A subtle evolution is taking place within automotive design. For much of the automobile's first hundred years, which nearly if not precisely coincides with the 20th century, there have basically been two interpretations of the auto. The practical, utilitarian vehicle conveys people and things. The attractive, powerful vehicle enchants the eye and inflames the passions. A tool or a toy, that's automotive history to date.
The debut of Volvo's 2007 version of its S80 flagship sedan suggests that a third, novel interpretation of the automobile is germinating, although hardly yet mature. This is the automobile as system. More precisely, it is the automobile that, when driver and passengers are "docked" within, integrates with and extends human behavior to accomplish many more tasks than mere transportation or play.
This is the conclusion one simply must draw from the subtle but extensive changes incorporated into Volvo's top-of-the-line, five passenger S80. Exterior styling changes have not left a single inch of sheetmetal untouched; yet the new S80 is still instantly recognizable as the descendant of its predecessor. If anything, it is blunter up front, more muscular at rear, more windswept over the top and sides. But the styling changes are by matters of degree, by incremental movements of a finely calibrated needle.
Certainly more dramatic and stunning are the S80's new choices of powertrain. These are a 3.2-liter inline-six making 235 horsepower and 236 foot-pounds of torque and a 4.4-liter twin-cam V8 with 311 hp and 325 foot-pounds. A V8 Volvo sedan, in particular, is a dramatic innovation indeed. It's fair to say that never before has there existed a Volvo that, even when idling, communicates such glowering menace through its guttural exhaust note.
But cognoscenti know that these S80 powertrains have already debuted with Volvo's XC90 sport/utility vehicle. They are nicely adapted to their new, very different assignments as powertrains for a luxury sedan, but they are hardly revolutionary. Mere shifts of the needle.
It remains to experience the S80 from the inside, and here is where the inauguration of the "system car" age is most apparent. For one thing, the novel attributes of this system car are subtle, if not altogether invisible. It is impossible, after all, to "point" to functionality; yet functionality pervades the S80's cockpit.
Whereas adaptive cruise control (ACC) is already available with certain competing vehicles, Volvo takes this radar-sensing technology to a next level. The S80's Collision Warning System (with brake support) uses ACC's proximity sensing abilities to monitor how near the S80 may be to a vehicle ahead. If it's too close, warning chimes alert the driver while the brakes pre-load with hydraulic pressure. If the driver must resort to emergency braking, the pre-armed brakes can deploy instantly, saving precious microseconds.
To the sides, a blind spot information system (BLIS) uses cameras to alert a driver when vehicles or obstructions occupy the inevitable blind spots at the rear flanks of the car. Cornering dual-xenon headlamps turn with the steering wheel; and rear brake lamps illuminate to a second, brighter stage of red-warning during emergency or panic stops.
Bluetooth telephone connectivity enables voice-activated, hands-free communications, and a distinctive "waterfall" console integrates within minimal space both audio and climate control functions that are push-button simple. Optional premium sound deploys Dolby ProLogic II Surround sound, with the help of Alpine and Bang & Olufsen engineering. An auxiliary jack supports iPod and other MP3 players, and there's even an "iPod" text feature for displaying song information on the S80's display screen.
Another system car innovation combines programmable steering effort modes and three suspension tuning levels. In short, the car's driving personality can be tailored to both driver and task, stored, then recalled depending upon who sits behind the wheel. Integrated into this personalizing ability is the S80's "Personal Car Communicator" key fob. An information button on the fob can recall whether the car was locked or unlocked, even when depressed far from the vehicle. At the closer range of about 300 feet, the S80 cockpit's imbedded heartbeat sensor can communicate to the fob whether an intruder may have entered the car after the alarm was activated.
Sportish (particularly with a V8 and all-wheel-drive) if not truly sporty, handsome if not uniquely beautiful, Volvo's new S80 points to a third way in evolving auto design. Integrating performance and aesthetics with multi-tasking functionality provides our initial hints of what the "system car" may become in the 21st century. In the S80's case, it will be a car meant not only to be driven but also worn, like a magic suit of armor of many powers.