2009 Volvo S40 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Compact sport sedan and wagon big on safety.
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 easy 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.
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 their 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 produces 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 transmission.
The turbocharged engine in the T5 models is wonderfully smooth and responsive, delivering acceleration that is both even and exhilarating. The five-speed 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.
After subtle re-styling for 2008, the 2009 models are unchanged. There's more standard equipment for 2009. Automatic transmission is now standard on all models. The 2.4i upgrades from 16-inch to standard 17-inch wheels and now comes with the previously optional stereo, including a 6-disc in-dash CD player with MP3 capability and Sirius satellite radio. A power glass sunroof, front fog lights, power driver's seat, aluminum interior inlays, and Bluetooth wireless telephone interface are now all standard as well.
T5 models get what Volvo calls the R-Design treatment: a unique grille with matte silver outline and R-Design logo, a sport body kit with color-coordinated side skirts and spoilers, two-tone Flextech/leather seats, aluminum sport pedals, sport shift knob, R-Design inlays, blue-faced instruments, and sport steering wheel. Also added for 2009 are standard heated front seats, a memory function for the driver's seat, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass. And 18-inch wheels are now optional on the S40 T5 sedan.
Additionally, Volvo's optional DVD-based navigation system gains an improved driver interface, extended points of interest, and a birdview map with detailed intersection and building footprints.
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 2009 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 Volvo S40 2.4i ($28,550) and V50 2.4i ($29,800) are powered by a 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine generating 168 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Volvo's Geartronic five-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature is now standard in both models. Other standard equipment includes air conditioning with cabin filtration, power windows and door locks with remote locking, cruise control, and a tilt-telescoping leather steering wheel with audio controls. Added for 2009 are a 160-watt, 8-speaker sound system with 6-disc in-dash CD player, MP3 capability, and auxiliary input; Sirius satellite radio; aluminum-inlay interior trim: power glass sunroof; fog lights; power driver's seat; Bluetooth; and 17-inch, seven-twin-spoke Spartacus wheels. The Climate Package ($675) adds heated front seats, headlight washers and rain-sensing wipers. Stand-alone options include metallic paint ($525), leather seating ($1,200), and Nordic Light Oak interior inlays ($150) instead of aluminum.
The S40 T5 ($32,350) sedan has a slightly larger 2.5-liter turbocharged version of the five-cylinder engine. Output increases to 227 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. The T5 models also come with the five-speed automatic transmission, automatic climate control and, for 2009, the new esthetic treatment Volvo calls R-Design, featuring body-color spoilers and side skirts; and a two-tone (black/crème) leather-and-fabric interior treatment that also includes blue-faced instruments and other unique trim. Functional standard equipment includes all the features added to the 2.4i for 2009, plus memory for the driver's seat, heated front seats, and auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass.
The S40 T5 AWD sedan ($33,800) and V50 T5 AWD wagon ($35,500) add Volvo's full-time variable all-wheel-drive system. The wagon now comes with standard aluminum roof rails as well. T5 options include Keyless Drive ($450), HDD navigation ($2,205), and a Dynaudio stereo ($895) with two amplifiers, 12 speakers, and Dolby Pro Logic II Surround Sound. An all-leather, solid-color interior is also available ($200). Midir 18-inch wheels ($750) are offered for the front-drive T5 sedan.
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. Volvo's Automatic Hazard Warning starts the emergency flashers in the event of a collision. A tire pressure monitor is also standard.
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 in the wagons.
When they were introduced for 2004, 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.
2008's subtle restyling was intended to bring the smaller Volvos more into line with the latest look of the flagship S80 sedan. These updates enhanced the S40 and V50, but didn't substantially change their character, and that's good. Both rank with the best looking Volvos ever offered.
The S40 remains 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 last year's revisions took some of the black bits off the body as well. Lower door, sill and side moldings are 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. Both the sedan and the wagon keeping the slightly larger grille from 2008, with its much larger Volvo badge in the center. Ditto the slightly reshaped headlights, with their more pronounced tear-drop downturn at the inside edges. The air intake under the bumper runs full width on the sedan, but is divided into three segments on the wagon.
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 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 now-standard 17-inch Spartacus rims, with their seven pair of elegantly thin spokes, fill the wheel wells nicely and enhance the S40's presence.
Viewed from the rear, the huge red taillights are trademark Volvo. They light with long-lasting LED elements rather than bulbs.
For 2009, T5 models are distinguished by a unique grille with the R-Design logo offset to the lower left. Aero extensions surround the bottom edge of the car, but they are small, body color, and tastefully subtle. More noticeable than any of these features are the T5's bold, five-spoke Serapis alloy wheels. Optional 18-inch Midir wheels are similarly five-spoked, but with rounder spokes that seem to stand out closer to the wheel's surface. (And they are available only on the front-drive sedan.)
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.
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. 2008's interior updates addressed niggling shortcomings in what was otherwise a first-rate cabin. Re-designed dash vents move more air, and storage for small items was improved.
