Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
New styling, interior improvements.
The S40 and V50 have given Volvo a legitimate alternative to the less-expensive cars from other import luxury brands. We'd go so far as to call these small Volvos sport sedans (or wagons, as the case may be), and with substantial improvements for 2008, the S40 and V50 are better than ever.
Changes for 2008 are about as extensive as one expects between complete model overhauls. Both the S40 sedan and V50 wagon get a fresh look, thanks to restyled front and rear ends. Interior improvements add small-item storage space, and all models now come standard with an auxiliary audio jack and USB port. In the Volvo fashion, there are also safety enhancements, including a feature that automatically starts the emergency flashers in the event of a collision. Volvo's BLIS blind-spot monitoring system and active Bi-Xenon headlights are now optional on the both S40 and V50. On the performance side, the turbocharged T5 models get a boost from 218 to 227 peak horsepower.
The Volvo S40 sedan and Volvo V50 wagon are relatively small cars: essentially the same size as a Honda Civic. Yet there's plenty of room for passengers and cargo inside, and the compact exterior dimensions make them easier to park. They are designed to be extremely safe, with active and passive safety features to help drivers avoid accidents, then protect them if there is a crash. Both the sedan and wagon rank among the best looking Volvos ever, and inside they offer clean, Scandinavian elegance. For both appearance and ease of function, the interiors rank among best in class.
The S40 looks and feels like a sports sedan. The same applies to the V50 wagon. The V50 wagon drives just like the S40 sedan, and it's nearly identical in size, measuring less than two inches longer in overall length. In fact, the S40 sedan and V50 wagon are nearly identical in every way.
On the open road, these cars are stable and relaxed. They hold there own with the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and other cars in this class, even at high speeds.
The 2.4i models of the S40 and V50 feature a five-cylinder engine that delivers strong torque. As a result, they deliver decent acceleration performance. They also offer a good balance between ride comfort and handling response, with a suspension that's firm but not jarring. The brakes are excellent. All come with a five-speed automatic, though the S40 2.4i is available with a five-speed manual that gives it livelier acceleration performance.
The turbocharged engine in the T5 models is wonderfully smooth and responsive, delivering acceleration that is both even and exhilarating. The automatic transmission works as well as any in this class, and the T5 can be equipped with all-wheel drive for an extra element of performance or all-weather security.
The Volvo S40 and V50 are priced right, especially compared to the entry-level cars from other European luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz. The high-tech systems in these Volvos tend to be those that work for most buyers, rather than technology for technology's sake.
Bottom line, the S40 and V50 are excellent choices in their class, and could be a great alternative for many to more familiar entry models from Mercedes, Audi, or BMW.
The 2008 Volvo S40 sedan and V50 wagon are essentially the same car, save the obvious sedan/wagon distinctions. Both seat five passengers. Front-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is available.
The S40 2.4i ($24,365) and V50 2.4i ($26,815) are powered by a 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine generating 168 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. The S40 2.4i comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, while the V50 2.4i gets Volvo's Geartronic five-speed automatic with a manual shift feature. The automatic is optional on the S40 2.4i ($1,250). Standard equipment includes manual air conditioning with cabin filtration, power windows and door locks with remote locking, cruise control, a tilt-telescoping leather steering wheel with audio controls, 80-watt audio with six speakers and single CD, and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Option packages for the 2.4i models: The Climate Package ($675) adds heated front seats, headlight washers and rain-sensing wipers, while the Select Package for S40 ($2,095) and V50 ($2,145) includes an eight-way power driver's seat, power tilt/slide sunroof, a 160-watt audio upgrade with six-CD changer, oak or aluminum inlays and 17-inch wheels. There are also two stand-alone options: metallic paint ($475) and leather seating ($1,200).
The S40 T5 ($28,515) and V50 T5 ($29,715) have a slightly larger 2.5-liter turbocharged version of the five-cylinder engine. Power increases slightly to 227 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque. The T5 models all come with the five-speed automatic. Standard equipment is further upgraded with fog lights, a power driver's seat, leather gearshift knob and trip computer.
