Re-1998 Part 1: Volvo S80

I know we’ve talked about this car before but the theme is summer 1998 and around then, a worrying two-decades back, this car was fresh and  new.

1998 Volvo S80.

“Volvo S80 takes the fight to BMW,” roared What Car in 72 point lettering. “It may be unmistakably Volvo but the all-new S80 has enough style and appeal to give rival luxury saloons a fright. And it won’t cost the earth either,” they continued. This claim x or y car will frighten BMW et al is a constant.

Somewhere (I’ve lost it) I have a copy of Autocropley with a headline saying
the 1994 Vauxhall Omega would frighten BMW and Mercedes – and then went on (1998) to revel in the car’s massive depreciation. There hasn’t been one single car since 1971 that has defeated any vehicle from BMW, M-Benz or Audi.

I don’t know about “unmistakeably Volvo.” Here’s the predecessor:

1997 Volvo S90, UK spec: source

I find (again!) I have not dealt with the S90 so this is the first time it has appeared here at DTW with a freshly-sourced image of a late model from this site. This small reference makes me realise that the 1998 S90 was replaced by the S80 and then the S80 and now we are back to S90 again, twenty winters later. You won’t be surprised to know I prefer the S90 of 1997 than its predecessor It’s almost a Swedish Buick, isn’t it?

The 1998 S80 cost £27,000-£36,000 in 1998 though WhatCar mysteriously adds that in January 1999 the base model price would fall to a more manageable £22,000.

In fairness, the S80 ended up a decent replacement for the rectilinear S90 it replaced. The interior really is up there as one of the best, combining very high levels of quality, carefully considered design and visibly comfortable seating. There’s only so comfortable a car can be before things get gross so it’s no shame that the succeeding cars are essentially no more comfortable than Gothenburg’s 1998 vision of utter comfort.

Unsurprisingly, WhichWhyCar? considered the S80 stylish, spacious and well priced but no 5-series to drive. Cue the usual DTW gnashing of molars. Yes, indeed the S80 won’t go around the Nurburgring without killing all the by-standers and yes, it’ll fall off the road at the first sight of corner but the BMW 5 series is arguably less spacious, less stylish and no better constructed. I think the clever thing with BMW is that they make test-winning race-track champions like the 540i but mostly sell hum-drum fare like the 518i.

When the 2.8 litre six-cylinder Volvo is compared unfavourably to the 5-series the journos will have the beyond-the-top-of-the range BMW model in mind though in fact the S80 is more than able to match the base and mid models people really buy. Bait and switch is what that is called.

The S80 did not come as an estate. No researcher in the field of human history or psychology, economics or the car business has ever explained that one. Also, the S80 marked Volvo’s final move to front wheel drive, which made sense as the S80 was in some ways a heavily revised S70. That makes this one of those executive cars based of a model lower down See: Peugeot 604, Citroen C6 and Opel Senator.

Not the right 5-series for this article. Image credit:

Initially the S80 came with two in-line sixes: a 2.9 and a 2.8 twin-turbo (the T6). The two 2.4 litre five-cylinder engines came along six months later (hence the dramatic price drop) and a 2.5 litre diesel could be had. Something tells me that the best engines for this car were the five-bangers. However, according to WhyWhatCar? the S80 “outgunned” the BMW 528i for power and torque.

“Acceleration off the line isn’t exceptional but its low down flexibility gets you to cruising speeds relaxedly and past slower traffic quickly and confidently”. That sounds to me like the car does everything an executive car should do and does most of the time: get to speed and stay there with no fuss.

There are lots of watches water-tight to 5000 metres below sea level and which can resist 560 degree temperatures. They will thus work fine if you drop them into a deep sea trench or into a blast furnace but you won’t ever be able to check this. Over-engineered. The BMW seems to be like that. Almost nobody uses the high-speed capability it has in reserve and yet that ability is always the killer proposition.

Image credit: favcars

The Volvo’s “passenger comfort is compromised on difficult roads as the Volvo loses its composure over crests and bumps”. I really don’t believe normal people drive with passengers in such a way as their car will lose composure over crests and bumps.

In August 1998 Car magazine tested the S80 against the A8 2.8 and Jaguar XK8 3.2 (which on the face of it seems fair). Car concluded “The Volvo’s main trouble is that, blistering performance apart, it is not really a driver’s car”. It was faster than the (“cramped”) Jaguar and used less fuel and weighed less than the A8. On the pointless standstill to sixty run it beat the Jaguar by 1.1 seconds and the Audi by 2.7 seconds. They tested the Volvo S80 T6 by the way.

