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Volvo S80 D5 - Abbacadabra

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The Swedes are actually a passionate lot. They jive to Abba, love the sea and their king is a great car enthusiast too. And it reflects in the people at Volvo Car Corporation too. One might wonder how can a company, obsessed with safety and the environment be so, but then that has been
a myth. Talk to Steve Harper, platform chief designer and he will tell you about his design days with the great Sir Alec Issigonis and why he’d like to buy the new Fiat 500 in the same breath. Spend some time with Henrik Forsgren, director of communications at Volvo and you will find a great singer and a Sweden guide par excellence in the making. Or for that matter, try visiting the home of Paul De Voijs, country head for Indian operations, and you will find the otherwise gentle Dutchman all suited up in black leathers, astride his 2003 Harley Fat Boy. Still convinced that Volvo is a bunch of boring people? Maybe it’s time
to kill perceptions.

Which is why Volvo invited a couple of us journalists to Sweden to sample the two cars that will herald Volvo Car India, the S80 and the XC90. To be launched sometime in September this year, the two cars will fight it out in a market dominated by the Germans. So far. Not only has Volvo an uphill task of making its brand name known, but also unshackle Indian consumers, hell-bent on getting some Aryan metal. Not that Volvo is an unknown quantity, thanks to the B7R luxury coach that has become an icon in local folklore. But then again, that’s a very different customer from one who is willing to spend half a crore of rupees to ‘go up’ in life. 

Knowing me, knowing you
Gothenburg, Volvo’s home city has a lot of character. There are museums ranging from marine to aviation to modern art, busts of naked people all around (wonder why!), an amusement park with the world’s best wooden roller-coaster ride and daylight in summer that fades away only post 11 pm. Simply put, one can spend a lot of time faffing around, getting high on local lager and chilling out at Avenyn, Gothenburg’s hang-out street. Am not sure, but somewhere, in the madness of Gothenburg, Volvo’s engineers decided, over a couple of schnapps I believe, to install a transversely mounted V8. Then, when they had a few more drinks, they thought of a floating dashboard. And just before they could complete their dessert wine, they said, ‘How about a Geartronic tranny that shifts up only when you want to?’ If they did manage to reach home somehow after that, be sure, those features were incorporated into the S80. Not that front-engined, transversely mounted V8s are a new invention for Volvo or even mankind. The Cadillac Northstar, for one, featured it. Even the Ford Taurus SHO, developed by Yamaha. Incidentally, the V8 S80 I drove too was developed by Yamaha, only because Volvo’s R&D were too preoccupied with developing other next-gen engines. So, when Yamaha did its job and sent the engine back pronto, the Volvo engineers weren’t entirely happy. Not that they doubted Yamaha’s engineering ability, but the V8 turned out to be eerily silent. A real problem for the engine note loving Europeans. So Volvo tweaked it a bit, but I don’t think it comes any close to Audi’s V8 in the RS4 by a country mile. Though, in typical Swedish logic, there is reasoning for mounting the block transversely. It helps in putting more crumple zones. And you thought Volvo wouldn’t consider safety first, hah!So on a slightly wet Tuesday afternoon, I began my journey behind the wheel of the V8 S80 from Volvo’s plant at Gothenburg to the fishing village of Smogen, some 200 km away. The first thing that gripped me was how comfortable the front seats were. Really, these could be pretty much the best seats in the segment from an Indian standpoint. The other thing that strikes you is the centre console design. Steve Harper said that the inspiration for the centre console design comes from the Bang & Olufsen audio remote, a classic example of intuitive placement of controls. The design is clean, figuring out the buttons and their functions never took time. Like Mercedes and BMW, Volvo too has opted for automatic transmissions for its cars in India, which it calls Geartronic. With 4WD as standard, there was no need to get scared of the damp conditions nor the 315 bhp that the 4.4-litre V8 pumps out. Besides the usual jargon like variable valve timing and a variable intake system, the rest is as normal as any other engine, though the sight of the transverse engine had me transfixed for a while. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a very silent engine. Cranking it up involves placing the key in your pocket and pressing the start-stop button on the dashboard, next to the steering wheel. Shift it into D and it feels a little tardy in building up pace on half throttle. Once you apply a bit more pressure, the gearbox starts to change its behaviour as the engine management system tries to adjust to a sporty driver. Though not as instant as the systems on the two Germans, it still has a party trick up its sleeve. 

Getting out of Gothenburg and towards Smogen, the road can be termed as a classic mix of American west coast roads and British-B roads. With water bodies kissing the road at several points, the road has nice tight right-handers and well laid-out straights, which at no point were more than a kilometre long. On those stretches a driver can appreciate Geartronic in manual mode. You hit the redline in a gear and yet it sticks to it, until you decide to shift. This makes it better than the so-called intuitive systems on other competitors. Around corners, it was easy to commit, thanks to 4WD and the traction control system working overtime. I could feel the system chirrup in tandem, as my slightly cold limbs and childish chuckle tried to partner each other in a similar fashion. I also had the advantage of having chosen the sportiest of three damper settings (advanced), but don’t try to get images of either Porsche or BMW’s sport mode, since it isn’t as aggressive. Variable speed-limits on Swedish roads mean you have to alternate between accelerating and braking after every few kilometres. This is where the S80 excelled, with very good brake modulation. The last time I did apply the brakes was also the time I jumped from the V8 to the five-cylinder D5 and in a way hated the moment.