The S40 T5 AWD ($30,365) and V50 T5 AWD ($31,565) add Volvo's full-time variable all-wheel-drive system.
Options for the T5 models: The Premium Package for the S40 ($2,350) and V50 ($2,480) include a power sunroof, leather seating, power passenger seat, memory for the driver seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and Homelink transmitter. The Dynamic Trim Package ($1,695) adds sportier suspension settings and enhances the look with a front chin spoiler, rear lower valance spoiler, side skirts, and 17-inch alloy wheels. The DVD-based navigation system ($2,120) includes a remote for passenger operation and the Dynaudio Package, with a 650-watt amplifier, 12 speakers and Dolby Pro-Logic II processing. Stand-alone options include keyless drive ($450) and 17-inch wheels ($1,350).
Safety features include front-impact airbags, torso-protecting side-impact airbags for front passengers, and head-protecting curtains for all outboard passengers. All models come with antilock brakes and Volvo's Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DSTC), which senses and then tries to correct a potential skid. Volvo's Whiplash Seat Protection System, or WHIPS, uses specially designed seats to minimize potential for neck injuries in a rear-end impact.
New for 2008 is an Automatic Hazard Warning feature that starts the emergency flashers in the event of a collision. Optional safety features include Volvo's Blind Spot Information System, or BLIS ($695), which warns the driver of nearby vehicles that might not be visible in the mirrors. Active Bi-Xenon headlights ($800) point into curves and remain level over bumpy surfaces. Built-in, height-adjustable child booster seats ($300) are available.
When they were introduced four years ago, the S40 sedan and V50 wagon launched a trend at Volvo, and it's a trend we wholeheartedly endorse. These compact models moved Volvo from its familiar angular, square-ish look toward something much less frumpy. They're distinctive among so-called near luxury cars, and easy to identify as Volvos.
For 2008, changes to the S40 and V50 are noticeable, and they're intended to bring the smaller Volvos more into line with the company's recently re-styled flagship S80 sedan. The updates enhance the S40 and V50, but they don't substantially change their character, and that's good. Both rank with the best looking Volvos ever offered.
The S40 is subtle and original, but mostly very clean: sophisticated in its simplicity, but certainly not simple. Form follows function in this sedan, as a short overall length (for crisp handling and easy parking) was a primary engineering objective.
Rounded front corners (as well as a compact engine package) enable this shortness, and the rear corners are pushed in as well, giving the S40 a tight but still stylish shape. Sparse application of chrome creates a classy look, and for 2008 there are fewer black bits on the body. Lower door, sill and side moldings are now color coordinated to match the paint. The doors are slightly convex, with high shoulders that add a sense of security for those sitting inside.
The S40 and V50 are Volvos from any angle, but it's most obvious head on, looking into the dark egg-crate grille with the diagonal Volvo slash through the center. The sedan and wagon are identical from the front, sporting a slightly larger grille in 2008, with a much larger Volvo badge in the center. The headlights have been reshaped slightly, with a more pronounced tear-drop downturn at the inside edges. The air intake under the bumper now runs full width without interruption.
Viewed in profile, a sharp rear end and softer front end give the S40 direction. The rocker panels are slightly wider in the rear, creating the illusion of forward rake and more motion. More dramatically, the sloping roofline quickly meets an abrupt, lipless rear deck. The distance between the bottom of the glass and the back edge of the deck is not much more than a foot. Yet all the lines, including the rear hips, cascade smoothly together. The optional 17-inch rims fill the wheel wells nicely and enhance the S40's presence.
Viewed from the rear, the huge red taillights are trademark Volvo. They've been reshaped slightly for 2008, now with long lasting LED elements rather than bulbs.
In side view, the V50 wagon is created by 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 all very graceful, though from the rear the wagon's huge taillights add some gawkiness. They extend up the sides all the way to the roof, and we aren't necessarily consoled by the fact that they are nearly impossible for other drivers to miss.
