Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
The Volvo S40 represents the manufacturer's second dive into a very competitive pool.
Volvo learned the hard way that entering the entry-level sport sedan segment takes more than just a smaller car with a smaller price. When the original S40 went on sale five years ago, it was put forth as one of the sportiest, most affordable Volvos ever. Unfortunately for Volvo, younger buyers saw it for what it really was — one of the most innocuous and least entertaining to drive sedans in its class, with tepid styling to match. If this was Volvo's pitch to a younger generation of buyers, it might as well have gone out on an eight-track cassette 'cause not many people were listening.
Now, five years later, Volvo is making another go at it with a fully redesigned version of the S40, and this time around it has tweaked its Swedish sensibility to more accurately target upscale buyers. The Volvo S40 now looks like a legitimate foe to BMW's 3 Series or Audi's A4, and it has the performance to back up its refreshingly dapper new duds. No one is apt to mistake it for anything but a Volvo, but unlike its predecessor that's not necessarily a bad thing.
More than just a pretty face, the 2005 Volvo S40 now offers a choice of two engines, two transmissions and even a sport package. A larger size opens up additional room inside, while the interior itself wears a novel design that's visually intriguing and functional at the same time. Sound like the makings of a competitive sport sedan? We thought so, and after driving two different versions, our suspicions were confirmed. Looks like Volvo might want to burn this pitch to a CD 'cause younger buyers might actually want to hear about this S40.
Unlike most redesigned sport sedans these days, Volvo didn't automatically commit to the "longer, lower, wider" philosophy to give the S40 a sleeker look. Compared to the previous model, the new Volvo S40 (it officially debuted as a 2004.5 model) is actually shorter, taller and just a little bit wider. More importantly, the S40 gained inches where it matters most, specifically its wheelbase (3.1 inches longer) and track width (2.2 inches wider in front, 2.5 in back). Pushing the wheels outward in each direction not only makes the S40 inherently more stable but also opens up the interior for much needed passenger space.
Keeping the exterior dimensions in check also brought the S40 in at a respectable fighting weight. Although it's nearly 300 pounds heavier than the previous model, at 3,126 pounds, next to cars like the BMW 330i (3,285 pounds) and Mercedes C320 (3,430 pounds), the S40 is a relative lightweight.
In order to take advantage of the S40's lack of heft and more stable chassis, Volvo turned its attention to yet another piece of the sport sedan puzzle — proper motivation. In place of the previous 1.9-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, the S40 now offers a base 2.4-liter five-cylinder or an optional turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder. With 168 and 218 horsepower, respectively, these engines deliver horsepower numbers that are nearly identical to the competition. And unlike the prior model, either of these engines can be coupled with a manual transmission for those who want the true sport sedan experience.
Although the base 2.4-liter engine actually produces slightly less power than the previous 1.9-liter, the fact that is does so without the help of a turbocharger gives it a different feel in day-to-day driving. The power delivery is much more linear, with a steady, if not overly powerful surge over the entire rpm range. It won't impress your passengers with its power, but nor will it leave you pining for more with every shift. Even with the help of a five-speed manual transmission, the base S40 is hardly fast, but the more we drove it, the more we realized that it's a capable engine that most drivers would find perfectly adequate.
Of course, when you're young and affluent, adequate rarely satisfies. Volvo was made all too aware of this with the first S40, so now it offers the choice to step up to the T5 model and its 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder. With 218 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque, the T5's five-cylinder offers nearly as much horsepower and considerably more torque than its European competitors. Add to that a standard six-speed manual transmission (and a choice of either front- or all-wheel drive) and the S40 T5 stacks up favorably with just about any sedan in its class.
Unlike the base engine, the turbocharged 2.5-liter has a more pronounced power curve that takes some getting used to. Get caught in the wrong gear and it doesn't feel much more powerful than the smaller engine due to some turbo lag at lower engine speeds. But wring it out to the redline, and there's no doubt which engine is under the hood as the 2.5 leaps to attention with more power than you might expect. More restrained throttle inputs result in a smooth, quiet rush of power that's a little less frantic yet still enjoyable. Like we said, it takes some getting used to, but once you're attuned to the T5's character there's plenty of fun to be had.
Given that our test car was equipped with the optional all-wheel-drive system, getting all that turbocharged power to the ground wasn't much of a problem. There's some scratching and clawing when the turbo kicks in, but it's otherwise easy to manage and certainly more fun. We definitely got the sense that the all-wheel-drive system was working hard to keep the tires planted although torque steer wasn't deemed excessive. We have our doubts about how well the T5 would run with the front-drive setup.
Volvo isn't exactly known for precise manual gearboxes, but after experiencing both the five- and six-speed versions available on the S40 we were impressed with just how far the company has come. Go easy on it and the stick can be slid from gear to gear with barely two fingers, making for a pleasant daily driver. Push it a little harder and the gearbox has little trouble handling full-throttle speed shifts. The weak spot in the setup continues to be the clutch, as its take-up is still a little on the soft side, a trait that results in some jerky gear changes if you're not careful. Furthermore, the optional five-speed automatic that we experienced on a separate occasion seemed to work quite well, so if you couldn't care less about shifting, just go for the autobox and you won't be missing much.