The S40 and V50 are surprisingly roomy given their exterior dimensions, which are very close 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, as well as T5s, is now brushed aluminum, 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. T5s now come standard with Volvo's R-Design motif, meaning light (Crème) leather seating surfaces strikingly bracketed by black Flextech fabric. Full, monotone leather is optional in all models, in black or off-white (Volvo calls it Quartz) in the 2.4i, but in black only in T5s. In either color the leather 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 in the 2.4i 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 chance 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 or, keeping with the R-Design theme in the T5, white numbers on blue faces with red needles. Both 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 functions 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 buttons) in their interfaces. One problem we had with the thin panel, however, is that during hard cornering, of which these cars are eminently capable, our right knee rode hard against the panel edge, and it hurt. But we'll deal with the rubbing and take the thin-panel center stack. Behind the thin panel is a small storage bin, though you have to reach around the back to gain access.
2008's revisions included a serious and partly successful attempt to address our biggest complaint with these cars: a lack of cubby storage for small items. The center console has been redesigned, accompanied by a slight relocation of the handbrake lever. There's now actually some room in the console box, perhaps enough for a small handbag, and there's a rack that holds 10 CDs. The console also works more comfortably as an armrest when the driver is crawling through traffic. The bins at the bottom of the front doors are larger. In all, small storage space has been increased, so it's less of an annoyance detracting from an otherwise excellent cabin.
Trunk space in the sedan is good. The chopped-off rear end makes the trunk opening smaller than that on some comparably sized cars, but it leads into a deep forward well, with 12.6 cubic feet of luggage space. That's average in this size class, but it's only the beginning, The rear seat splits 60/40, and the seatbacks open up to the trunk when dropped. Factor in that fold-flat front seat, and the S40 offers an impressively large open floor, with 38.4 cubic feet of space to carry cargo inside the car. That's a lot for a small sedan, and it can be reached through the side doors as well as the trunk lid.
Cargo space in the V50 wagon expands storage further. We think it's a great choice for people who routinely transport their dogs. It offers 27.4 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats upright, and a substantial 62.6 cubic feet with the rear seats and the front passenger seat folded down. That compares favorably to some small sport-utility vehicles like the Ford Escape (66.3 cubic feet).
For 2009, 2.4i models get a 160-watt system that includes a six-CD changer and Sirius satellite radio hardware with a complementary six-month subscription. You still have to step up to a T5 to order the top-of-the-line Dynaudio Package, but it's one of the best original-equipment car stereos we've heard, and it costs less than the high-end upgrades offered by many luxury brands, with a 650-watt amp, subwoofers and advanced Dolby processing.
The navigation system is easy to operate and we liked it. The screen pops up vertically from the center of the dash, though it's canted forward at an angle that can make it harder to see from some driving positions. The driver surfs through menus and makes choices with buttons on the back of the right steering wheel spoke, almost where you'd expect paddle shifters for an automatic transmission. The menus are no more difficult to learn than those on other nav systems, and they're managed without taking hands from the steering wheel and fishing for the controls. Passengers can control the system with a remote. Upgrades for 2009 include extended points of interest and a birdview map with detailed intersection and building footprints.
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 with their turbocharged engines, and livelier handling response.
The base S40 and V50 offer a nice balance of ride and handling. They're smooth, with enough power for most drivers. Even with its now-standard five-speed automatic, the 2.4i delivers decent acceleration and fuel economy (20/30 city/highway mpg, sedan or wagon). 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, with 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. That avoids overpowering the front tires.
The all-wheel drive has its drawbacks, to be sure, besides the additional cost at purchase. It adds weight and friction within the T5's drivetrain, so it reduces fuel mileage, even in circumstances when no one needs the all-wheel drive, which for most drivers is most of the time. The front-wheel-drive sedan can handle foul weather. But the all-wheel-drive versions make the car more stable and easier to drive in wintry conditions, whether it's ice or snow or inconsistent.
We found the brakes strong, smooth and true. The S40 and V50 have conquered a longtime Volvo annoyance: a soft, numb-feeling brake pedal. The disc brakes are plenty big for the size of the car (at 11.8 inches front and 11.0 inches rear). We performed a panic stop at 75 mph, and the anti-lock brake system dragged the car to a stop in a direct, confidence-inspiring manner, without a hint of skidding when we moved the steering wheel to the left or right.
The Volvo S40 sedan and V50 wagon are 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. Styling revisions over the last two years haven't changed 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 Mitch McCullough reporting from Charlottesville, Virginia and J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.
Volvo S40 2.4i sedan ($28,550); V50 2.4i wagon ($29,800), S40 T5 ($32,350); S40 T5 AWD ($33,800); V50 T5 AWD ($35,500).
Options As Tested
Leather seating ($1,200); Climate Package ($675) includes heated front seats, headlight washers and rain-sensing wipers; metallic paint ($525).
Volvo V50 2.4i ($29,800).
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