Despite sharing mechanicals and structure with the Mazda 3 and European version of the Ford Focus, the Volvo S40 is distinctly Scandinavian in design. That is, it blends form and function superbly.

Modest updates for 2006 include a simplified trim and options structure, standard steering-wheel audio controls, revised wheel designs and improved cup holders. Electric Silver is the new premium-priced exterior color, while Brilliant Blue replaces Mistral Green and Safari Green on the color palette.

The S40 comes powered in its base form by a peppy 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter five-cylinder powerplant. This engine drives the front wheels via a smooth-shifting Geartronic five-speed automatic transmission, which can be taken through the gears like a manual minus the clutch. Meanwhile, the performance-oriented T5 model receives a lustier 218-hp, turbocharged five-cylinder and a six-speed manual gearbox that, for 2006, gains a "pushdown" function to engage reverse gear. The aforementioned five-speed automatic is optional on the T5.

A sophisticated standard suspension setup features MacPherson struts in front and a multilink design at the rear. While there is some body lean, the overall handling is nimble and taut, allowing quick maneuvering in tight traffic. An optional Dynamic Sport Suspension on the T5 stiffens things for even more tenacious handling, though at the expense of a rougher ride. The T5 is available with an optional all-wheel-drive system.

As expected with Volvo — a safety innovator — the S40 has a variety of safety features, including front-side and side-curtain airbags, a reinforced cage around the passenger compartment and four-wheel disc antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Emergency Brake Assistance, among others. An available Dynamic Stability Traction Control system helps keep the vehicle's wheels from spinning and/or prevents a loss of control during extreme or emergency maneuvers.

A slim, floating center control stack highlights the attractive and functional interior. It's roomy and practical, with fold-down rear seats and can be outfitted with a variety of trim panels. Though already well equipped, a host of luxury options include headlamp washers, rain-sensing wipers and a satellite navigation system.

The wagon equivalent of the S40 sedan is called the V50.

Buy This Vehicle If:

You have a kid on the way; you like smaller, nimble cars and need an easily accessible backseat and decent-sized trunk; you care about fuel economy; you think cars should look cool and want one that stands out from other compact sedans.

Keep Looking If:

You're a performance monger and are willing to shell out the extra thousands of dollars to obtain it; you require seating for five, plus gear; you're willing to trade efficiency and compactness for utility and power.

Who Fits?

Front seats are comfortable except for protruding headrests designed to mitigate whiplash in the case of a rear-end collisions; the rear seating area can be tight for tall riders if those in the front have their seats pushed way back. Outward visibility and access to all controls is excellent and should accommodate drivers of all sizes.

Options Worth Splurging On:

If you have kids, dual rear integrated child seats ($300); if you live where winter's chill is prevalent, the Climate Package ($675) will come in handy with its heated seats, headlamp washers and Rainsensor windshield wipers.

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