Much has been made in the comments about how much (or how little) the Volvo S40 and Mazda3 have in common. We think one particular comment by an Autoblog reader named Mike sums up our feelings on this debate: “Any comparison between the two must be coming from the unfamiliar.” It’s true, these two cars share a platform and various components but the job done differentiating them is far from badge reengineering. Their relationship is less Ford Five Hundred to Mercury Montego than it is Audi A4 to Volkswagen Jetta. We’re talking more than a new grille and taillamps here.
The C1 chassis certainly cleans up well wearing Volvo’s stubby-yet-strong proportions and Scandinavian interior, but does the S40’s on-pavement prowess finally settle any qualms created by its potentially $30k-plus pricetag?
The core of the S40’s fun factor can be found in its turbocharged 2.5L five-cylinder engine that produces 218 horsepower and 236 ft-lbs. of torque. Going with an odd number of cylinders is again one of those quirky, dare-to-be-different traits for which Volvo is well known, especially considering such engines in the past had a reputation for being unbalanced and thrashy.
Those characteristics cannot be applied to Volvo’s five-pot powerplant, which exhibits little harshness in its operation. In fact, for a sporty sedan the S40 T5 is remarkably quiet with engine noise a distant hum until WOT is applied. Volvo’s addition of a light-pressure turbo makes this powerplant feel like a torquey V6 under your toes with all of its 236 ft-lbs. of torque available at a low 1500 rpm. There’s a whisper of turbo lag but the turbine’s relatively small size ensures there’s no whiplash when it comes online.
Our tester’s fuel mileage is rated at 20 city/29 highway, which isn’t bad considering the extra 130 lbs. added by the all-wheel drive system and various other gravity-challenged safety and luxury amenities. Total tonnage is up to 3,447 lbs. for the T5 AWD model, about 169 lbs. more than FWD T5.
Speaking of that AWD system, it’s a bit of a misnomer as the majority of time power is being routed almost entirely to the front wheels. During our dry week with the S40 T5 AWD the car exhibited all the normal FWD tendencies with understeer occurring when the car was pushed in corners. The AWD system is not a performance feature of the S40 T5, but rather a safety feature meant for sure footing in inclement weather. Though the 130 lb. penalty for its presence isn’t severe, those seeking the fastest S40 should opt for the non-AWD model with the six-speed manual.
Our S40 came with said six-speed manual transmission, an inclusion about which we were a bit conflicted. Given the choice we’ll always go standard, but the S40’s clutch was either instant-on or instant-off, which made enjoying the slick shifting six-speed a rarity. With practice the clutch can be mastered, but if you break concentration before the light turns green expect a jolt when leaving the line.
Once underway the tractable engine offers up power in a wide swath and shifting around 4,000 rpm under WOT generates a satisfying surge into the next gear. The S40 T5 AWD gets a tighter suspension than the 2.4i model with anti-roll bars front and aft that control the car well enough in the curves. The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering is accurate as well, though at around-town speeds the power assist disconnects the driver too much from the road.
Though we’ve dialed back any expectations of the S40 T5 AWD being a thoroughbred sports sedan, it excelled in another area we weren’t expecting. On the highway at cruising speed (or above) the T5 AWD behaves like a car with a much longer wheelbase. The small sedan tracts straight and true while hardly flinching at crosswinds, and the suspension’s ability to soak up broken pavement was a surprise.
All this still begs the question whether or not the essence of an S40 could be found in a Mazda3 for $10k less. We think not, as the Volvo’s 2.5T five-cylinder, all-wheel drive capability, and suspension tuning cannot be had in Mazda’s take on the C1 platform. But wait, here comes the MazdaSpeed3 with a 250-hp 2.3T four-cylinder, six-speed stick from the MazdaSpeed6 and a price tag that will likely fall between $23k and $25k. Though the MazdaSpeed3 lacks all-wheel drive, the Volvo system didn’t convince us that it was worth the extra outlay anyway. In any case, with the advent of the MazdaSpeed3 we’re thinking Volvo's best move would be to create an S40R in the low $30k range that offers a similar or better level of performance as its sport compact sibling from Mazda with more safety, luxury and technology. We've found the range-topping S40 T5 AWD to be a good car for its price, but it'd be even better if the sticker stayed below $30k.