With its smallest sedan and wagon, Volvo tried to provide the same sort of impact protection buyers seek in its larger vehicles. To that end, both the S40 and V50 apply what the company calls the Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture, or VIVA. That means extra-sturdy anti-intrusion beams in the doors, and multiple crumple or deformations zones front and rear, built with different strengths of steel depending on that zone's location and function: conventional, high strength, extra high strength and ultra high strength. The idea is to dissipate or absorb the energy of a collision before it finally reaches the car's cabin, or the people inside it.
Interior updates in the 2008 Volvo S40 and V50 are subtle, but welcome. The improvements address niggling shortcomings in what was otherwise a first-rate cabin. One example: re-designed dash vents that move more air. The S40 sedan and V50 wagon share essentially that same interior, and it looks great. It's also intuitive, everything works the way you'd expect, and it's easy to get comfortable.
The S40 and V50 are surprisingly roomy given their exterior dimensions, which are nearly identical to a Honda Civic or Ford Focus. Volvo should be credited for creating efficient, intelligent ways to use space. Everything in the S40/V50 cabin is carefully compact, including the strong stubby door handles. They're easy to grab and pull.
The materials and finish are very good. The expanses of plastic and vinyl have a soft, leathery look. The standard trim in base 2.4i models is a flat-finish plastic called Bauxite, and it looks fine. The T5s come with brushed aluminum interior trim, not too much and in all the right places, including the whole center stack. Genuine Nordic Light Oak is optional in all models, and it looks like the finish on fine furniture. The optional leather upholstery is smooth and thick, stretched taut over the seats rather than draped.
The seats are excellent. It's hard to find a better mix of comfort and support for typical driving. The optional sport seats in some luxury brands might ultimately be better, but they are much harder to settle into not to mention they are usually expensive. The fabric that comes standard resists stains. Dog owners may be better served by the leather, however, because dog hair can get imbedded in the fabric upholstery.
The fold-flat front passenger seat is a valuable feature. Standard on all models, the front seatback can fold forward to roughly the same level as the folded rear seat and cargo floor. This adds three feet to the length of items that can be carried within the car. And as far as we could tell, this feature does nothing to diminish the seat's comfort.
Volvo's WHIPS whiplash-limiting seat is designed to reduce the change of a neck injury in a rear-end collision: During a rear-end impact, the seatbacks move rearward to reduce acceleration forces on the occupant's back and neck, while the headrest pushes forward and upward slightly to meet the neck and head as they are thrust backward.
The S40/V50 instrument panel is clean, simple and workmanlike, with a big speedometer and tachometer featuring white numbers on a black background with red needles. For 2008, the T5 models are upgraded with gauges designed to replicate the look a fine watch. The overall effect of the dashboard is very Scandinavian, yet the coolest part may be the thin-panel center stack.
The S40 and V50 were the first Volvos to use the thin panel, and it has quickly become one of our favorites. The center stack is barely more than an inch thick, like a flat-screen computer monitor, with open space behind it. It curves gracefully upward from the minimalist shift lever to link the center console with the rest of the instrument panel.
Most controls are located in the thin panel, with audio above climate and a text display at the top, arranged in a neat, symmetrical pattern. The four primary knobs are placed at the corners, big and raised substantially from the surface so they're easy to find. One of those knobs is a menu control that easily accesses more detailed controls displayed on the information screen. The airflow buttons are fashioned in an icon shaped like a seated person, so there's absolutely no confusion about directing air toward the face, feet or windshield.
It's all quite clean, effective and pleasing. Most significantly, measured by function and ease of operation, various controls in the S40 and V50 are simpler, better, than most other luxury brands. Particularly German brands, which still insist on layering more menus (and butto.
The Volvo S40 and V50 are essentially the same car underneath, so when it comes to the driving, what goes for the S40 sedan also goes for V50 wagon. The V50 performs identically to the S40, despite the extra bit of utility that goes with its wagon body style.
These cars happen to be two of our favorite Volvos, measured strictly by how much we'd enjoy driving them as daily transportation. Both are quite comfortable, despite their compact size, yet both are nimble and lively when gathering up the miles. In short, these small Volvos can be fun to drive.
