2006 Volvo S40 T5 AWD in the Autoblog Garage Day 3-4

Some automakers do things differently just to be different. Volvo is one of those brands, and the interior of the S40 bears out the company’s antiestablishment ways. From the ultra-slim center console to the Dynamic T-Tec seating material to the vertically stacked stereo and HVAC controls, it’s clear the interior of the S40 has been developed by designers who march to the beat of a different drum.

But a vehicle’s interior is a driver’s domicile, and since more time is spent inside a vehicle staring at gauges, buttons and dials than taking-in exteriors, it’s of extreme importance that an interior function as well as it looks. After a few days inhabiting the S40 we’ve come up with some conclusions on whether or not Volvo’s earned a payoff for being different inside the S40.

From the moment you slam the door shut on the S40, your senses are triggered by a different environment than what you might be used to. The seats, for instance, are upholstered in what Volvo calls Dynamic T-Tec, a material more premium than cloth that feels a bit like neoprene, the stuff out of which wetsuits are made. It’s a nice diversion from leather, and in concert with the front seats’ sufficient bolstering does well holding driver and passenger in place.

Once settled its time to take inventory of the dash and center console, the latter of which bisects the former with what fellow Autoblogger Chris Paukert called a “free-floating aluminum ribbon” back in a review he did of another S40 T5 (sans AWD) on The Truth About Cars. The center ribbon breaks away from the dash and leaves a void of space behind itself in which various sundries can be stowed. We were totally smitten with this design element, as simple as it is. The slot-loading drive of the CD player is placed high enough on the ribbon to take advantage of the dash’s depth, but the stereo and HVAC controls, neither of which require a deep recess, seem as if they’ve been playfully stuck to the aluminum center console like magnets on a fridge.

If only they were magnets so we could arrange them in a way that better facilitated their use. As they are the center sliver of buttons and four large dials take some getting used to. While someone who reads hiragana, katakana and kanji might find their vertical layout comforting, us non-Japanese speaking folk prefer our order of action to flow from left to right (read: horizontally).

Though it’s odd to see a telephone number pad front and center, the 10-station preset (without the use of submenus) was much appreciated. The HVAC system is operated via two large knobs that control temperature and fan speed, while stabbing your finger at a minimalist depiction of the human form will direct the flow of air. Some in the comments of our first post rightly point out that any aftermarket modification of the stereo is nixed thanks the center console’s unusual design, which is just another example of how the S40 tends to err on the side of form over function.

The S40’s big backsize means that trunk space is decent. The back end packs in 12.6 cubic, more than the Mazda3 but less than the Audi and Acura models. We appreciated the trunk’s flush floor, which hides the spare, though the lack of a dip-down sacrifices a few cubes of grocery room.

Another niggle we had with the S40’s insides were the diminutive door handles that only allow two fingers to slip behind their short bars. While circus folk and other people with small hands might appreciate their Lilliputian scale, the tiny door handles only serve to aggravate one’s egress from the vehicle.

Much has also been said in the comments of our last post about the S40’s interior space and the amount of elbowroom available, specifically when compared with the volume inside the “larger” Volvo S60. As evident by a side-by-side from Edmunds, it’s true that the S40 and S60 are extremely close in terms of interior dimensions. The S40 manages its space much more efficiently than the S60, which is both longer and wider than its little ‘bro. The S40 also feels bigger inside than it looks outside, but that’s not to say it isn’t snug. One man’s snug, however, is another’s “just right”, so you’ll have to sit in an S40 to judge for yourself.

So... does the S40’s interior help the car’s cause or set it back in its pursuit to win the hearts and minds of small car fans around the world? We give the Swedes credit here for imbuing the S40 with a little style inside, although it’s clear that Volvo sometimes favors being different for its own sake, rather than for its customers. Those quirky touches and unique design elements are what build brand identity, however, and Volvo has been successful at cultivating an image that not only encompasses its heritage of safety, but also its penchant for beating a new path.

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