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Volvo Squarely Re-Creates Image in '99 Model

November 05, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Glacially, inexorably, Volvo is shedding its square and angular skin. It is also at the end of decades of fustiness that implied only Berkeley professors and elderly aunts wearing eau de golden Labrador bought Volvos.

And the suave 1999 S80 T-6--all low slopes and a rounded roof line, wider and weightier but riding a longer wheelbase than the S90 packing crate it replaces--might be the must-buster of them all.

It arrives in showrooms this month with an engine beefy enough to be in one of Volvo's Paris-to-Milan buses--a twin-turbocharged, 2.8-liter inline-6 developing 268 horsepower. Plus a surfeit of torque that peaks way early and should leave divots on the Hollywood Freeway.

Here's a five-seater from Sweden shaped more like something from Germany and very much like something from BMW except for a bobbed rear end and a high, stiff upper lip on the trunk lid. The purpose here is to tease the eyes into admiring a pair of sculpted rear lenses that descend and roll and show off as stylized scalene triangles. In fact, if it weren't for the familiar logo and a chrome bar slashing diagonally across the grille, there are almost no whispers of yesteryear's Volvos. Thank God.

Volvo calls the T-6 "premium personal transportation," which translates in any language, even Swedish, to a loaded luxury sedan targeting with no impertinence BMW's 540i, Lexus' GS 400, Mercedes-Benz's E320 and Cadillac's Seville SLS. The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $40,835, making the T-6 less expensive than the four aforementioned rivals and about $10,000 below the BMW's lowest base sticker. If you want to get silly and order a mass-movement sensor security package, full glove-leather interior, 17-inch alloy wheels, a navigational system and an in-dash CD with surround sound, be prepared to cough up another $10,000.

As standard equipment--and as an industry first--Volvo is supplementing front and side air bags with inflatable side curtains, front and rear, to protect occupants' skulls. Also unique front seats with backs that absorb loads created by rear-end collisions. With no subtlety of acronym, the system is called Whiplash Protection Seat Design, or Whips.

It's all part of Volvo's passion for as much safety as can be crammed into weighty moving objects. Hence standard stability and traction controls; front air bags with two-tier triggers that measure road speed at time of impact and whether occupants are wearing seat belts; a thinking anti-lock braking system working with the traction controls and guaranteeing the application of optimum pressure to the rear wheels during nonemergency braking; and tougher cabin cages and crumple zones.

For about $5,000 less, there's the workingman's S80 that has much of the same stuff--including the safety gear--but is connected to a 2.9-liter inline-6 that's normally aspirated and produces an acceptable 201 horsepower. For ticket-earning members of the League of Rascals, however, the bi-turbo T-6 will be the weapon of choice.

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This S80 is very quick on the uptake, hitting 60 mph from rest in less than seven seconds. Top speed--if riding an empty autobahn at dawn--is 155 mph before electronic reins start hauling you in. Steering gets a little too light at such alarming speeds, the car puts out ponderous vibes, and one remains very aware that this is a 3,600-pound motorcar that is quite close to Lincoln and Cadillac country. And all that power on the wheels of this front-driver will set up some interesting/worrisome torque steer and wheel wobbles when turning sharply under hard throttle.

In such areas of weight reduction and honest, unflinching handling, Volvo still has lessons to learn from Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus. Still, only a few.

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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