We've driven all the S40 and V50 models, and found no glaring shortcomings in any of them. The base 2.4i is an excellent choice for drivers who want a safe small car with good driving dynamics and fuel economy. Those who need lively acceleration may find it a bit soft on power. The T5 models offer better acceleration and livelier handling response with their turbocharged engines.
The base S40 and V50 offer a nice balance of ride and handling. They're smooth, with enough power for most drivers. We'd recommend the standard manual transmission for those who can live with it, only because it allows the driver to take maximum advantage of the 168 horsepower in the 2.5i's five-cylinder engine. But even with the optional five-speed automatic, the 2.4i delivers decent acceleration and similar fuel economy. You'll just have to mash the gas pedal to the floor and hold it, to make sure the transmission knows it's time to go.
The steering is boosted just right in these cars, with light, distinct and controlled feedback. It feels firm and tight, offering the right amount of resistance. The torque steer often found in front-wheel-drive cars is not apparent in these Volvos, even with the higher-power, turbocharged T5 models.
The T5 version's turbocharged engine is wonderfully smooth, and it gets a moderate power increase for 2008 to 227 peak horsepower. Acceleration is quick and linear and the power band is broad, so the engine enthusiastically finds more speed no matter how fast you're already going. At 80 miles per hour it's only loafing along at 2500 rpm, so there's a lot of power to spare and pleasant, quiet cruising to boot. The T5 is comfortable at high speed, very stable and relaxed, which we learned on some wide-open California desert roads. It's stable at 100 mph and doesn't even feel like a front-wheel-drive car.
With plenty of power on tap, the electronically controlled five-speed automatic decides quickly which gear it needs and shifts down smoothly when you step on the gas. The upshift from fourth to fifth gear was so smooth that we only knew it occurred because we watched the tachometer needle drop. The automatic features a manual shift mode called Geartronic, and in the manual mode, it actually lets the driver control what gear it's in, without stepping in and overriding his or her wishes.
The T5 turns into corners a little more crisply than the 2.4i. It also leans less to one side or the other as g force builds, but it's hardly stiff. We drove it for a stretch at 30-40 mph over a terrible surface with a lot of big rough patches, and the suspension felt firm but never jarring. We could feel the wheels moving, but the impact didn't travel up through the car's body to our hands or the seat of our pants. The suspension isn't as firm as that of, say, a BMW, so it doesn't respond as crisply when driven very hard. The benefit is the Volvo's smoother ride quality.
The T5 AWD models have the advantage of all-wheel drive for improved all-weather safety and handling. The all-wheel drive helps maximize traction in slick, slushy circumstances by sending power to the wheels with the most friction underneath, doing its utmost to maintain the T5's forward momentum. When driven hard on dry pavement, the all-wheel drive helps balance the T5's handling by shifting power to the rear wheels.
The Volvo S40 sedan and V50 wagon make excellent small cars. They offer essential active safety systems, such as advanced ABS and skid-control electronics, and a high level of impact protection. Their interiors are among the best in class. Fresh styling for 2008 doesn't change their essential character, and they still rank among the most handsome Volvos ever. In all, the S40 and V50 remain a good, high-value alternative to entry models from Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from California; with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit, and Mitch McCullough in Washington.
Volvo S40 2.4i sedan ($24,365); V50 2.4i wagon ($26,815), S40 T5 ($28,515); V50 T5 ($29,715); S40 T5 AWD ($30,365); V50 T5 AWD ($31,565).
Options As Tested
leather seating ($1,200); Select Package ($2,145) includes power-adjustable driver's seat, power glass sunroof with slide/tilt positions, trip computer, Sirius satellite radio hardware including six-month subscription, audio upgrade with 160-watt amplifier, eight speakers and 6CD changer, Nordic Light Oak or aluminum inlays, leather gearshift knob, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels and aluminum roof rails; Climate Package ($675) includes heated front seats, headlight washers and rain-sensing wipers; metallic paint ($475).
Volvo V50 2.4i ($26,815).
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