Sweet clarity - Stylish, speedy, secure. Volvo's S80 runs easily with the BMW-Lexus pack. Light on it's feet DAN NEIL April 4, 2007 AS it happens, I have driven a car billed as the "World's Fastest Volvo." It was a late-'70s 242 GT with a 900-hp Chevy big-block V8 punched through the hood, a transbrake, full cage, trac bars and monster slicks. Some crazed digger in Tennessee decided it would be a good idea. Alas, not really. So I wasn't panting to drive the 2007 Volvo S80, the second generation of the company's flagship and its first sedan with an optional V8 (the base engine is a 3.2-liter inline six). Given Volvo's distinguished history of smaller displacement and turbocharged engines, and its core values — a kind of rounded reasonableness in every direction — I figured the S80 V8 was only a bid for the Ugly American market. Well, I have driven the car and I love it, so what does that make me? Our maximally equipped S80 test car — with the Yamaha-built, 4.4-liter V8 crammed under the fluted hood — is just a spectacular sedan, a tone poem of Scandinavian chic and safety in the key of V. In a category ($50,000-ish executive sedans) full of wonderful cars — the Acura RL, the BMW 5-series, Audi A6, Lexus GS 450, Infiniti M45 — the big Volvo draws even with the best of them. Why so great? Listen up, car makers. It's all about clarity. Hard as it might be for some to believe, Ford's corporate stewardship (since 1999) of Volvo has been a very good thing. As it did with recently divested Aston Martin, Ford has kept its distance from Volvo, coordinating platforms and sharing subsystems where it made sense (the S80's all-wheel-drive uses the Haldex differential that appears in the Land Rover LR2) but allowing Gothenburg to steer its own course. Volvo has been left free to develop a distinctive corporate identity with a consonance and harmony that rival BMW's. This is most obviously true in the portfolio's styling language — the gently chamfered shoulder lines that run from nose to tail, the light taper at the trunk lid, the rake of the windshield — but it reaches down into some of the subtlest tactile signals these cars give out: the heft and weight of the steering, the machined precision of the switchgear, the conformation of the seats. The S80 — like the coming-soon C30 coupe, some $20,000 cheaper — uses the distinctive central console for the audio and climate systems, a graceful bit of Nordic design to rival bentwood furniture. Above all, the S80 feels safe. As in, one of those things with a combination lock and the word Diebold on it. A point of personal privilege here: There is an excellent chance that my wife and I are going to have a couple of children in the next year, and I have to tell you that fact seems to have transformed my appreciation for Volvos. It's sort of like an automotive nesting instinct. Anyway, the S80's immanent, bronze-cast solidity is very appealing. The car is heavy, to be sure — 4,065 pounds with a V8 engine — but it feels like it's got nuclear survivability. Nordic chic The S80's complement of standard safety gear includes front, side and side-curtain air bags and front knee bolsters; five padded head restraints; tire-pressure monitoring system; Volvo's whiplash protection seats (WHIPS); and the additional side structure to protect the passenger cell (SIPS). All the smart brake technology, traction and stability control you could want are built in. The Volvo also has smart taillights that flash to alert drivers of a panic stop. Our full-boat tester included a raft of safety options: the BLIS Blind Spot Information System ($595), which uses mirror-mounted sensors to scan the rear periphery and alert drivers with door-mounted indicators; the parking-assist system ($495); and the adaptive cruise control with collision warning and brake support ($1,495). You may have seen the S80 commercial in which the driver and his wife are out for a late-night run to Pink's hot dog stand. He's not looking where he's going and runs up on a slower vehicle. The system flashes. She laughs and looks at him lovingly. Not in real life she doesn't. Attuned to the fact that women think of safety not just in terms of crash protection but personal security, Volvo offers the optional Personal Car Communicator (PCC), a high-tech keyless entry device that tells you if the car's alarm has been activated while you're away; the car even has a heartbeat sensor to tell you if anyone is hiding in the car. Cool. Volvo sedans once had a reputation for being kind of solemn and lubberly to drive. The S80 V8 should put a stake in that idea. This is a powerful, fluid and agile car. Of course, it helps that our test car was shod with Pirelli P-Zero 245/40 18's, Z-rated tires that would make a dump truck corner. The tires are part of the Sport/ZUBRA package, which includes speed-sensitive steering and the adjustable damping chassis. The Comfort suspension setting is just that, while the Advanced setting gives the car a tensed and confident cornering posture. The V8 spins the dial to 311 hp and 325 pound-feet of torque at 3,950 rpm. Fed through the leggy Geartronic six-speed, the engine is capable of pushing the car along at 80 mph at a whispering 2,400 rpm. Onramp acceleration is quite sufficient to put you in triple digits before the merge lane ends. So now I have to reorder my favorite cars in this class. The Volvo — which has the added advantage of being neither German nor Japanese, a nonaligned nation in a segment where nationality matters to a lot of buyers — nudges the Acura RL from the top spot. Coolly Euro, quietly indifferent to its competitors, understated and overachieving, this V8 powered son of Gothenburg is most definitely a good idea. Price, as tested: $58,490 Final thoughts: Get groceries, now!