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AMR Review: Volvo S40 - Good Herring

The Background
So, Volvo wanted to play with the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C Class, Audi A4 and all of their followers. How did they do it? Not very well. They introduced the S40 and V40, a set of Belgian cars made in a joint venture with Mitsubishi. They weren't bad cars, but they weren't great cars, either. They certainly weren't of the same caliber as the S60 and S80, two very good cars in their own right. In fact, The S40 was about $24k for starters, while the current S60 debuted at about $26k to start. Why you'd ever choose the S40 over S60 when the difference was only $2,000 or about $25 a month was beyond me. The S60 looked far better, performed better, held up better, and had more prestige. Well, things have changed significantly.

Where the S60 is still a stylish car that carries itself well, the new S40 is a modern, crisp, sharp and yet flowing work of art,inside and out. Volvo has introduced the second generation S40 (and accompanying V50 wagon) by clearly doing its research and making an immensely compelling product visually, dynamically and, to a lesser extent, value-wise. Why do I like it so much? It ain't the herring.

I Don't Like Herring, But...
There are few foods I won't eat, namely tomatoes, olives and fishy fish. Herring would fall into this category. Some say that spills over into my taste for cars as I'm not usually a fan of the Swedes. But, with the recent introductions from Sweden (Volvo XC90, Saab 9-3 and more), how could I not be? Let's call me an honorary herring-eater. The Volvo S40, to me, is the best car the country has produced to date. Volvo started with tremendous underpinnings with the Ford global C1 platform seen in the European second generation Focus, the wonderful Mazda3, and really made it stand out from its lesser siblings. Last time Ford tried this for a PAG member, it failed miserably. I won't say the Jaguar X-Type isn't a good car, but it is perceived as far too Ford-Mondeo-esq to be a worthy Jag, and has not helped the company at all (Jag is bleeding red ink again, no thanks to rebates on the X-Type needed to get sales volumes to the goal necessitated by Ford's mass production processes). Here, Ford has created three distinct vehicles with clearly defined personalities that all seem to extol the virtues of this global architecture.

For the Swedes, the C1 is wrapped in a gorgeous rendition of the design theme first introduced on the S80, furthered by the S60, and interpreted on a larger scale in the XC90. The car is obviously a Volvo, and finally brings the level of sophistication and style to the lower end of the market that Volvo wished the first car did, and need in order to take any sales from the Germans. Volvo, one word on execution of the design - bravo. If one can fault the design at all, it might be that it looks too much like an S60, but that's not a bad thing. It has the same relation to its larger siblings that the Audi A4, A6 and A8 have to each other. It's called a brand identity or family look, and it's a good thing from a marketing stand-point. It instills brand loyalty as people have a clear progression of cars to buy as they move on in life and in affluence.

Smooth exterior shapes mixed well with angles and creases define the figure. Make no mistake, this is a small car, and looks to be one. The S60 seems to be larger than it is by looking stretched, whereas the S40 looks like someone pressed an S60 from the front and back, squishing it into a smaller space. This isn't a bad thing. While I love the exterior of the car, the real design breakthroughs are inside. Let's go there.

Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls
No doubt, if you've seen anything about this car in the press, it's been comments on the center console and its waterfall design. The majority of the controls are set in a thin sheet of aluminum, wood or clear plastic that floats in front of the dash. This not only looks very cool and unique, but opens up more storage. Ford's engineers made use of modern electronic controls that minimize the depth needed for HVAC and radio systems. The one place they couldn't take out a need for depth came in the CD player. The disc has to go somewhere, and a vertical insertion wouldn't leave room for the electronics needed for the HVAC. The disc insertion point is at the top of the stack where it meets the dash, giving it depth, and also making the height far more comfortable and natural for sticking CDs in than if they had made it on top of the stack or further down. I'd hate to be driving at night and trying to stick a CD into a top-mounted slot I can't see while talking on my cell phone (pinched between my shoulder and ear, no less), eating a Quarter-Pounder with cheese, and trying to drive at the same time. Remember, Volvo is all about safety!.

So, take the novelty of the design out, and you actually have an elegant and very useful control center. Volvo designers may all use Macintoshes as their ergonomics are always first rate. Simplicity of layout and use have become Volvo hallmarks, and are no doubt part of the safety mentality. If you can just use their systems, then you need not divert your attention from the road. There's no doubt that the interior is a good place to be in this car. Well, at least in the front seats. As is the norm in this class, rear seat legroom is nearly an oxymoron. Better than some, worse than others, it's tight back there. I'm 6'2", so take that with a grain of salt if you're 5'5". You may not quip as much about rear space, that is unless you're sitting behind me. It is superior to the car it replaces though.

The Drive
Volvo has two engine choices, a 2.4 liter and a 2.5 liter engine. The former is an inline five cylinder engine with 20 valves, and is normally aspirated, generating 168 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. Not bad, but nothing special. That's where the T5 comes in. With 218 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, this is the one to get, and it's not even that much more expensive. The car is well propelled for a 3,255 lb car, and also comes in a slightly heavier AWD version, clearly taking aim at Quattro, 4Matic and xDrive-equipped Germans. Oh yeah, and the Saabaru 9-2X wagon.

