Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Improvements for superb sedan and wagon.
The Volvo S40 returns for its sophomore year with a number of minor changes to the three-model lineup, which continues to be loaded with features at competitive prices.
Safety is a top priority at Volvo, and all S40 sedan and V50 wagon models come with side curtain and side-impact airbags, projector-type headlamps, a rear fog light, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.
When Volvo re-engineered the S40 for 2004, the primary goal was to stuff the same levels of safety found in the flagship S80 luxury sedan into the S40's small package. To that end it was designed using something called VIVA, for Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture. What appears to be an unprecedented amount of time, research, testing and detail went into the construction of the chassis and body in the interest of crash protection. There are several zones of deformation upon impact, built with different strengths of steel depending on that zone's function: conventional, high strength, extra high strength and ultra high strength steel.
The S40 looks like a sports sedan, particularly when fitted with the newly designed optional 17-inch alloy wheels. The V50 is a straightforward wagon extension of that look. The design is clean and elegant, Scandinavian simplicity. Inside, the S40 represents a sharp departure from previous Volvo designs, but above all is comfortable and full of convenience features.
On the road, both body styles are stable and relaxed. Even at high speeds, the Volvos can easily run with expensive sedans from BMW and Mercedes. The turbocharged T5 engine is wonderfully smooth, with quick but linear acceleration performance. The entry-level 2.4i engine feels nearly as quick and is just as smooth. The five-speed automatic is smooth and responsive. The suspension is firm but not jarring, offering an ideal balance of ride and handling, and the brakes are excellent. The S40 continues to enhance Volvo's reputation as a maker of superb sports sedans.
The Volvo S40 2.4i ($23,755) and V50 2.4i ($26,205) use a five-cylinder engine making 168 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm, on premium fuel. The 2.4i comes with a choice of five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission called the Geartronic.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning and power windows and door locks, stability traction control, newly designed 16-inch alloy wheels, remote entry, in-dash CD system and theft-deterrent system. New for 2006 are improved cupholders, steering wheel audio controls, new exterior colors and simplified option structures.
The Select option package ($1,950) includes an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, power tilt/slide sunroof, a premium Dolby Pro-Logic surround sound stereo system with six-disc in-dash CD changer and 12 speakers, a trip computer, and simulated wood inlays. The Sport option package ($875) includes Dynamic suspension, and sport alloy wheels. A Climate package ($675) is available for all models that includes rain-sensor wipers, heated front seats, and headlamp washers. Stand-alone options include a variety of metallic paints, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control ($695), five-speed automatic ($1,200), leather seating surfaces ($1,200), and dual integrated child booster seats ($300).
The S40 T5 ($26,615) and V50 T5 ($27,840) use a slightly larger 2.5-liter turbocharged version of the engine, making 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque over the wide range of 1500 to 4800 rpm. The T5 adds as standard equipment fog lights, a power driver's seat, leather gearshift knob, and trip computer. It comes standard with a superb six-speed close-ratio gearbox, but a five-speed automatic is also available. New for 2006 includes those new elements of the base car plus several more, including a pushdown feature to engage reverse with the six-speed manual, newly designed 16-inch alloys and optional 17-inch alloys, a new stand-alone optional IAQS air quality system, and new exterior colors.
Option packages for the T5 begin with the Sport package ($695), comprised of Dynamic suspension and newly designed Sagitta 17-inch alloy wheels. The Climate package ($695) is available for the T5, also. A Premium package ($2,195) offers a power tilt/slide glass sunroof, leather seating surfaces, eight-way power adjustable passenger seat with lumbar support, and memory for the power driver seat. Increasing the dynamics and the dynamic look is the appropriately named Dynamic Trim package ($2,025). Exterior body parts include a front chin spoiler, rear lower valance spoiler, a trunk-mounted spoiler, side skirts and 17-inch Scotia alloy wheels. The Audio package ($895) includes a 325-watt Dolby Pro-Logic II surround sound system with 12 speakers and an in-dash six-disc CD player. A Convenience package ($405) includes a Homelink remote garage door opener, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and grocery bag holder. Stand-alone options are similar to the base car's except for the notable additions of bi-xenon headlamps ($700), DVD-based navigation system ($2,120), and the IAQS air quality system ($175).
The S40 T5 AWD ($28,390) and V50 T5 AWD ($29,615) feature an electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system and the Dynamic suspension. New to the T5 AWD specifically are newly designed Scotia wheels for the Dynamic package ($2,025). Similar packages to those above are available.
