perforated leather front sport seats w/heating & cooling, Heated rear seats, Automatic windshield wipers with rain sensor
Security Package – $3,150
Retractable side view mirrors w/ puddle light, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) with Collision Warning and Brake Support (CBWS), Blind spot information system (BLIS), Personal Car Communicator with keyless drive
Metallic Paint – $650