Waterloo
Okay, ignore the Abba song, the D5 wasn’t my Waterloo. But it failed to tingle the senses. The sluggishness of the gearbox just got highlighted even further, to a point where I felt motion, but no kick-in-the-pants acceleration. Once again, stomping the throttle meant waiting for the gearbox to understand the immediacy of the situation and then letting the 40 kgm of peak torque pull you through. If that is not enough, I stopped a couple of times to capture some photographs, and at idle, it is quite loud. For a common-rail diesel, it has the uncharacteristic trait of behaving more like a non-common rail turbocharged direct injection unit. The NVH levels even on the inside too are a tad harsh. This happens to be the second generation of the D5, the first self developed diesel engine by Volvo. And it’s a five-cylinder configuration, the kind the W124 E250D flirted with some ten years ago.All though, is not lost with the engine. Producing 185 bhp from a 2400cc mill, it wins the bhp/cc race against the likes of the E280 CDI with its 190 bhp from 3000cc. So technically, this should be fast off the line, but it didn’t feel as much. It’s difficult to pinpoint the gearbox as the sole culprit, maybe a large turbocharger has got to do with it too. But then again, the same gearbox and engine with identical output power the XC90 as well, and it definitely does behave better. Different gear ratios?  You will have to wait till I tell you more about it after my rib-boat ride experience.

I’ve been waiting for you
That evening as we drove into Smogen, I could find myself as a character straight out of an Enid Blyton book. The wooden houses with boats tied to moors, the lighthouse in the distance, a wooden pier with a bench being lashed by winds and mild waves, cobbled streets and the screaming seagulls, it had all the ingredients of a vivid children’s novel. We quickly grabbed our suits and life-jackets and headed straight to the rib-boat that awaited us. What happened over the next one hour was something I shall never forget for the rest of my life. Powered by a 225 bhp Honda motor, the rib-boat quickly accelerated to a speed of 40 knots as it skirted the water and avoided jutting rocks that have claimed many a boat in the past. Add the fact that it started to rain mid-way and the somewhat disappointing experience with the S80 D5 was quickly delivered to the bottom of the sea. It built up my adrenaline levels and I looked forward to the XC90 D5 with renewed enthusiasm the next day. This after all is Volvo’s answer to BMW’s X5, a time when crossovers started to become the in-thing during the late nineties. It’s still pretty much in vogue and the XC90 is still breathing down the X5’s neck. Besides it was the success of the XC90 that forced BMW to offer a third-row to the X5, something that helped propel XC90 sales since the beginning of this century. Though, the third-row won’t be making it to India for homologation issues, nevertheless, it has, in the making, the recipe for an Indian success.

When you crank up the XC90 D5, you immediately can notice the better NVH levels. Then, when you move your spine and rub the scapula against the seat, you instantly realise how comfortable those seats really are. Not content with just spending my time in the front seats, I even hopped out to try the rear seats. With a six-footer behind the wheel, there is no dearth of legroom as the cleverly designed seats. offered more knee and shin room and like the front-seats, are very well designed for its occupants. This is very unlike the ML350 I drove a couple of months back where I felt I was sitting on a slab of concrete rather than plush leather.

Leaving Smogen back for Gothenburg meant driving on local highways before heading on the Autoroute to our destination. The XC90 never felt unstressed on the autoroute, but was no match for the V8 XC90 on the local highways. But more on the V8 later. The D5 felt refined, much in the vein of what we’ve come to expect of common-rail diesels. The gear ratios too seemed different with a hint of eagerness splashed on the throttle cable. As a mile-muncher with independent suspension at the front and a multi-link combination at the rear, it held well over minor bumps on the highways, while transmitting close to nothing to either driver or occupant. This factor though will be subject to a road-test when we lay our hands on one here in India. Just like the S80, it’s all logical inside with the dashboard and centre-console buttons placed just where you would expect. Both of the vehicles have Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), but might not make it to India. Don’t blame Volvo for that, blame the way our guv’mint works. Or does not work. 

Gimme, gimme, gimme
But don’t let that bother you, since the V8 here is even better than the one on the S80. How? Well, the engine note is a tad more rorty and the gear ratios are even taller. So where in Geartronic mode you hit just south of the tonne in second gear, the XC90’s V8 keeps pulling till it hits a
120 kph on the dial. It builds pace faster, the gearbox is more eager and the smile on your face just keeps getting wider and wider. The focus in the XC90 is comfort married to pace and it does that job very well. It might not have the engine start/stop button, nor does it have the stiffer damper settings, but body control is very good. If there is an SUV for close to 50 lakh rupees that is a sensible bet for India, give the XC90 a very long hard look. And if you think you need a petrol engined SUV, but think the V8 will be too much for you, try out the 3.2 V6 which will be a tad slower, but still fast enough to keep those pesky D-segmenters in check. There’s also permanent 4WD on all the XC90s, just as you would expect it to have.

So should you buy a Volvo over a BMW or a Mercedes or even an Audi? Volvo begins operations with a dealership each in Mumbai, Delhi and Chandigarh for the first year. It might seem small, but they all will have 24x7 service facilities with Volvo tying up with some agencies to pick up your broken-down vehicle from anywhere in India and transport it to the nearest dealership. So as a matter of fact, there isn’t much to worry. Add the fact that these Volvos feature state-of-the-art safety features and reliability levels that are generally a tad better than the Germans, and you do have a good package deal here. As the Swedes would put it, passion doesn’t necessarily mean just a great driver’s car but a car that even appeals to the sensibilities. Time to sing Money money money then.