Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Driving a Volvo sedan or wagon can elicit a number of emotions. These can range from security and comfort to peace, love and political correctness. Sensations we don't normally associate with the big V's passenger cars include fun, style and value. Volvo is hoping to change this stereotype, and open up its potential customer base, with the company's new S40 Sedan and V40 Wagon.
We first drove these models last summer during a brief press introduction outside of Seattle, Wash. Our initial impressions were positive and we came away from the event feeling the cars' possessed solid handling traits, a functional interior design and a high feature content. A recent road test involving a loaded S40 gave us the opportunity to fully evaluate what this newest Volvo has to offer.
In the realm of vehicle introductions, "new" is a relative term. The S40/V40 became available in Europe in 1996, so while Americans may not be familiar with the concept of a Volvo that competes with Accords and Camrys, Europeans have been buying these cars since before we re-elected Clinton. As such, Volvo has had plenty of time to work out any minor bugs while simultaneously fine-tuning the S40 for American tastes.
Starting on the outside, Volvo worked hard to soften the S40 with rounded edges and a "swoopier" roofline. The front headlights flow gently from the central grille to the outside front corners, giving the S40 a markedly sporty look...at least in Volvo terms. The classic vertical grille slats maintain the S40's family lineage and its overall shape is conservative without being boring.
Boring is also not an issue when it comes to the S40's drivetrain. Volvo used a light-pressure turbo system on the S40's 1.9-liter DOHC engine to give it extra punch without sacrificing low-end grunt. Although a maximum horsepower figure of 160 doesn't sound too impressive, the useable power from this engine, along with its broad torque band and 170 ft-lbs. of maximum torque, pulls the midsize sedan around with authority. With the exception of a slight lag immediately after hitting the throttle from a dead stop, the S40 scoots forward exuberantly.
Once underway, the torquey engine and responsive four-speed automatic transmission work in perfect harmony, giving smooth upshifts and responsive downshifts, especially when in sport mode. Two other modes, economy and winter, further extend the S40's driving characteristics. In economy mode, gear changes are programmed for optimum fuel economy while winter mode has the S40 starting out in third gear to avoid wheel spin on slippery surfaces. Unfortunately, despite its sporting aspirations, no U.S.-bound S40s come with a manual transmission.
As pleased as we were with the styling and drivetrain features on the S40, it was the sedan's ride and handling characteristics that had us hopping out to confirm the car's exterior badging. "Is this really a Volvo?" we found ourselves asking after a blast through our favorite canyon roads. No, it's not going to steal any awards from the likes of Audi's A4 or BMW's 3 Series, but if a Volkswagen Passat is your idea of the perfect sport sedan, do yourself a favor and test-drive the S40. Road feel and feedback are excellent and suspension dampening is ideally balanced between handling and comfort. Finely tuned MacPherson struts up front and a multilink rear suspension, along with a rack-and-pinion steering system, bring a distinctly Teutonic flavor to this Swedish sedan.
Limiting the S40's ultimate handling performance is its somewhat diminutive tire package. With four 195/60R-15s serving as anchor points between the sedan and Mother Earth, it wasn't too difficult to overrun their adhesion limits and induce front-end plow. Still, even when pushed, the factory Michelin MXV4's provided surprising grip and plenty of breakaway warning. We'd love to see a tire-and-wheel upgrade offered on the S40, but even in stock form the car is truly a joy to drive.
Looking beyond its performance abilities, we found the S40 to be a remarkable combination of luxury and value. Comfortable and supportive front seats have that Swedish feel we've come to expect from Volvo's high-end cars, and the interior materials were some of the best we've seen in a sub-$40,000 vehicle. Plastic was almost nonexistent, the dash, door panels and carpet had a quality feel, and even the wood inserts avoided that cheap look rampant in cars at this price range. Of course, we did have the optional leather seats in our test vehicle, but that alone can't account for the overall look and feel of quality in the S40's interior. Well done, Volvo!
As much as we appreciate quality interior materials, they mean little if the design and layout of the cabin is an ergonomic nightmare. Once again, Volvo's S40 scores with a useable and comfortable setup that combines an upright seating position with easy to read gauges and a logical control system. Legroom is plentiful and the thick steering wheel falls readily to hand. An innovative ratcheting center armrest means drivers of different heights are assured adequate support.
Rear seating is similarly impressive, particularly for a vehicle of this size. The raised front seats mean plenty of foot room for rear passengers and all three positions get a shoulder belt and adjustable headrest. Legroom can be tight for taller people, but the cushy design of the front seatbacks allows for a fair amount of "give" and unexpected knee room. The rear seatback angle is a bit too reclined for our tastes, but otherwise we found rear seating to be comfortable and highly functional.
The practical design of the S40 extends from its interior layout to its cargo-carrying capacity. By allowing the rear seat bottoms to flip up and the rear seatbacks to fold flat, the S40 can haul large items with ease. The low trunk liftover means loading those items is easy as well.
Everyone knows you can't buy a Volvo, not even the "cheap" one, without getting a fair amount of safety equipment. The S40 follows company tradition by including front- and side-impact airbags, a whiplash protection system integrated into the headrests, a sophisticated chassis designed to absorb and redistribute crash-impact forces, and electronic brake distribution to maximize rear wheel braking forces even when vehicle weight has shifted forward. Dynamic stability control is also available for those seeking that extra level of protection when the weather turns ugly.
After spending a week with the S40 our list of complaints is short. We wish the car made less wind noise at high speeds and we'd like to see more interior storage bins for carrying our assorted detritus (cell phones, radar detectors, day planners, etc). A manual transmission seems like a natural fit for such an otherwise sporty car, and we have to caution buyers looking to get a "value-priced" Volvo when ordering their S40. While the base price starts out at less than $23,500, a few checks of the option sheet will have you heading toward $30,000 faster than you can say BMW 323i. Against Accords, Camrys, Saturns, Passats, and Galants, the S40 can hold its own. But when A4s and 3 Series start becoming viable options, the S40's value equation drops like an overcooked Swedish meatball.
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