You’d have to read the review which really says the three cars all have their strong points and demerits and they aren’t really comparable. It really is a case of apples and other apples because there is little wrong with the three cars and each does something well: the Jaguar wafts, the Audi is “nimble” and the Volvo is safe, well-equipped and comfortable.

So, yes, Volvo S80: happy 20th birthday. Not good enough, apparently.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

11 thoughts on “Re-1998 Part 1: Volvo S80”

  1. I’ve had one for 12 years. I got a c6 to break the boredom. Then I started using it again. Cannot justify changing it. So it just continues on and on.

  2. They are excellent cars, and until the new S90/V90 pair marked the high watermark of Volvo saloons. Very high quality car, and the five pots models are vice free. Shame the 6 cylinder cars only ever came with a fragile GM 4 speed gearbox really.

  3. Fine looking car, nice and spacious, definitely an important model for Volvo as it set them on a path towards a confidently Swedish approach to design.

    But the contemporary 5 series? Whoah, now there’s a car. Less space for rear seat passengers, and really it needed extra money for the option front seats, but better in every other respect.

    1. The S80 also was the first Volvo completely designed under Peter Horbury, which marked a significant change from the Jan Wilsgaard-era cars.

      I got to drive and be driven around in a first-generation S80 on an irregular basis, and wasn’t terribly impressed. The ergonomics were very good, as were the seats, but back in those days, a 5 series (E39) did feel quite a bit more ‘premium’ by comparison, which includes matters of appearance and engineering. The Volvo was quite wallowy and unusually floaty, even from a passenger’s perspective. From behind the wheel, it felt like an almost disconcertingly vague device, with any inputs leading to distant, approximate changes in the car’s behaviour. And that auto ‘box was simply awful. A six-cylinder-powered E39 was superior in almost every conceivable way, bar interior space.

    2. You’re very right Kris. At that time, BMW was at their apex in terms of mechanical engineering/refinement, vehicle dynamics, quality and of course, styling, with their E46/E39/E38 bread and butter models having a distinct gap against competing models. I’d hazard to say that BMW’s competitors could have dished out very few cars which could top this deadly combination (if there were any, I could not think of one).

      In the end, as described by Richard, I suppose this S80’s draw was in the brand’s traditional strengths (which are somewhat unique) – safety, comfort, styling and those inline five engines. Though unlike the 850/S70 which I previously described as having rather “rudimentary rear suspension”, these V70/S80/S60/XC90 models had sophisticated fully independent rears and AWD, along with much improved chassis rigidity.

      When first launched, I remember the car wore quite a fresh design form – the very broad shoulders/doors, un-traditional tail lamps, head lamps with a small droop and which were blacked out at the edges, and that protruding nose. There are still quite a number of these cars still running around, and I’ve noticed that the attention to detail is quite surprisingly good – tiny door and panel gaps, good paint quality, nice fillets on the edges of panels, and yes, six light glasshouse (thanks Daniel). But the 5 speed Aisin transmissions have a terribly spotty lifespan.

  4. The S80 was my dream car when I was 18 (circa 1999-2000). I can’t really explain why.

    Since DTW is talking about it, I think you should take notice of the Emme Lotus 422T, a Brazilian car whose design was basically the Volvo ECC prototype that based the 1st-gen S80. It was built in plastic, with refurbished Lotus turbocharged engines (hence the family name) bought as leftovers. The company (Megastar) said it would export it from Brazil to Europe but the car had no airbags or ABS brakes, a must for any luxury saloon built around 1997. Of course it was a scam, and Megastar went bankrupt in about one year, and about 15 units of the 422T were built before the collapse.

    I tried to find some material in English but you’ll have to translate it, boys.

    And now I just realized that the two companies from where Megastar stole things for the Emme, Lotus and Volvo, are under the same corporate umbrella. Oh yeah.

  5. IMHO, the 1998 Volvo S80, whilst radically different from its set-square (but handsome) predecessor, succsssfully maintained and updated the essential “Volvoness” in its strong shoulder line, six light glasshouse and horizontal stance. Its successor was less successful, the four-light glasshouse looking rather pinched and the overall shape rather bland and derivative. The new S90 represents a return to form, overly fussy tail lights excepted. I’m happy to see that Volvo has largely resisted any temptation to ape the “sporty and dynamic” pretentions of its German rivals (although the new S60 does edge in that direction).

  6. The S80 was very much a landmark car for Volvo. It introduced a new styling direction and a brand new platform that would underpin S60, V70 and XC90. It was a very technologically advanced car from a small car company that was still independent. In fact, it was probably a lot of the reason why Ford bought the company shortly after its launch.

  7. YouTube channel, Big Car, has just profiled the S80. It includes an interview with Peter Horbury (an extended version is also available).

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