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Safety, safety, safety, with a lot more speed

Volvo S80's performance shatters automaker's tweedy image

I took off the tweed sports jacket with the suede elbow patches and replaced it with the motorcycle jacket I usually wear when piloting my Harley.

I swapped the trail mix and yogurt drink in my lunch box for two slabs of peppered beef jerky and some Red Bull. I shed the Birkenstocks and slipped into my steel-toed Wolverine boots.

Then I grabbed the keys and climbed aboard the 2007 Volvo S80 V8 AWD -- a car that is definitely not to be confused with the earthy-crunchy Volvos of earlier years. This 311-horsepower, V-8 model burbles like an old GTO but is much faster.

Not that I want to stereotype, but folk singer Bill Morrissey did once write a song that said a Volvo wagon will "run on diesel or trail mix."

So what is Volvo trying to tell us with this different kind of car? Perhaps that it is ready to run with Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or that the company is capable of combining safety with luxury and Autobahn-burning speed.

One lingering question: Is this the kind of car that Volvo can sell? The market will soon provide the answer, but there is no doubt that the S80 is a superb piece of machinery.

The 4.4-liter comes from the powerful and ultra-safe Volvo XC-90 SUV. We once tried to tip over the XC-90 on an airport runway, but the car's electronic safety controls wouldn't allow it. Volvo executives say the S80 and other models need powerful engines if the company is to compete with German automakers in the performance/luxury category.

The car comes with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual control options at the stick (no paddles). Under most driving conditions, 95 percent of the power goes to the front wheels. When the roadway is slippery, the system seeks to send power to wherever the grip is greatest. The Volvo's power is evident with even the slightest touch of the pedal, which is firm.

But the sense of steering is too light, especially while pulling out to pass at highway speeds. I'm not sure what gets lost in translation from the front wheels to the steering wheel, but the feel is too vague for a car with 311 horsepower. Eventually, I adjusted, but a model being sold as a performance car needs to provide more feedback to the driver.

The interior is a superb blend of functional cockpit and luxurious cruiser. Its center-stack control section for audio, climate, and road information is a slick, thin approximation of a moveable computer key pad. The seats are superb, with hip and torso bolstering that does not intrude during easy driving and yet manages to hold occupants firmly under aggressive driving conditions.

As is to be expected, the S80 wraps its occupants in a cocoon of safety. Volvo has never skimped in this area and standard features on this model include electronically controlled all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, tire pressure monitoring, side impact air bags front and rear, and protective headrests for all five passengers.

Yes, it's a Volvo. But it's not a tweed-clad professor's Volvo. This one is faster, more powerful, and yet safer than any box he ever drove to campus.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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