The design of the Volvo S40 is lovely, subtle and original but mostly very clean: Scandinavian simplicity at its artistic best. Clearly, Volvo doesn't do boxes any more with its sedans. From a distance the S40 looks somewhat like an Audi A4, which is its primary competition, but when you look again you appreciate the unique soft snub nose. Form followed function, as short overall length was a primary engineering objective. Sexiness was a styling objective, and the S40 achieves both.
Rounded front corners (but mostly the engine package) enable this shortness, and the rear corners are pushed in as well, giving the S40 an overall stylish shape. The lack of chrome adds class, with the normal bits, from window trim to ding guards, all being black or body colored. The doors are slightly convex, as opposed to the previous concave shape, and high shoulders make occupants feel protected.
The S40 is a Volvo from any angle, but head-on it's unmistakable with its dark eggcrate grille with the diagonal Volvo slash in center. The headlamps bend horizontally from the sweetly flared fenders toward the grille, with three visible lamps: one rectangular, one round and one trapezoidal. The front air dam is divided by two splitters into three neat sections.
Meanwhile the rear end is sharp, and when viewed in silhouette with the soft snub front end, gives the car direction. The eye is further led along by rocker panels that are slightly wider in the rear, giving the illusion of forward rake and more motion. More dramatically, the sloping roofline quickly meets an abrupt and lipless rear deck; the distance between the bottom of the glass and the 90-degree edge of the deck is not much more than a foot. Yet all the lines, including the rear hips, cascade smoothly together.
The license plate indent is clean, unlike many others. The smooth rear bumper rides over two stainless exhaust tips, pointing conspicuously and curiously down toward the ground; if they point down just to look cool, it works. The huge red taillights are trademark Volvo, each with a clear plastic band containing its backup light.
Last but not least, the new optional alloy wheels are some of the best-looking wheels we've seen in a long time. Volvo hasn't missed a single opportunity to make the S40 look terrific.
The V50 Sportwagon shares the attractive front styling of the S40 sedan. From the side, the wagon body style is achieved by simply extending the roof line and belt line back to the tail, with a slight diagonal angle from the roof down to the beltline. It's only from the rear that the V50 differs from the S40. Volvo has taken the same style of tail light, but then extended it up the side of the wagon all the way to the roof, giving the wagon a slightly awkward look from the rear. The only consolation is that the tall tail lights may help warn drivers behind you when stopping quickly.
Like many new cars nowadays, the Volvo S40/V50 is built on a component-sharing strategy with other car companies partly and jointly owned by a giant one. In this case Ford is that giant company and the S40 shares components with the Mazda3 and a European-market Ford Focus that isn't sold in the U.S. But in the big picture that's a mere footnote, for its lack of importance to the car-buyer or the individuality of the car. This is a Volvo.
The interior of the S40 and V50 models represents a revolutionary new design for Volvo. And that's a good thing. It looks great and, best of all, it's all intuitive, unlike the top-of-the-line models from Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
The center stack is only about one inch thick, like a computer monitor with a flat screen. Behind it is a storage bin. Simple, clever, practical, handsome, Swedish. You have to reach around the back of the stack to gain access to that shallow storage space, but it's better to have it than to waste it. The stack begins behind the beautifully minimalist shift lever (no goofy shift balls here), and curves gracefully upward to link the console with the instrument panel. The audio, climate and other buttons are arranged vertically and there are four round knobs at the corners. One of those four knobs is a menu control that easily accesses more detailed information and controls. Above the buttons is an information screen.
One problem we had with the thin stack, however, is that during hard cornering, of which the S40 is eminently capable, our right knee rode hard against the edge, and it hurt. A racer's solution would be to patch it with foam and duct tape and be content. Most drivers won't ever notice.
The T5 comes with brushed aluminum interior trim, which is perfect from a style standpoint. Not too much and in all the right places, including the whole center stack. The 2.4i comes with dark wood trim, which isn't nearly as good-looking.
Everything is carefully compact in the interior, including the strong stubby door handles, easy to grab and pull. The console compartment is deep, with two good cupholders forward of it, and the glovebox is decent-sized. The instrument panel is clean and simple and workmanlike, with a big speedometer and tachometer, white numbers on a black background with red needles.
The S40 and V50 are surprisingly roomy given the exterior dimensions, highlighting Volvo's efficient use of space. And Volvo has created intelligent ways to use that space, benefiting from some of the ideas gleaned from designing the XC90 SUV. The rear seat is a 60/40 split and the seatbacks open up to the trunk when dropped. The front seat folds as flat as the rears, creating an unprecedented open floor space and 38.4 cubic feet of cargo space, a lot for a small sedan.
The chopped-off rear end makes the trunk opening small, but it leads into a deep forward well, with 12.6 cubic feet of luggage space, about average for most mainstream sedans. Below the floor of the trunk is a space-saver spare tire and a first aid kit. The trunk lid was cleverly designed to open and close smoothly and easily.
