Volvo's S40 has long been an odd duck in the Volvo fleet. The current car lacks the style of its bigger, more powerful siblings and its price-to-size ratio is less than thrilling for U.S. customers who seem to embrace the "more is more" philosophy when it comes to automobiles. Oh yeah, and we Americans do want more, but we want to pay less for it. If Volvo has anything to say about it, we will get just that the redesigned S40 is a roomier car with more standard features and more power, and it all comes in a great-looking package that will cost you less money. When will this gravy train end?
Let's face it, the outgoing S40 has never been a real fashionista and it did little to improve Volvo's image as a stuffy builder of cars that were safe but unexciting. Still, we found that the car's 1.9-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine delivered a smooth, ample power supply. Although the 2000 S40 had already been on sale for a few years in Europe when U.S. customers first got a crack at it in 2000, the all-new S40 has been designed specifically with North American customers in mind and shares nothing but its name with the original S40.
Although the redesigned sedan's improvements are many, the most obvious upgrades are to the interior and exterior styling. The car now shares more lines with the more stylish S60 and S80 sedans and looks so much cooler than before. From the rear three-quarter view, it almost has a bit of a BMW 3 Series look to it. Shorter in overall length, but wider and riding on a longer wheelbase, the S40 now has a slightly more aggressive stance and looks the part of a performance-oriented luxury sedan. The interior has been significantly dressed up as well. Open the door and the super-slim center stack instantly grabs your attention. Visually, it ties the dash and center console together, but the open space behind it combined with the arching shape all point to a very Scandinavian design theme that continues throughout the cabin with its very clean, uncluttered spaces and sharp lines.
The seats are comfortable at first but an extended stint behind the wheel resulted in some soreness after about an hour in the saddle this will likely vary from person to person (I was the only one among 20 or so journalists who found the seats to be less than ideal). And speaking of the seats, there are four different fabric choices available. The T-tec material is especially nice as it helps keep you planted in the seat during more spirited driving while also allowing for better "breathing" than leather. For a relatively small car, the rear seat is quite spacious. Legroom is adequate, and the seats themselves feel a little softer than those in the front.
The other notable improvements are the two engine and three transmission choices (depending on which trim you opt for), something the old S40 did not offer. The standard 2.4i model comes with a 2.4-liter, inline five-cylinder engine that is normally aspirated and makes 168 horsepower. A five-speed manual and a five-speed automatic are the available transmissions with the base engine. The upgraded T5 model offers a turbocharged five-cylinder engine that grows to 2.5 liters and makes 218 hp. Of the two, the T5 is definitely the car serious drivers will want to spend time with. It would be unfair to call the 2.4i underpowered, but once the turbo on the T5 kicks in, the 2.4i is but a distant memory. Anyone who drives both will surely opt for the T5. Available with the same Geartronic five-speed automatic transmission as the 2.4i, the T5 also offers the benefit of an optional six-speed manual gearbox in lieu of the 2.4's five-speed unit. The T5 feels downright quick no matter which transmission is chosen, but the six-speed manual gives the car a more aggressive, urgent character when running through the gears.
The handling is sporty and tight for the most part but the tires seemed overwhelmed when we really pushed the car during our initial drive. Because of the tires (205/55R16 tires are standard on all S40s) and its front-wheel-drive configuration, the S40 has a tendency to understeer in the corners. That said, the overall feeling of the S40 is of a sporty, capable sedan that rewards spirited driving with a good deal of fun. It's apparent that Volvo made the S40 sportier and that complaints of excessive body roll in the previous car were remedied. Still, there is a price to be paid for this the ride on the open highway can be a little busy, especially on less than perfect concrete highways. On smoother asphalt, the S40 is quiet and comfortable. I'm perfectly willing to admit that this complaint could be the result of a personal bias toward soft-riding highway cruisers, but the fact remains there are cars like the Acura TSX that offer both sharp handling and excellent highway manners.
Of course no discussion of a Volvo would be complete without at least a brief mention of safety. All-new S40s will be built at a new Volvo facility in Ghent, Belgium, and have gone through extensive testing at the Volvo Safety Center, a facility Volvo calls the most advanced in the world. One of the more interesting safety features of the S40 is the fact that the car uses four different grades of steel in crucial areas in order to absorb the impact in case of a frontal collision. Normal high-strength steel is used near the front of the car with the metal increasing in strength closer to the passenger compartment. In case of a low-speed impact, there are collapsible "crash boxes" in the front area to insure that replacement costs are kept down. The steering wheel and pedals are collapsible and the steering wheel is designed to stay in position as it collapses in order to keep the airbag aimed correctly.
The front seats are also equipped with the Whiplash Injury Prevention System (WHIPS) that is designed to prevent or lessen whiplash-related injuries. With WHIPS, the seat mimics the occupant's body movements in case of a rear-end accident. In addition, the front seatbelts have force limiters, while both front and rear seatbelts have pretensioners to keep occupants in place. Side-impact protection comes from larger curtain airbags that are designed to stay inflated longer in case of a rollover accident.
The bottom line is that the new S40 (officially labeled a 2004.5) is much improved over the 2004 model. The base price (excluding destination charge) for the non-turbo 2.4i is just over $24,000. That means the all-new S40 is roomier inside, offers more power and standard features but sells for slightly less than the car it replaces. If you lamented the old S40's lack of style or felt it just didn't seem like a real Volvo, that will not be an issue with the new car. The interior and exterior are sharp-looking, enough so that some entry-luxury buyers may consider this car on the basis of style alone. We expect that the new S40 will appeal most to those customers who want a sporty European sedan but have never before considered a Volvo.