Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Volvo S80 SE Sport

Volvo S80 SE Sport

As a general rule, you do not buy a Volvo because you want a sleek motorway cruiser or a machine that grips like a rabbit in flight. You buy one because you have many children, and because you occasionally need to transport wardrobes.

So why, you may be wondering, have they made the car you see in the pictures this morning? An all-wheel-drive saloon car with a big V8 at the front and no space for even medium-sized furniture at the back. Have they gone mad?

No. Not really. But to understand why, you need to know a little bit about how the car industry works. It’s very simple. The car maker makes cars that are then bought by a global network of dealers. Who then sell the cars on to you and I. This is known in financial circles as “a licence to print money”.

I’m being serious. Because once you’ve decided that you’d like, say, a BMW, realistically the only place you can buy it is from the one dealer in your area. You can go to a dealer further away, of course, but don’t expect your local chap to bend over backwards if something goes wrong.

All the dealer has to do then, is offer you a small discount to make you feel good. Then he takes this money straight back again by stitching you up with a load of extras you don’t want or need. And a finance deal that is designed to ruin you, your children and your children’s children. And then he offers to buy your old car for a pound. And you accept because selling it privately is such a godforsaken faff.

All those epsilons coming up the drive, kicking the tyres and trying to fob you off with a Nigerian bank draft that they assure you is as good as gold. Yeah right. Better to be rid of it for a pound . . . and try to forget it’s going to get a polish and be sitting on the dealer’s forecourt next week with a sticker price of £22,250.

Then it’s time for a service. And that’ll be £300. Unless some work needs to be done, in which case it will be £700. I know a chap who was charged the other day for someone to “examine” the tyres on his car.

So, life as a car dealer is normally pretty rosy. Except for one tiny thing. It’s okay if you have the franchise for BMW or Mercedes or Alfa Romeo because the car you use to go home at night will be fine and swanky. But what if your dealership sells Hyundais? Sure, you’re making plenty of cash, but every night you have to go home in an Accent.

And it’s the same story with Volvo. You bathe in the milk from a honey badger. You pour Cristal on your cornflakes and you gave your wife a diamond-studded vibrator for Christmas. You even have golf clubs made from an alloy of titanium, magnesium and mink. But you have to go to work every day in a ho-hum slab of Swedish ironmongery that has the pizzazz of a dead dog.

Oh sure, you’ve got the top of the range S80 with seats made from the bosom of a fin whale and an electric drinks dispenser. But it’s still a Volvo. And you are still being laughed at by Nozzer and Ozzer at the 19th hole every Saturday afternoon.

Which is why, at the last Volvo dealer convention, you pleaded with the high-ups in Sweden to make a big V8. “I could sell thousands,” you lied. And what’s more, every other Volvo dealer in the world was saying the same thing.

So Volvo relented. And put a V8 in the front of the new S80 and now every Volvo dealer on the planet is happy. But what about you and I? The multitudes who must now buy this car if Volvo’s investment is to pay off.

I suppose we should start with the engine. I assumed that since Jaguar and Volvo are both owned by Ford, it would be a Jag 4.2 under the bonnet. But it isn’t. It’s a jewel of a thing from Yamaha: 4.4 litres, silken power, no holes in the torque curve and a gorgeous V8 snuffle when you turn it on.

Twice in a day, chauffeurs waiting with Mercs outside expensive restaurants whipped round to see what had made the noise, and both times they looked amazed. Hearing this noise coming from a Volvo is like finding a baby that opens its mouth to scream, and then sounds like an antelope.

There isn’t a bucketload of power on tap but because of the four-wheel-drive system, none goes to waste. You stamp on the throttle and no matter how greasy the road might be, the car just sits up and voom. Like it’s been electrocuted.

This is a good thing because everything else on this car is a bit slow. The gearbox, for instance. You put your foot down and you have time to get through an Ian McEwan squash game before it kicks down.

Then there’s the cruise control off switch. Of all the things in life that have to be instantaneous, this is number one. Even above a gun. But it isn’t. Push it and the car sails on at 70 for what seems like two weeks before you get control back.

And then there’s the sat nav. Not a Volvo strong point this since it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that either the Oxford ring road or the M40 exist, but to make matters worse, it doesn’t respond to your inputs properly.

“Mmmm,” it drawls, when you push the letter “L”. Then “Mmmm” again. And then: “So, you want an L do you? Mmmm. Let me think about that.” After a while I began to think it might be on smack.

Worse than the slowness of the controls, though, is the suspension. Three settings are available “comfort”, “sport” and something labelled “advanced”.

In the comfort setting, the car glides nicely from place to place, lulling you into a dreamy and creamy sense of security. And then, when you least expect it, you run over a manhole cover and all four wheels begin to pitter-patter like they’ve been connected to the San Andreas fault.

So you put it in sport and now there’s no sense of security at all because the wheels pitter-patter permanently. Even when there’s nothing for them to pitter-patter over.

In desperation, you go for the advanced setting, which offers a combination of sports and comfort, so you end up with something that is neither. “Advanced” over what, I wondered? An ox? A druid?

The problem is that Volvo is not intrinsically a maker of luxury cars. There is no culture, as there is at Jaguar, of making a car inherently sublime. And this can no more be achieved with trick electronics than you could make Ray Charles a cricketer by dressing him in white trousers and a box.

Some of the S80 is very nice. The interior, with its linen-look aluminium (I know, I didn’t know what they were on about either, but it works) and that cascading centre console is a lovely place to sit. Spacious too.

Then there’s the safety. Warning lights illuminate when someone is in your blind spot and then, on the dash, right in front of you is a huge red light that comes on from time to time. I have no idea why. But it doesn’t half wake you up.

I also think it’s a good looking car. And at £48,150 for the SE Sport model, fully loaded with options, you have to admit, it is exceptional value for money. Mind you, you’ll lose your trousers with the depreciation.

And that’s where you can be quite cunning. Because all of Volvo’s 145 British dealers will have ordered a V8 S80 with all the bells and whistles, and in about six months they’ll be flogging them. They know that to get them shifted they’ll have to be much cheaper than rival offerings from Mercedes and BMW so you should be able to do a good deal.

And, for the first time, drive away from a car dealer’s forecourt, knowing you ripped him off.

Vital statistics Model Volvo S80 SE Sport Engine 4414cc, eight cylinders Power 311bhp @ 5950rpm Torque 325lb ft @ 3950rpm Transmission Six-speed automatic Fuel 23.7mpg (combined cycle) CO2 284g/km Acceleration 0-60mph: 6.0sec Top speed 155mph Price £39,950
Source: timesonline

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