Handling in all C1 cars is quite impressive, and the Volvo is no exception. Volvos are typically a bit softer handlers than the Bavarians, but the S40 seems to be soft yet precise at the same time. It's a very enjoyable drive, to be sure. Getting the chassis to skip or miss a beat is tough in this car. Really, Ford has done a tremendous job on this platform, and it shows in both the Volvo and the Mazda. I'm sure the Euro Focus is no exception, either.

One other point you'll see consistently in reviews of this car is praise of the intelligent transmission. The automatic in the S40 is very good at anticipating gears and executing shifts. While that may be unimportant to many enthusiasts out there as you'd never consider a slush-box, automatics make up the bulk of car sales in the US, so this is something more manufacturers should either perfect or outsource. Where the car isn't quite as well tempered is off-the-line acceleration. Not that it's too slow, but the T5 can be a bit punchy. Picture parallel parking jobs with the car jumping forward or backward as you struggle to modulate the car's movements. For those of us with turbo experience, this is something we get used to, but it seems to be exacerbated in the Volvo as the car's throttle tip in is quite sensitive. This is a trait of many Volvos.

The Final Review
So, this may not be surprising, but I really like this car. I really like the Mazda3, but wish it had AWD. Well, here you go...same platform, a bit more panache, and AWD. The only issue I have with the car is the price. Now, this may be unfair of me to take issue with given the competition's pricing, but I still feel it's high. The way I'd get one (and, yes, I would buy one of these) would cost me about $32k. You can get a 2.4i for just over $23k, but a fully-loaded V50 will run over $35k. That's a lot of cheddar. Of course, a BMW 330xi Touring would run you quite a bit more, as would a C Class or A4 with V6s and AWD. So, compared to the Germans, it's a fabulous bargain. Now, if you consider rebates that Ford is in love with at the moments, and stellar leasing deals, this car becomes far more attractive. In deed, a 36 month lease on a 2.4 runs just $229 a month right now. That would imply resale values in line with Honda, which is to say, quite impressive.

To me, this car is a winner. I'd like a better price point, but given where its competitors are, it's priced fine. Also, you can't underprice when you've spent the last 10-15 years building your image as a luxury brand. Who would think that of Volvo if they produced such a great car, and priced it at $15,000. Sure, they'd sell a boatload of cars (and most likely go out of business doing it), but I wouldn't think of them as luxury cars. Would you? No, this car is deserving of its price in all reality. Great car, great value. Good work, Volvo. You've earned your herring.


A More Svelte Swedish Meatball

Managing Editor

I remember seeing the first production photos of the new Volvo S40, and immediately thought, "That's a nice S60". Ok, ok, it's not that bad, but in some ways it looks like all Volvo did was take the S60's body shell and fit it over a smaller chassis. Not that the S60 is a bad looking vehicle, totally the opposite in fact, but the new S40 just seems to be a bit bloated in some areas. Besides that minor quibble, I find the exterior styling favorable and unoffending. As I stated in the Sport Wagon Comparo, I also see some Audi A4 influences in the new S40/V50. That's to be expected though, since the A4 was one of Volvo's targets with this new vehicle. The interior styling is fresh though, like nothing else on the market. The materials quality and fitment of interior panels is also first rate from my own personal experience - at least much better than the previous model and definitely up to the standards of the class. I absolutely love the innovative "waterfall" center console. Again, it's another characteristic that expresses the modernism of this vehicle. One note about the interior that Bryan touched upon: it's tight in there. I'm 5'10", of medium build, and I found myself a little claustrophobic inside the vehicle. I was especially disappointed when I adjusted the driver's seat for my comfort and then looked behind me. There wasn't a whole lot of room left behind me for passenger's legs. This S40 is definitely a small car, but it will accommodate four people when it needs to. While the S40's specified capacity is five occupants, I only see this happening if the trip is short and/or the rear seat people don't mind getting up close and personal with each other.

As for motivation, the new S40 is most decidedly an improvement over the previous version. The base 2.4i has output on par with the base A4 1.8T and the optional I-5 2.5T is aimed squarely at other manufacturer's V6 offerings. Both engines provide good power, but as Bryan stated, the 2.5T is the engine to have. While suffering from a little turbo lag down low (not much mind you, but enough to be noticed), the turbocharged five cylinder spools up quickly once the revs are up and propels the S40 with gusto. The shifter and clutch action are decent, but certainly nothing to write home about. I can't comment on the automatic, though, but Bryan seems to have enjoyed its action as well.

Overall, I like the new S40. I don't know if it'd sway me from an A4 if I was given the choice, but the S40 offers you the same level of features and refinement for less money. Value is always important in my mind, especially in the S40's segment where competition is fierce. If Volvo could only offer a bit more interior room, I think it would make this car damn near perfect. I'm also curious to see if Volvo decides to introduce a S40R utilizing the S60R's 300 hp 2.5T engine. If they did introduce it, and they priced it at or under $40,000 (undercutting the Audi S4 by more than $8,000), it would represent one of the best European Sports Sedan buys currently out there.