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Swede Sensations

Taking the Volvo S80 D5out for a spin in the Scandinavian hinterlands

Author Piet van Niekerk

Map by Jeff Quinn

Map by Jeff Quinn

If you think you can make an impression by arriving anywhere in Sweden in a stylish Volvo, think again. It seems as if every other Swede drives the brand, and by my estimate about one in 20 owns an S80. You suspect, though, that you’d get a similarly muted response while driving the S80 across, say, the Sahara—the car’s design profile is elegantly understated rather than goosebump-inducing. In any case, the hotel receptionist does not look up despite my attempt to almost park the car in the lobby.

It’s only when you leave the highway that you discover a car’s true personality. So, the next morning I head out for a Sunday cruise down a squiggly, pinched road to the coastal hamlet of Grebbestad. I opted for a model with AWD (standard on the T6 and an option on the D5), and found that the S80 corners remarkably well for a large sedan; even at high speeds, there’s not a hint of oversteer. Otherwise, the trip confirms something I suspected while passing other vehicles on the freeway: The gearbox engineers at Torslanda are conservative types whose priorities are safety and reliability, not thrills.

It’s worth mentioning that there is plenty of kick here, since the S80’s five-cylinder, 2.4-liter turbocharged diesel engine produces 215 horsepower. This energy can be a bit dampened by the car’s six-speed Geartronic gearbox, which in full automatic mode calls to mind a rocket launch—a lot of sound and fury but not a great deal of movement for the first few seconds. I soon find the solution, however: switch to manual transmission and shift on high revs. Only now do I get a sense of the potential of this seemingly docile beast. The S80 does accelerate out of tight corners, provided you give it the power injection to do so.

With the thrust issue resolved, the remainder of my coastal drive is quite enjoyable. Approaching Grebbestad, I switch to cruise mode, feeling very sensible as I glide serenely past the pretty clusters of shacks and trawlers. But this is small-town Sweden, which apparently means that driving at a sensible speed isn’t sufficient. The stares I receive from an elderly couple on the crosswalk before me, in fact, suggest that even an arthritic snail’s progress would be met by the clucking of tongues. If there is a cult of safety among Swedish auto manufacturers, then places like this are its spiritual home.

Being a low-speed demon is a hungry business, so I pull up to the seafood restaurant Grebys, which is said to serve some of the best boiled crayfish in Sweden. Parked beside me, inevitably, are two more S80s, one the very same color and model as my own. While the gentleman who gets out of the latter is on the far side of middle age, as I click the auto lock and crack my back it occurs to me that he isn’t much older than I am. The thought stays with me as I make my way into Grebys, anticipating the crayfish I’m about to enjoy, but also looking forward to the long, supremely comfortable drive home.

PIET VAN NIEKIRK is surprisingly conversant in ’80s Swedish pop music.

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