Saturday, February 14, 2004

Volvo S40 is stylish and fun to drive

But you'd better hold on to your drink in those hard stops

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Volvo S40


The redesigned Volvo S40 has a sexier shape; new engines and transmissions; a new platform; and a roomier, more stylish interior.

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Forget the old S40, this is a whole different animal.

Vital Statistics

What I drove: 2004 Volvo S40, four-door, five-passenger sedan.

Base price: $24,190-$26,990.

Wheelbase: 103.9 inches.

Length: 175.9 inches.

Width: 69.7 inches.

Height: 57.2 inches.

EPA mileage (city/highway): 22/30 (2.4 i), 22/31 (T5).

Engines: 2.4i (2.4-liter in-line 5-cylinder producing 168 hp and 166 lb-ft torque) or T5 (2.5-liter turbocharged in-line 5-cylinder producing 218 hp and 236 lb-ft torque).

Transmissions: 5- or 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic.

Drive train: Front engine, front-wheel drive (all-wheel drive available later).

Warranty: Basic (4 years/ 50,000 miles), drivetrain (4 years/50,000 miles), roadside assist (4 years/unlimited miles).

Assembled in: Ghent, Belgium.

Safety: Dual-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags, Whiplash Injury Prevention System, seatbelt pretensioners front and rear outboard seats, force-limiters on front seatbelts, collapsible pedals and steering column, antilock brakes and electronic brake force distribution.

Cool: Snappy exterior styling, R-derived 6-speed shifter, cool T-Tec seating materials, innovative slim center stack, competitive price.

Uncool: Tippy cup holders, confusing array of tiny buttons, lack of lumbar support.

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Car Talk
Forget everything you know about the Volvo S40.

The latest rendition of Volvo's smallest sedan is nothing like the S40 it replaces.

Whereas the outgoing S40 is so dull it barely registers on buyers' radar screens, the 2004.5 S40 is not only safe, it's stylish and fun to drive.

Seeking to bring younger buyers into the Volvo fold (35-year-olds as opposed to 49-year-olds), the S40 team gave the car a sexier shape, new engines and transmissions, a brand-new platform, and a roomier, more stylish interior. Arriving in dealerships this spring, the new S40 will compete in the $25,000 to $30,000 bracket of the "upscale small sedan" segment, where players include the Acura TSX, VW Passat and Audi A4 1.8T.

On the outside, the new S40 bears a striking resemblance to the larger S60, but Volvo's broad-shouldered style looks better in the scaled-down proportions of the S40.

Shorter than its predecessor, the new S40 is taller, wider and has a wider track and longer wheelbase. These proportions not only give the car a more aggressive stance, they contribute to its improved handling and interior space. Riding on Ford's new "Global C" platform (also used in the Mazda3 and the new European Ford Focus), the new S40 has 68 percent more torsional rigidity than the outgoing model.

The S40 is offered in two models, the 2.4i and the T5. The 2.4i is powered by a 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter in-line 5-cylinder engine, which can be mated to a 5-speed automatic stick or a 5-speed manual transmission. The T5 gets a 218-horsepower, turbocharged 2.5-liter, in-line 5-cylinder, which can be teamed with a 5-speed automatic stick or a close-ratio 6-speed manual borrowed from the high-performance Volvo S60 R.

During a press introduction in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to put 300 miles on a 6-speed-manual T5 and an automatic 2.4i. The tortuous switchbacks and steep elevation shifts of southern California's Los Angeles Crest Forest Road - not to mention the stop-and-go agony of its freeways - are enough to test the mettle of any car that purports to be a driver's car. The front-wheel-drive S40 tackled everything we threw at it with more brio than I've experienced in a Volvo. The steering was accurate, the short throws of the six-speed shifter clean, and the automatic transmission well-behaved.

I prefer the more powerful T5 with the 6-speed shifter, but most buyers probably will opt for the automatic stick to spare their left legs the wear-and-tear of commuter traffic.

Testifying to the car's smooth manners (and those of my driving partner), I never felt nauseated while riding in the passenger seat (and that's a big deal for me). The brakes worked great, too, as we learned when a few emergency stops sent our water bottles tumbling from the cup holders. We had no trouble conversing over the road and wind noise, because there wasn't any.

Innovative interior

The S40's light and stylized cockpit is a refreshing departure from the staid and buttoned-down cockpits of other Volvo cars.

The most striking feature is an ultra-thin center stack that flows from the instrument panel, waterfall-like, to the center console. Instead of blocking the unused space behind it, the center stack makes that space available for storage. Volvo designers are wrangling over whether to offer a see-through aqua version of the center stack (a la the Apple iMac).

Other nice features include a new seating material inspired by sportswear and modern travel accessories, called T-Tec. This material, which resembles neoprene, not only looks great, it helps hold you snug in your seat during aggressive driving and has better breath-ability than leather. The S40 also is offered with leather and a ribbed textile called Dala.

For a small sedan, the rear seats are relatively spacious, offering just enough leg and head room for three kids or two adults. The rear seats are split and fold flat, as does the front passenger seat. Fold all three seats down, and you've got yourself a completely flat load floor.

For all its good qualities, the S40 does have a few flaws: The cup holders are too shallow to secure tall cups or regular water bottles during aggressive driving and braking; the front seats lack lumbar support (and my partner and I had aching backs after one hour); and the buttons on the control panel are tiny, which makes them difficult to read and manipulate while you're trying to keep your eyes on the road.

Scandinavian safety

No Volvo review would be complete without at least a brief mention of safety. Not surprisingly, the new S40 is well equipped on this front, with a collapsible steering wheel and pedals, an energy-absorbing bumper, dual-stage airbags, side-impact airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, antilock brakes and electronic brake force distribution.

The front seats are equipped with Volvo's Whiplash Injury Prevention System, which reduces the risk of whiplash-related injuries in a rear-end collision.

To make the S40 extra safe, Volvo engineers used four different grades of steel in crucial areas to absorb impact in the event of a collision. In addition, the S40's nose is designed to reduce injury to pedestrians and cyclists in a collision.

Introduced in waves

The S40 will be introduced in waves, with automatic-transmission models arriving in the spring, followed by manually equipped models in the summer, and an all-wheel-drive T5 debuting in the fall. No word yet on when a high-performance S40 "R" version will appear, but we're told a Pininfarina-designed drop-top S40 will bow before 2006.

With its Scandinavian good looks, entertaining driving dynamics and state-of-the-art safety features, the S40 is a completely different car than its milquetoast predecessor. Finally, the S40 is a driver's car.

It breathes new life into the Volvo lineup, and should have no trouble reaching the 28,000 buyers Volvo has targeted for 2004.

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