by Jeff Mullins 15/02/13
From joining Volvo in 1991, Peter Horbury would create dramatic change in the way Volvo’s were styled. While some of the design characteristics he used were retrospective, he embedded them in a way that merely reminded of the past rather than recreated it. The S80 of 1998 was the first in a totally new line of Volvo cars that was to take the company forward into the 21st century. Built on a new modular platform that was to form the backbone of the large car range, its economies of scale were to help Volvo towards the independent future it was planning by that stage. Codenamed P23, the S80’s task as the first car being built off this new platform (known as P2) was to replace the rear-wheel drive 940 and S90/V90 (née 960), which had roots that dated back to 1982. Under this new strategy which mirrored the direction many other manufacturers were heading in, it produced cars that were cheaper and more efficient to build than their predecessors and in the case of the P2 platform, brought with it modern technology such as multiplex wiring as well as thelatest safety innovations.
Following on from the S40/V40 of 1996 and the C70 of 1997, people were getting used to the elegant style that Volvo was putting in place for its model line-up and the S80 was no different. At the heart of its design were broad stepped shoulders which continued into a ‘V’ shape bonnet at the front in a theme that linked in with the style of the 122 Series Amazon of the 1950’s/1960’s. The aim of the theme was to create a modern new design look for Volvo, while reminding people of the past at the same time and keeping the car recognisable as a product from the Swedish manufacturer. A similar design was used for the Volvo ECC (Environmental Concept Car) years before in 1992, which was extremely well received and won many plaudits. The final interpretation used on the S80 was very successful and even led the Italian motoring press to describe it as “The most beautiful car in the world” upon its launch six years later, which while not to detract from the fact the S80 was a fine looking saloon car, is probably stretching it a bit to be honest.
While the style of the first generation S80 may have dated since its original launch all those years ago, it still holds presence on wheels greater than 17 inches in diameter and in certain colours. Its design language is continued in many models today, with its successor still being very much an evolutionary form of the original. At the tail end of the 1990’s, it was cutting edge in both aesthetics and technology and its advert campaign emphasised this. Its P2 platform after all was one of the contributory reasons towards head of Ford, Jacques Nasser, purchasing the company in 1999. Ford would take it for their own use and even in 2013 a version of it underpins an array of Ford’s and Lincoln’s.
In a period when images of the notoriously long lived 240 were still stuck firmly in the minds of people, an advert campaign was created that was based around the return of astronauts from space after a lengthy period spent above. While hopping off the space craft, a space cadet sees an S80 below him and remarks “What type of car is that?” When a colleague informs him it’s a Volvo, he responds…. “How long have we been away??” It just goes to show what a break from the mould the design was at the time. Under the hood at launch in late 1998 it was available with three engines; the 2.0 LPT five cylinder with 180bhp and two inline sixes in the form of the 2.9 with 204bhp and the twin-turbocharged T6 with 272bhp. Within a matter of months, a normally aspirated 2.4 litre was available in both 10 valve and 20 valve configurations, with 140bhp and 170bhp respectively. The familiar 2.5 litre 10 valve turbocharged diesel engine from the Audi A6 was once again offered to cater for high mileage drivers. S80’s for the Irish market were available with a ‘Luxury Pack’ that came with alloys, leather, multi function steering wheel and an electric moon roof. It was popular and present in a lot of the early remaining models that are on the roads today.
Transmissions for the S80 were five speed manuals across the range except on the T6, which was restricted to the General Motors four speed auto that was also optional on the normally aspirated 2.9 litre. Automatic transmissions on the rest of the range were manufactured by the Japanese Aisin Warner and are reliable once fluid is changed every 40-50k miles. The General Motors four speed does not have many told horror stories when paired with the 2.9 somehow, but when fitted in the 2.8 T6 it is a disaster and is the biggest Achilles heal of the car. Failures and major problems have been common, with Volvo never having been reported paying out goodwill gestures outside of warranty.
The S80 continued for the next couple of years without any great changes. In late 2000 for the ‘01 model year, a Comfort pack became available which featured ‘Icarus’ alloys as well as Madison Plush velour interior and Cruise Control. In other markets a luxurious Executive model was announced that we would not see until 2005 when a well known Dublin hotel ordered a fleet of them in Black Sapphire. It came with piped high quality leather seats, real walnut wood, RTI (Road Traffic Information) satelight navigation, televesions in rear headrests and a fridge . It was at the end of 2001 when first examples of the new S80 D5 arrived, featuring Volvo’s first proper in house developed diesel engine. Replacing the bought in VW/Audi engine which had fallen foul of emissions legislation, it was of aluminium construction and utilised the second generation of common-rail technology from Bosch. Power figures were 163bhp in addition a healthy 251 lb ft of torque.
In 2002, Volvo made the 2.4 LPT engine from the S60, V70 and XC70 available in the S80 and today it is probably the rarest S80. Being relatively powerful at 200bhp, it sold very little in this country and I only know personally of one. It was short lived as well, being replaced by a new 2522cc unit in the following year which leads us on to the mid life facelift of 2003. This update saw great improvements in interior quality as well as subtle changes that provided a cleaner, more cohesive exterior. A weakness of the original P2 cars was the design of their wing mirrors, being blobby and lacking in aerodynamic efficiency as well as aesthetics. These were replaced by much neater units that looked far tidier and were even utilised by Aston Martin on their V8 Vantage. In addition, re-profiled bumpers were fitted and a totally new one-piece metal boot lid was designed at great expense, replacing the old panel which was metal with a flimsy plastic front. New tail lamps with LED stop lamps, lashings of chrome and an egg crate front grille all added up to significantly improve the S80 exterior which when combined with the new wheel designs and various new colour hues, created a fresher looking car with a great deal more class and visual presence. After this, the S80 continued for another three years with nothing aside from new colours over the period such as Lunar Gold and Willow Green. For its final year of production, a Premium package brought leather among other niceties as standard and all included under the 46k entry level price tag.