Volvo, the Swedish brand known for putting occupant safety above all else, has done well in North America trading on its traditional strengths. Staid and solid – if a bit boxy and boring – over the past four decades, Volvo has had little trouble attracting enough of a slice of the safety-conscious American consumer market to stay fat and happy. But as ever, nothing is sure for very long. The wildfire spread of technology has brought copious standard safety features to even the chintziest of new cars, lessening the Scandinavians’ superiority on that front.
Then, super-sized SUVs started to dominate sales, giving drivers a sense of invincibility by means of pure mass, rather than safety-dominated engineering. Their stranglehold on the security-blanket market thus loosened, Volvo fought back with modern products like the XC90 sport ‘ute, a runaway success that married protective design and sturdy size, and gave buyers a feeling of womb-like security.
The S40 compact sedan is another example of Volvo’s treading into the new millennium of auto design. Now in its second generation, the Volvo S40 is the brand’s third-best selling vehicle, and is thus partly responsible for Volvo’s standing as the one single profitable holding in Ford’s ‘Premiere Automotive Group’ (PAG) basket of premium European nameplates. It shares more with the Ford conglomerate than just sales success, however; corporate cousins from Dearborn contribute much to the S40′s underpinnings. Fortunately, the C1 chassis is an excellent piece of automotive architecture. Instead of having its performance hampered, the S40 is that rare bird that actually benefits from brand engineering. No sow’s ears here; the well loved Mazda 3 and Ford Focus are worthy progenitors of the silk-purse S40. Thus, the sensation of substantial solidity you get in the S40 is due only partly to the famous Volvo heavy-duty engineering.
“This is a compact car?” Several passengers expressed that sentiment in our week with the diminutive Swede. Although its dimensions place it in league with a Subaru Impreza or Acura TSX, the S40 gives the impression of being a considerably larger sedan. That’s good, especially in light of our tester’s $30,245 price tag. Size-wise, that seems steep – but time behind the wheel left us feeling that it’s worth every penny.
With five turbocharged cylinders displacing 2.5 liters, the 218-hp T5 motor scooted our S40 to 60 mph in under seven seconds. Turbo lag – that delayed reaction between throttle application and the power reward – is nearly absent with the T5, thanks to the displacement size. Economy, however, is good; we averaged nearly 27 mpg in mixed driving; almost a record given our lead-footed driving style (our motto: “we beat ‘em up so you don’t have to!”). The transmission choice was a 6-speed manual, with well-spaced gear ratios. We of course recommend the manual to get the most out of the engine, but the rubbery shifter was perhaps the biggest disappointment in this otherwise excellent auto. If you’re used to short, tight throws, this transmission will require some adjustment. Other reviewers have praised the manual’s linkage however, so although we’ve experienced the issue in both S40 and V50 testers, it may still have been a fluke.
The base motor in the S40/V50 is a 2.4-liter inline five. Not exactly a slouch in a car of this size, this 168-horse mill is plenty stout for those who bought their Volvo for safety rather than speed. Since these bottom-rung babies start at $23,260; they aren’t the poor choice that most stripped-down penny-pinchers are.
The coil-sprung, control arm suspension puts the S40′s handling on par with the TSX or WRX, but with even better grip. It’s nimble for a Volvo. Braking is similarly excellent; at under 166 feet from 70 to zip, the S40 bests all competitors by a wide margin. We did not have a chance to sample the test car’s all-wheel-drive system in inclement weather, but the dry traction the system afforded us in high-speed runs suggests its utility.
It’s not a quiet car; the engine’s not-unpleasant thrum is accompanied by more wind noise than you’d expect. The cabin is, however, another home run. The materials used – from the dash to the seats and even the headliner – are befitting of a car that trades in such rarified circles. The center stack/console in particular is a work of automotive art. Like an aluminum waterfall, the audio and climate controls are placed on a thin panel that cascades down from the dashboard towards the e-brake; behind this is simply thin air. It’s a beautiful and unique engineering solution; the space in back of this little piece of interior sculpture is useful for cell phones or other items. An added bonus: whatever you store back there is within easy reach, but nigh invisible to prying eyes outside.