The V50 wagon offers 27.4 cubic feet of luggage space with all seats upright, and a substantial 62.9 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats and the front passenger seat folded down, which compares favorably to many mid-size wagons by other manufacturers.
Volvo leads the auto industry in environmental awareness, and there's an emphasis on environmentally compatible cabin materials and systems, such as trim materials with low PVC content. A pollen filter comes standard and an optional air-quality system includes an activated carbon filter.
It's easy to put the Volvo S40 in a nutshell: It's a smaller version of the S60. The five-cylinder engines in the S40 allow it to be built just like its big brothers, including the S80. And because it was designed on the heels of the sensational S60R high-performance sedan, a lot of what was learned with the S60R was applied to the S40.
The engine used in the 2.4i versions is a modified version of the five-cylinder engines that Volvo uses in its larger sedans, wagons and SUVs. Most of the external components, from alternator to manifolds to air conditioning compressor, have been designed for a compactness that makes the transversely mounted engine package 7.8 inches thinner and 1 inch shorter. This was all done in holistic pursuit of building the frontal deformation zone for crash safety. It's a modern dual-overhead-cam engine with variable camshaft timing.
The turbocharged engine in the T5 is wonderfully smooth. Its acceleration is quick and linear, with a broad power curve allowing it to evenly gain speed throughout the rev range. But it should be good; it's the same size as the S60's engine yet it's not being asked to make as much horsepower. At 80 miles per hour, with the five-speed automatic transmission, it's only loafing along at 2500 rpm, so there's a lot of power to spare.
The T5 is comfortable at high speed, very stable and relaxed, something we learned in the wide-open California desert where we were able to open 'er up. The T5 feels ready and eager for spirited driving. This is one small car that can be a great Autobahn cruiser, able to run with the big boys, the expensive 130-mph BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. It was so stable at high speeds it didn't feel like a front-wheel-drive car at all.
We couldn't have been happier with the electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission. The upshift from fourth to fifth gear was so smooth that we only knew it was happening by observing the tachometer needle drop. The automatic features a manual shift mode called Geartronic, and in the manual mode, it actually let us control what gear we wanted to be in, without stepping in and overriding our wishes. It's the same transmission that's used in the 300-horsepower S60R, so it's bulletproof in the S40.
The sport sedan and wagon use the same suspension design as the S60 and S80, with geometry that has been calculated for quickness and precision. We drove for a stretch at 30-40 mph over a terrible surface with a lot of big rough patches, and it was clear the suspension was firm but it was never jarring. We could feel the wheels moving, but it wasn't getting to our hands or the seat of or pants, or the body of the car.
We drove up into the mountains over a fast, smooth and winding road, with lots of hard braking and abrupt changing of direction. In that situation the suspension approached its limit and stiffer would have been nice; but that situation was already faster than 95 percent of drivers will take even the T5. The S40 suspension wasn't made for that, as it shouldn't be; if it were, it would have been uncomfortable on the slower and rougher surface. Every suspension has a range, and the S40's range is right on the money. The available Dynamic suspension has slightly stiffer springs and bushings (about 20 percent, according to Volvo).
The steering is electro-hydraulic with light, distinct and controlled feedback. We took those words verbatim out of the S40 press kit. This is something we wouldn't normally ever do, but it's perfectly true. Our own notebook words were: 'firm, tight, the right amount of resistance.' The torque steer normally inherent in front-wheel-drive cars was minimal to the point of insignificance. Years ago it was a problem in Volvos, as it is in many powerful, front-drive cars, but engineers have been whittling away at erasing it with improved halfshafts and universal joints.
We used the brakes a.
The Volvo S40 is a superior small sedan. If it has weaknesses, especially for the price, we couldn't find them. The body and chassis boasts excellent crashworthiness, and the size is both compact outside and spacious inside. Its smooth exterior lines are distinctive, even unique, and beautiful. There are many good new cars nowadays for $25,000, but if you went down the list comparing features, qualities and components, the Volvo S40 would be difficult to beat. Upgrading to the T5 with its turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine puts you into the same levels of performance as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. The V50 packages all this into a practical sport wagon.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from California.
Volvo S40 2.4i ($23,755); T5 ($26,615), T5 AWD ($28,390); V50 2.4i ($26,205); T5 ($27,840); T5 AWD ($29,615).
Options As Tested
Sport package ($695) includes Dynamic Sport Suspension, 17-inch Sagitta alloy wheels, 205/50R17 tires.
Volvo S40 T5 ($26,615).
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