by John Rettie
Volvo brings its style of safety to the compact segment.
Base Price $22,900
As Tested $28,250
The wait is over for Volvo lovers who have wanted a small car -- and for small-car lovers who've wanted a Volvo. Europeans have been able to buy a small Volvo for many years. Finally, the company has begun to export its 40-series to the U.S. This means there is now a more affordable Volvo available.
Those who value Volvo's reputation for safety need look no further than this model for a compact car that is available as a four-door sedan or station wagon.
Volvo has priced the S40 aggressively such that it costs much the same as a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry with similar levels of equipment. The base price of $22,900 ($23,900 for the V40) includes all the safety items except traction control. Main options include leather seats ($1200), power driver's seat ($495), premium speakers ($400) and sunroof ($1200). There are several different packages available that combine options and lower the overall cost. For example, the DSA (Dynamic Stability Assistance) traction control system ($500) is available as part of an $850 weather package that also includes heated seats and a pair of headlamp washer/wipers.
The model we tested was fully loaded with most options contained in three packages (Sports Plus, Sunroof and Weather), which added about $5,000 to the base price. In reality, most of these items are superfluous to the car's performance and character unless you crave leather seats, a premium sound system and sunroof. Several dealer-installed accessories, such as a dog guard and cargo mats, are also available.
In keeping with Volvo's other newer models, the S40 has much more curvaceous lines than the boxy Volvos of the not-so-distant past. The S40 sedan and the V40 wagon are both front-drive compact cars powered by a smooth turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
The exterior design is pleasing with a nice low hood that extends back in an upward line to a high trunk. The side windows are fairly large giving the car an appearance of being bigger than it actually is.
The rear of the five-door V40 wagon is nicely integrated into the body so it does not look like it has been grafted onto the sedan's trunk as in some station wagon models from other manufacturers.
Safety, as one would expect with Volvo, was a key consideration in designing the S40. It has the obligatory dual airbags and other mandatory safety features. In addition it comes standard with side airbags (SIPS) and a whiplash protection system (WHIPS). Development by Volvo has lead to a second-generation SIPS that activates in different ways depending on the type of accident. Volvo claims the system is effectively two airbags in one.
WHIPS is the same whiplash protection system that is found in bigger Volvos. It is activated when the occupant of a front seat is forced back against the backrest and headrest in a frontal collision. The body is cushioned by the backrest, which moves back in a parallel movement. It helps prevent rebounding of the body, milliseconds after the initial impact. The front seat belts also include a pyrotechnic pre-tensioning system that automatically tightens the belts at the time of an accident.
There is just one engine choice - a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine producing 160 horsepower. A light-pressure turbocharger helps deliver this impressive power output and also endows the engine with great low-end torque that is so important in making an engine feel more powerful. In fact, its performance is on par with many V6-powered compact cars. Maximum torque is available as low as 1800 rpm and continues strongly all the way to 4800 rpm.
Although there is no manual transmission available, this should not be a problem for those who like spirited performance. This high-torque engine works nicely with the four-speed automatic transmission. The transmission has three settings - sport, economy and winter -- to suit different styles of driving.
Volvo has resisted the temptation to try and make the interior imitate a luxury car. Nonetheless it has added small touches to differentiate it from being just another econobox. The S40 (sedan) and V40 (wagon) can be ordered with a small amount of imitation wood trim that accentuates the dashboard, center console and door panels. The top of the dash and the doors are covered in a nice soft plastic material on all models.
The gauges are neatly designed with light gray on dark gray lettering. Some people might find the lettering a little small to see. An optional onboard computer provides useful trip information such as average speed and average fuel consumption (that showed 28 mpg while we drove the car). Climate control on all models is automatic and the controls are located conveniently high next to the steering wheel in the center of the dashboard. The radio controls are lower down and harder to reach; and they are hidden if the solo cupholder is in use. The cupholder is an ingenious device that pops out of the dash vertically and turns to a horizontal position. It is spring loaded to automatically adjust for different size beverage containers.
Front headroom and legroom is good, but tall passengers in the rear seats will find themselves somewhat cramped unless they are in a car with a short driver or front-seat passenger. Access through the doors is fine as they open wider than in some cars.
Access to the trunk is somewhat restricted because the rear window slopes a long way back and down low. Trunk capacity, however, is quite good at 13 cubic feet -- the same as the Honda Accord. The rear seat has a 70/30 split and can be folded down to substantially increase the carrying capacity. The V40 wagon has a total cargo volume of 61 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, which is slightly less than the Accord or VW Passat. Cargo nets and belts are provided in both models for securing stuff.
First impressions on driving the car were very favorable. Although the car is only available with automatic transmission it moved briskly away from a standing start and the transmission shifted smoothly through the gears. Despite only being powered by a four-cylinder engine, the low-pressure turbocharger helps give the engine a greater amount of low-end torque that makes it feel like a V6. Fortunately, unlike turbochargers of days gone by, you can barely tell this engine is boosted as there is no whine, sudden surge of power or even a boost gauge.
Handling of the S40 is acceptable. It is not in the class of a BMW sports sedan, but it is better than many compact cars. There was little body roll in corners and the car felt stable. The steering, however, proved a little disappointing. It was fine on the twisty roads but we found it had a dead on-center feel on straight roads. Apparently Volvo engineers modified the steering and suspension for the U.S. market making it softer to suit our tastes.
Overall, the car is quiet with only a little tire noise coming through to the passenger compartment.
All told, the Volvo S40 is a perfectly competent compact sedan which should satisfy buyers looking for a smaller Volvo. However, it's not likely to entice people away from a BMW or even a Volkswagen Passat, both of which are more European in character with their sportier handling and style. The Volvo S40 has more of a Japanese feel to it, which is perhaps not surprising considering it is the creation of a joint venture between Mitsubishi and Volvo in Holland, where it is made.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.