The rest of the inside impresses as well. The seats are firm and strike a good balance between supportive and comfortable – long drives pose no challenge. Clear and powerful enough to please all but the most demanding ears, the audio system itself is a delight. The monochrome screen doubles as the readout screen for the onboard trip computer; facts and figures about your fuel consumption, trip length, outside temperature and the like are accessible via an easy-to-use menu. We especially enjoyed the graphics Volvo’s programmers built in to the entertainment/info functions – it’s like a poor-man’s iDrive, but so much easier to use.
We also appreciated that the switches, knobs and levers operate with that slick, damped feeling endemic to high-end autos. Our tester had the optional sunroof, part of an $1,850 option package that also included a power driver’s seat, the six-disc changer, and those eminently useful audio controls on the steering wheel. The sunroof is one of the best driving-enjoyment inventions since the turbocharger itself, but the Volvo’s rather petite aperture is pretty much directly overhead, and is thus more useful for increased airflow than vertical sightseeing. That fault is by no means specific to the S40; we’ve noticed this quirk in many new cars lately – perhaps all that safety gear and structural bracing gets in the way these days. Still, it’s a shame.
Outside, the S40 manages to blend traditional Volvo styling cues with contemporary lines, giving an overall modern feel that nevertheless won’t be mistaken for the product of any other brand. The overall look is reminiscent of the bigger Volvos – the S40 could be an S60 on Atkins. Particularly distinctive are the blacked-out cat’s eye headlamps and aggressive lower air intake scoops. The optional 17″ spiderweb rims on our tester bespeak velocity and rapidity; a slight hint at this otherwise demure car’s capabilities.
V50 is the moniker attached to the S40′s wagon sibling. Drivetrains, interiors, and safety features are common across the lines, so the major difference is the cargo space – the sedan’s trunk is listed at 15.5 cubic feet, while the wagon boasts 27.4 with the seats up. Seats down, there’s room for 62.9 cubic feet of your gear in the V50. Unfortunately, the typical wagon weight penalty does apply here – the extra 150 pounds the V50 carries is actually about 5% of the total poundage, and the difference is palpable.
That comforting sense of security and protection for driver and passengers is Volvo’s strong suit. Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture, or VIVA for short, is the latest in the list of acronyms denoting the brand’s holistic approach to safety. Various panels and chassis members are constructed from one of four different grades of steel, chosen specifically for the strength and crush characteristics necessary for that particular piece. Cross members in each door make for top-notch side-impact protection. Further keeping you out of harm’s way, airbags lurk in all the right places – up front, in the seats, and in the curtain areas. Seatbelt pretensioners are included, and even the headrests are specifically designed to reduce whiplash. Traction and stability control also is, of course, available. In NHTSA tests, the S40 rated five stars for frontal and side crashes in all tests, save one four-star score.
As a premium compact, the S40 faces some very stiff competition. There’s the ubiquitous BMW 3-series, the avant-garde Audi A4, the surgically precise Acura TSX, and many more fighting fish swimming around in that pool. The Volvo stakes out its territory by offering unmatched safety with ample performance. While it doesn’t top the charts as far as acceleration and handling goes, not everyone needs the utmost high-speed capability and, in fact, many prefer what the Volvo offers. As far as premium compact sports sedans go, the S40 is possibly the safest choice on the market – yet it gives up little in the performance and comfort arenas.
Corporate parts-sharing adds profitability for a manufacturer, which is especially imperative in this case as Ford and the PAG suffer through some seriously painful years. But that extra coin sometimes comes at the expense of the actual product, which can be embarrassingly poor as a result – witness the Cadillac Cimarron; the product of similar thinking at GM a couple decades ago. Badge-engineering is the derisive term; think Ford’s own Jaguar X-Type 2.5 which, based on the discontinued Mondeo platform, doesn’t have enough verve and vigor to wear the leaping cat badge. Those in the know often denigrate such automotive sacrilege as disgusting profiteering, and the buyers uninformed enough to purchase such reskinned dogs are lucky if the enthusiasts confine their laughing to behind the suckers’ backs. Here, though, Ford got it right – much in the same way that the Five Hundred benefits from using Volvo’s S80 platform, the S40/V50 are only better for their European Focus-derived architecture. After a week of enthusiastic driving, we can wholeheartedly recommend them.