Where have all the old values gone?

Remember when Volvos looked like two or three boxes, depending on whether they were wagons or sedans? And they were driven by college professors who wanted to show us they were above caring about cars? And by homemakers who wanted to go to the mall in the automotive equivalent of a Maytag appliance?

Getting behind the wheel of the stylish, recently redesigned Volvo S80 with the 311-horse V-8 and the

American Graffiti

engine note, one is reminded of just how much things have changed since Volvos were the underpowered province of guys in genteel-shabby tweed jackets with suede elbow patches.

But the techie innovations in the fresh S80 flagship also remind us that some things have not changed. Volvo is still in the business of selling safety wrinkles. It is just putting them in cars with livelier styling and performance.

Indeed, the extensive redesign for 2007 imbued the big sedan with a much sleeker demeanor. If this car has a sheet-metal Achilles' heel, it would be where most cars have them: at the back. As busy as it is, the tail of the S80 is not quite able to reach a strong design conclusion.

The interior styling has no such problems. The test car's cabin design allowed a large car to achieve luxury status in a hushed, civil way. The cream color found on the tester's perforated leather seats, door panels and dash entered into a lovely, understated conspiracy with the charcoal and walnut veneer trim.

Besides its aesthetic appeal, the cabin of the taller new model affords generous headroom and plenty of rear-seat legroom. The cavernous trunk is a good place to entertain about 100 of your closest friends.

The S80 is available for the 2008 model year in three engine flavors: a normally aspirated, 236-horsepower six (base price, $38,705); a turbocharged, 281-horse six ($42,045); and the V-8 designed and built by Yamaha ($49,210).

(The base price and standard equipment list are the only differences between the 2008 V-8 model and the 2007 that I drove. The 2008 is $1,860 more, largely because a number of the options on the 2007 tester were made standard.)

The 4.4-liter V-8 is gutsy and sounds that way, thanks to some heavy-duty politicking by the Swedish automaker's American cousins. "We pushed for that engine note," said U.S. Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston. "The Swedes would have made it as quiet as possible."

A six-speed automatic that can be shifted manually is slick-smooth business, and handling is well-served by the redesign's stiffer structure. The car is predictable enough in the twisties, with a middling amount of body roll and little in the way of understeer.

But the big story on Traction News is the optional speed-sensitive steering. This system dials down steering boost at higher speeds for better road feel. It not only beats the old S80's novocained steering in the feedback competition, it is also more delicate and precise.

The S80's newest safety gear, on the other hand, does not always earn straight A's. I thought the blind-spot warning system (a $595 option) was as worthwhile as it was clever. It uses a camera mounted under the outside mirrors to trigger an inboard amber light whenever a car gets in your blind spot. Interestingly, the light only comes on when someone is passing you, not vice versa.

The alarm that flashes and buzzes when you approach a car too quickly without slowing is something else. Unfortunately, the adaptive-cruise-control system that actuates the light seems to have trouble with objects at right angles to your car. On two occasions, cars turning into driveways started the alarm, even though they were already out of the driving lane.

Good

2007 Volvo S80 V-8 AWD

Base price:

$47,350.

As tested:

$56,025 (includes shipping).

Standard gear:

4.4-liter engine; six-speed automatic transmis-

sion; vented disc brakes with ABS; stability control; 17-inch alloy wheels; performance tires; full luxury complement, including navigation system, leather and wood trim, and eight-speaker audio system.

Options:

Adaptive cruise con-

trol, speed-sensitive steering, blind-spot warning system.

Fuel economy (city/highway):

15/23 m.p.g.

Engine performance:

Gutsy, and sounds that way.

Handling:

Little understeer, middling body roll.

Comfort:

Generous headroom and legroom.

Styling:

Hushed, civil luxury.

Warranty:

Four years or 50,000 miles.

The Ben Key

Four Bens, Excellent,

Three Bens

, Good;

Two Bens

, Fair;

One Ben

, Poor.

Contact Al Haas at BusinessNews@phillynews.com.