Not Necessarily Married--Volvo Goes for a Younger Crowd
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
For $25,000, one could get 2,175 copies of Abba's "Waterloo" from CDnow.com (Rock reached its zenith in 1974, right?). Or perhaps you would be so lucky as to bid on one of Bjorn Borg's Donnay wooden tennis rackets when he's a bit strapped for cash and selling them on eBAY. But if you had $25,000 and you had to buy something Swedish, Volvo would be really happy if you were to look at purchasing its new S40.
Yes, a new Volvo. Not a used '84 240 owned by your Aunt Margie, mind you--we're talking sparkly new, with enough government-mandated warning labels to fill your heart's desire. Ah, but can you buy a new Volvo for under $25,000? As it stands right now, that's pretty much a negative, Johnny. The cheapest car in Volvo's lineup is a base model S70 Sedan, which rings up with an MSRP of over $27,000. But come Sept. 1, Volvo dealerships will have the 2000 entry-level S40 for sale, along with its wagon variant, the V40. This car will round out Volvo's vehicle lineup, complementing the larger S70/V70, the luxurious S80, and the attractive C70 Coupe and Convertible.
With a starting price of $22,900 for the S40 (the V40 starts at $23,900), Volvo hopes to attract a younger clientele who have never owned a Volvo because they couldn't afford it. Are you 25 to 35 years old and not necessarily married? Do you have an active social life? Have you discussed the intricacies of "The Red Violin" with your friends? Did you change the faceplate on your Nokia cell phone to a bright hue of green equal to Kermit the Frog? If so, you're in Volvo's target crosshair.
This isn't a bad thing by any means. In fact, the S40/V40 is a vehicle that anybody should look at if they are looking for a sedan or wagon for around $25,000. While Volvo says the 40 platform is new, it's really only new for the United States. In fact, the 40 platform has been on sale in Europe since 1996. It's built at the NEDCAR factory in Born, Holland. Originally, there were no plans to sell the car in North America. But after lots of screaming, kicking and whining (no, we don't know if they really screamed and whined--it was probably more about corporate memos and coffee-powered meetings) Volvo Cars of North America convinced headquarters to bring the car over.
All S40/V40s are equipped with a turbocharged DOHC 1.9-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine. Maximum horsepower is 160 at 5,100 rpm. A more important figure, however, is the 170 ft-lbs. of torque available as low as 1,800 rpm. The low torque peak is due to Volvo's light-pressure turbo system (LPT), which is designed to build boost pressure more quickly than a normal turbo system. Maximum boost pressure is 8.4 psi. The 1.9-liter engine is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The transmission offers three modes: Economy, Sport, and Winter. As of now, the automatic transmission is the sole choice--a shift-it-yourself manual tranny isn't offered. Traction control is optional.
Power is routed to the front wheels and a competent chassis. Up front are MacPherson struts combined with anti-dive suspension geometry designed to limit the amount of weight transfer to the front of the vehicle under hard braking. The rear suspension is a multi-link design. One of the links, the toe-in link, gives the rear wheels a slight steering ability (effectively, a passive rear-steer system) to provide improved response and stability when cornering. To suit the American style of driving, as well as the style of American roads (Detroit potholes, anybody?), spring rates and shock damping have been reduced when compared to the European suspensions. Every American S40/V40 comes equipped with 195/60-series tires on 15-inch wheels.
Inside, the 40 platform doesn't skimp on Volvo's usual strong points of safety and comfort. For safety, there are dual front airbags, side airbags (the S40/V40 uses Volvo's SIPS II side-airbag design, which is said to provide even more protection to the chest and head) and front seatbelts that are adjustable to match the driver's height. The front belts are also equipped with pre-tensioners, which tighten the belts in order to help prevent slack in a frontal collision. The S40/V40 also has Volvo's new Whiplash Protection System (WHIPS) seats that were introduced on the S80 last year. These seats help prevent whiplash in a rear-end collision. The rear seats, including the center, are equipped with three-point belts and headrests. As you would expect, all of these features are standard.
The S40 has a European styling flavor to it, and it generally works to its benefit. The S40 is certainly the best-looking car in Volvo's lineup after the C70 Coupe. The lines are smooth with a nice integration of the traditional Volvo grille. The V40, much like Mrs. Clinton and her bid to win over hard-nosed New Yorkers, is also softer and kinder than previous "shipping box included" Volvo wagons. The V40 seems to look best in black because the black scheme tidies up the rear-hatch styling.
The driving experience between the S40 and V40 is virtually identical. You really can look at the V40 as simply a S40 with extra space to load up all of your worldly belongings. One nice feature about the wagon is that the rear seats can be folded down completely to provide a virtually flat floor. We were able to drive both cars briefly on the interstates and two-lane roads east of Seattle. The 40's handling seems quite competent, with decent steering and a minimum of body roll. We have a feeling, however, that when pushed, the 195/60-series tires will be overwhelmed. It also seems a bit silly that there's no manual available, especially considering 1) a manual transmission is offered for this engine in Europe; 2) it's a four-cylinder; and 3) the S40 otherwise has a sporting flair to it.
Transmission aside, the 1.9-liter gets up and goes well enough. You won't know it's turbocharged unless somebody tells you. Once past 2,000 rpm, the engine pulls hard, though the transmission seemed to shift before redline occurred (even in Sport mode). Volvo says zero to 60 arrives in 8.5 seconds and the S40 has a top speed of 126 mph.
Volvo should be happy--it now has a good product it can offer to somebody who is looking to buy an affordable sedan with a reputation of safety and reliability. Volvo says it hopes to sell 30,000 S40/V40s in 2000. That seems reachable enough, but the real questions are these: How will the S40 stack up against the Passat, the A4 and possibly the V6 Accord and Camry? Will the S40 be outgunned in horsepower or overall quality? Will the female Clinton actually win? We smell, we smell...Swedish meatballs? Oh, wait--no. We smell a comparison test coming on...
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