GREENWICH, Conn. - True to form, Volvo relies on safety to set its new flagship, the S80, apart in the tough luxury-import segment.
Compared to the 960 model it replaces, the S80 is a much more credible entry against German heavyweights, such as the Mercedes E class, BMW's 5 series and the Audi A6. Other likely competitors include the Lexus GS 300 and the Saab 9-5.
In the luxury segment, 'we really have missed a product,' said Helge Alten, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America Inc., at a press introduction here.
Safety remains No. 1. But an optional turbo in the S80 and distinctive styling with a raised 'V' shape in the hood should help Volvo in its campaign to add excitement to its one-dimensional safety image.
Volvo's S80 sales target for the United States is about 25,000 units annually, more than double sales of the 960 in calendar 1997. The new car will appear in U.S. showrooms in October.
Sven Eckerstein, deputy CEO for parent AB Volvo, said Volvo realized the S80 had to have unique features to distinguish itself in the highly competitive segment. For example:
1. Volvo beats other automakers to the punch with an 'inflatable curtain' side airbag that protects the head and upper torso.
Volvo says it is the first to mass -produce the curtain and fit it as standard equipment.
Mercedes will unveil a similar system on the 1999 E class this fall and on the all-new S class, which is due in the United States next spring. BMW already has an 'inflatable tubular structure' head bag, which deploys diagonally across the front side window.
2. The S80 also has what Volvo calls its Whiplash Protection System. The seat backrest and head restraint shift backward during rear-end collisions. Volvo says rearward force is reduced by about 50 percent, decreasing the likelihood of whiplash. The Saab 9-5, which went on sale in late March, has an 'active' head restraint, also intended to reduce whiplash.
3. Volvo positioned the S80's inline-six engine transversely. As a result, there is more room in the engine bay for energy absorption zones, and more room in the passenger compartment, especially back-seat legroom.
The optional, twin-turbo engine in the T6 version of the S80 is the most powerful production engine Volvo ever built, producing 268 hp. The naturally aspirated S80 produces 201 hp.
Volvo says the performance of the S80 T6 is comparable to a 4.0-liter V-8. Not incidentally, the BMW 540i has a 4.0-liter V-8.
The S80 is also significant because it is Volvo's first all-new car since the company killed a would-be merger with France's Renault SA in late 1993.
In deciding to remain independent, the company realized it had to broaden its appeal beyond its core family-oriented buyers to include young people with no children and empty-nesters, whose children have moved out, Alten said.
The resulting product strategy has two platforms: large-car and small-car. Each platform will serve as a basis for at least three models: sedan, wagon and coupe.
The S80 is the first product off Volvo's new large-car platform. The new small-car platform is due around 2002.