Much the same could be said about the S40's sport suspension. It comes standard on the all-wheel-drive T5 but is optional on the FWD T5 and the 2.4i base model. The package includes revised suspension settings and a larger wheel-tire combination that give the S40 a more direct connection to the pavement. While we found it surprisingly enjoyable when it came to ripping through our favorite canyons (even more so than the higher-line S60 R), the ride around town was annoyingly harsh. If you're really after a higher level of performance, it makes for a satisfying package, but we're guessing that most drivers would be more content with the standard setup as it offers a more livable compromise between performance and comfort.
Like most Volvos, the S40 excels when it comes to eating up big chunks of miles on the highway. Its sleek shape results in minimal wind noise and even the low-profile tires of the sport package emit negligible road noise. A new electrohydraulic variable-assist power steering system does an excellent job of delivering high-speed confidence and low-speed ease of use. Said one editor, "Drive it around a parking lot and it's the typical one-finger steering feel you expect from Volvo, but at speed this car feels completely different. It turns in quickly and has a solid, connected feel that seems light-years away from the car that you pulled out of the driveway in."
As much as we liked the ride and handling dynamics of the Volvo S40, what really sold us on this car is the form and function of its interior. Unlike some new luxury cars, the S40 doesn't require you to "get used to it" in order to appreciate its design. This is a car you can get in and feel instantly comfortable with nearly all of the controls. It's most dramatic departure from the norm is the unique center stack, which crams all of its hardware into a slim panel that cascades down from the dashboard, leaving a semiuseful storage tray behind it. Not only is the setup attractive in its proportions, it's straightforward in its function.
Four large knobs control basic functions like fan speed, temperature, radio tuning and volume. Adjustments are shown on a centrally located screen that sits near the top of the console just below the CD slot. Other than its tendency to wash out in direct sunlight, the screen does a good job of alternating between various functions without getting too confusing. The knobs have a high-quality feel to them and they're surrounded by a clean sheet of metallic trim that adds some color without looking too flashy. Our only complaint with the setup is the small auxiliary keypad that houses the controls for functions like air direction and radio presets. Its small buttons and low placement make it hard to decipher at a glance, but given its only occasional use, we didn't find it overly frustrating.
Look beyond the eye-catching center stack and the S40's interior continues to impress. From something as simple as a high-quality headliner to the clean and classy gauges, the S40's cabin conveys an upscale feel from top to bottom. There's a substantial feel to everything you touch and we found no noticeable gaps in build quality on our test car. And unlike some of its competitors, even the base 2.4i model imparts a high level of quality despite a base sticker price of just over $23K.
Compared to segment standards like the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, the S40 offers nearly identical interior dimensions. This means that taller drivers and passengers fit snugly but not uncomfortably so. A standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel gives you the room you need to get comfortable, while the soft seats are supportive without feeling constricting. Rear passengers have predictably tighter quarters, with tight toe and knee room but respectable head clearance. Trunk space stands at 14.3 cubic feet, slightly more than most sedans in its class.
The S40 also scores well when it comes to other less quantifiable aspects of design. While the Germans can't seem to grasp the idea of what constitutes a decent cupholder, the S40 puts two well-placed receptacles right between the front seats. Big enough to hold larger drinks, they also feature a felt-lined attachment that can be snapped in to get a better grip on smaller cups of coffee. Try to find that level of detail in a 3 Series and you'll be looking for a long time.
Another example of solid detail work: well-designed window switches. Hardly a feature we typically notice, but several of our editors did just that after driving the S40. Easy to modulate, soft to the touch and with auto up and down at each corner, the window switches were yet another aspect of the S40's cabin that drove home the perception of above-average quality.
None of these aspects of the S40 would have been much of an eye-opener had its price been as much or more than its competitors, but therein lies yet another one of the S40's pleasant surprises. At just under $34K for our well-equipped all-wheel-drive T5, the S40 doesn't ambush your wallet with quite the same vigor as a 3 Series or A4 — both of which would cost well over $40K when equipped in a similar manner. Granted, a Volvo doesn't carry quite the same level of cachet as its German counterparts, but in some circles having something that everyone doesn't is an equally appealing trait. For that kind of buyer — and anyone looking for a refined, comfortable and good-looking sedan for that matter — the Volvo S40 is now a car worth considering.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our S40 was equipped with the premium audio system that features Dolby Pro Logic II technology in addition to an in-dash six-disc CD changer, 280-watt amplifier and 12 speakers. The layout consists of 6.5-inch woofers, 3-inch midranges and 1-inch tweeters in the front doors, while the rear doors get 6.5-inch coaxial speakers and 1-inch tweeters. A 5-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter combo is housed in an individually amplified center speaker in the dash. The interface is a mix of large main control dials and smaller auxiliary buttons. A central display shows you what's going on, and we dug the old-school scrolling dial display that pops onto the screen when you go for the tuner. Compact discs load quickly into the in-dash unit and its overall ease of use is surprisingly good considering all the technology buried in this modestly priced system.
