Flagship 2.0 By Ed Hellwig Date posted: 06-12-2003 Up until five years ago, Volvo was saddled with a reputation as safe but dull — and deservedly so. Its designs were conceived to improve safety as much as they were to inspire enthusiasm, and the results were less than awe-inspiring. When the S80 debuted in 1998, it left behind the straight edges of the past and replaced them with soft, flowing lines that created an entirely new design direction for the brand. Along with the new look came a new level of luxury as well, pushing Volvo into competition with Europe's most prestigious brands. Although the S80's ground-breaking design has aged well, intense competition in the luxury sedan segment demands the latest in technology and features. With a full redesign still several years away, Volvo has revamped the S80 for 2004 with numerous minor upgrades both inside and out in hopes of keeping its flagship competitive. Only the most keen-eyed Volvo fan is likely to notice the S80's subtle exterior upgrades. The front end was reshaped with a new grille, foglights and air dam, while smaller side mirrors and chrome accents on the door handles and window frames refine the profile. Changes to the rear include a new chrome-accented trunk lid, reshaped bumper and smaller taillights that house brighter LED bulbs. Volvo admits that the changes are minor, but the idea wasn't to transform the car, merely polish it up a little. The S80's interior changes are equally subtle with a slightly altered gauge cluster the most obvious revision. Darker accents highlight the dash, while buyers can now opt for aluminum or wood accents for a different look. Larger door handles make getting in and out easier, and improved materials add to the car's luxury look and feel. Slide behind the wheel and it's hard not to appreciate the generously bolstered seats. Soft, easy to adjust and exceedingly comfortable even after several hours, the S80 was a welcome companion for our day-long introductory test-drive. The interior upgrades for this year build upon what was already an attractive layout, but a few cheap-looking trim pieces and a few too many buttons keep it from achieving class-leading status in this area. New options for '04 include a premium audio system, reverse warning sensors and bi-xenon headlights, while the top-of-the-line model is now known as the S80 Premier. Its standard features list includes special leather upholstery, walnut wood trim and even a dual-screen DVD entertainment system integrated into the back of the front seats. With its generous rear-passenger room, sitting through a two-hour feature won't be the least bit uncomfortable, and if you get thirsty there's also an optional armrest refrigerator. Another significant option making its debut on the S80 is Volvo's exclusive Four-C adjustable suspension. First introduced on the high-performance S60R and V70R models, Four-C stands for Continuous Controlled Chassis Concept. This system instantly recalibrates the car's adjustable shock absorbers based on information received from numerous sensors placed throughout the car. A dashboard switch toggles the system between "sport" and "comfort" modes so you can tailor its adjustments to suit your mood. Never a serious sport sedan, the S80, but the Four-C system does give it an added measure of control. You're not going to mistake it for a BMW, though. Set to "sport," the bumps get a little sharper and the body sways a little less, but the Volvo still prefers the highway over the byway. In "comfort" mode, the ride is continually smooth no matter what the road dishes out, but big bumps still generate a little more cabin noise than we would like. Engine choices remain the same for 2004. Base models use a standard 2.9-liter six-cylinder with 194 horsepower, while the T6 and T6 Premier get a twin-turbo version of the same engine that's good for 268 hp. Acceleration in the T6 models is expectedly brisk, with gear changes from the standard four-speed automatic quick and precise. Engine noise is kept to a minimum and mileage is solid at 19 city/26 highway. With a base price of nearly $38,000 (add $7,000 for the T6), the S80 is up against some pretty stiff competition, namely the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and the Lexus ES 300. As a luxury car, it competes favorably. Its long list of standard features combined with the elegant interior and exterior design impart the feeling of luxury you would expect. As a sport sedan, however, it falls a little short, as it still favors ride comfort over cornering ability. This doesn't seem like much of an endorsement, but Volvo knows that there are plenty of buyers who are looking for a sedan with exactly those attributes. The addition of the Four-C system allows for added performance when necessary, but it doesn't compromise the S80's true calling as a roomy, upscale sedan that coddles both the driver and passengers. While its dull designs may have been left in the 20th century, Volvo still knows the value of comfort and safety, and the new S80 provides plenty of both. The Bottom Line: Minor improvements make this car all the more enjoyable, but the price keeps it from being a real jewel in the rough.