Performance: Dolby's Pro Logic II technology was designed to take an ordinary two-channel signal and transform it into more lifelike five-channel surround sound. You have probably seen similar claims plastered on every "surround sound system" sitting at your local electronics store, but in this instance Dolby comes through with some pretty impressive results. No matter what kind of music you like, it will sound better through this system. It reproduces the entire sound spectrum with an accuracy that's not usually found on systems in this price range. Bass notes are tight, clean and don't distort until you crank the volume to nearly unbearable levels. Mids don't get lost in the shuffle and the tweeters deliver intricate vocals with incredible clarity. We're not exactly sure if it's the "surround sound" qualities of this system that make it come through so well, but whatever it is, you're bound to be impressed by this well-rounded system.
Best Feature: Clean, spacious sound that's virtually distortion-free at anything less than ear-splitting levels.
Worst Feature: Display gets washed out easily by direct sunlight.
Conclusion: One of the best systems in the entry-level class — well worth the money. — Ed Hellwig
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says: I'm pretty impressed with the S40. When I consider that the base model has one of the lowest entry prices in the segment, I'm even more impressed. It's a huge improvement over the previous-generation S40 both in terms of driving fun and style. The very cool flat-panel center stack certainly gets the "oooh" factor, but I found that the small buttons that control the stereo detracted from the design. The exterior design has a great fresh new look, head and shoulders above the previous generation's uninspiring appearance. The handling was very sporty, reminiscent of some finer German automobiles, but I found the ride surprisingly stiff. If I were a buyer, I would opt for the more powerful T5 engine, as the base engine doesn't have a lot of kick to it. Overall, I think the S40 is a great option for people cross-shopping entry-level sport sedans.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says: Carving out a niche in the entry-level luxury sedan segment isn't easy, as well-rounded class leaders like the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 already have the attention of buyers shopping in this segment. There's also the prestigious Mercedes-Benz C-Class for those who want to announce their rise in status, and the well-appointed, sanely priced Acura TSX for those who don't need a German nameplate in their garage. Volvo's redesigned S40 stacks up nicely against all of these cars but doesn't hold a particular advantage over any of them.
The Swedes are known for their expertise in seat and furniture design, and in this regard, the S40 does not disappoint. Its front seats offer a superb blend of soft cushioning and firm support, and thanks to a wide range of adjustment, all but the very tallest drivers will be able to get comfortable behind the wheel. Meanwhile, extremely wide door tops provide the perfect respite for elbows. The rear seats are almost as comfortable, though depending on who's sitting in front, occupants may have little room for their legs and feet — nothing new among luxury-brand compacts. Interior materials quality is excellent (as good or better than that of the larger S60), and I particularly liked the smooth, satinlike fabric on the pillars and headliner. The ultrathin center stack design was also pleasing to the eye, though many of the small buttons (with even smaller LEDs) can be hard to pick out from the crowd.
The driving experience is pleasant and mildly sporty. The T5 engine has more low-end torque than the four-cylinder engines in the A4 1.8T, TSX and C230, as well as a very strong midrange. The manual transmission's shifter is notchy and the pedal take-up is rubbery, but once you're acclimated, you can run through the gears quickly. Torque steer surfaces under full-throttle acceleration — it's a little annoying but sort of an endearing trait among Volvo's T5 models. Most consumers will be satisfied with the handling in everyday driving situations, as the S40 has a tight ride, good body control around corners and well-weighted steering. Push the Volvo hard on twisty roads and it's less enjoyable, succumbing to understeer more quickly than its more sporting competitors. If you're not one to go out on a drive just for the fun of it, though, you'll never know the difference. As a package, the S40 is neither the least expensive nor the best performing car in its class. But it is stylish, luxurious and, to a large extent, entertaining. Although I'd be more likely to go with a 3 Series for myself, those who want to steer clear of the German crowd, should definitely test-drive this Volvo.
"I have owned this car for about a month and a half and I love it. The performance is outstanding and easily outclasses the competition in the price range. The styling is great, it looks nothing like the Volvos of old. Also the gas mileage is great given this is a high-performance car. Volvo has definitely built a winner of a car and attracted a new audience." — Jwarman, July 29, 2004
"Just purchased the T5 for my wife who initially wanted the 2.4i, however after test-driving the T5, took me no effort to sell her on it. Dollar for dollar, far superior to the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. Classy and sporty design inside and out. So far, no complaints just reassurance that we made the right decision. Car gets better everyday." — Lance, July 15, 2004
"I purchased my S40 T5 about a month ago and I've loved every mile so far. It's fast, responsive, comfortable and feels very solid and safe. A great value for the price. I find myself using any excuse to go drive it. I think the S40 will make me a Volvo driver for life!" — Doonie, July 13, 2004
"I test-drove the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Acura TL and Saab, but this car had by far the most bang for the buck. Amazing handling, nice pickup and a beautiful new body. I can't imagine getting this much car for this low of a price." — Wilfork, June 12, 2004
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