The Volvo S40 returns for its sophomore year with a number of minor changes to the three-model lineup, which continues to be loaded with features at competitive prices.
Safety is a top priority at Volvo, and all S40 sedan and V50 wagon models come with side curtain and side-impact airbags, projector-type headlamps, a rear fog light, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.
When Volvo re-engineered the S40 for 2004, the primary goal was to stuff the same levels of safety found in the flagship S80 luxury sedan into the S40's small package. To that end it was designed using something called VIVA, for Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture. What appears to be an unprecedented amount of time, research, testing and detail went into the construction of the chassis and body in the interest of crash protection. There are several zones of deformation upon impact, built with different strengths of steel depending on that zone's function: conventional, high strength, extra high strength and ultra high strength steel.
The S40 looks like a sports sedan, particularly when fitted with the newly designed optional 17-inch alloy wheels. The V50 is a straightforward wagon extension of that look. The design is clean and elegant, Scandinavian simplicity. Inside, the S40 represents a sharp departure from previous Volvo designs, but above all is comfortable and full of convenience features.
On the road, both body styles are stable and relaxed. Even at high speeds, the Volvos can easily run with expensive sedans from BMW and Mercedes. The turbocharged T5 engine is wonderfully smooth, with quick but linear acceleration performance. The entry-level 2.4i engine feels nearly as quick and is just as smooth. The five-speed automatic is smooth and responsive. The suspension is firm but not jarring, offering an ideal balance of ride and handling, and the brakes are excellent. The S40 continues to enhance Volvo's reputation as a maker of superb sports sedans.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning and power windows and door locks, stability traction control, newly designed 16-inch alloy wheels, remote entry, in-dash CD system and theft-deterrent system. New for 2006 are improved cupholders, steering wheel audio controls, new exterior colors and simplified option structures.
The Select option package ($1,950) includes an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, power tilt/slide sunroof, a premium Dolby Pro-Logic surround sound stereo system with six-disc in-dash CD changer and 12 speakers, a trip computer, and simulated wood inlays. The Sport option package ($875) includes Dynamic suspension, and sport alloy wheels. A Climate package ($675) is available for all models that includes rain-sensor wipers, heated front seats, and headlamp washers. Stand-alone options include a variety of metallic paints, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control ($695), five-speed automatic ($1,200), leather seating surfaces ($1,200), and dual integrated child booster seats ($300).
The S40 T5 ($26,615) and V50 T5 ($27,840) use a slightly larger 2.5-liter turbocharged version of the engine, making 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque over the wide range of 1500 to 4800 rpm. The T5 adds as standard equipment fog lights, a power driver's seat, leather gearshift knob, and trip computer. It comes standard with a superb six-speed close-ratio gearbox, but a five-speed automatic is also available. New for 2006 includes those new elements of the base car plus several more, including a pushdown feature to engage reverse with the six-speed manual, newly designed 16-inch alloys and optional 17-inch alloys, a new stand-alone optional IAQS air quality system, and new exterior colors.
Option packages for the T5 begin with the Sport package ($695), comprised of Dynamic suspension and newly designed Sagitta 17-inch alloy wheels. The Climate package ($695) is available for the T5, also. A Premium package ($2,195) offers a power tilt/slide glass sunroof, leather seating surfaces, eight-way power adjustable passenger seat with lumbar support, and memory for the power driver seat. Increasing the dynamics and the dynamic look is the appropriately named Dynamic Trim package ($2,025). Exterior body parts include a front chin spoiler, rear lower valance spoiler, a trunk-mounted spoiler, side skirts and 17-inch Scotia alloy wheels. The Audio package ($895) includes a 325-watt Dolby Pro-Logic II surround sound system with 12 speakers and an in-dash six-disc CD player. A Convenience package ($405) includes a Homelink remote garage door opener, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and grocery bag holder. Stand-alone options are similar to the base car's except for the notable additions of bi-xenon headlamps ($700), DVD-based navigation system ($2,120), and the IAQS air quality system ($175).
The S40 T5 AWD ($28,390) and V50 T5 AWD ($29,615) feature an electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system and the Dynamic suspension. New to the T5 AWD specifically are newly designed Scotia wheels for the Dynamic package ($2,025). Similar packages to those above are available.
It's easy to put the Volvo S40 in a nutshell: It's a smaller version of the S60. The five-cylinder engines in the S40 allow it to be built just like its big brothers, including the S80. And because it was designed on the heels of the sensational S60R high-performance sedan, a lot of what was learned with the S60R was applied to the S40.
The engine used in the 2.4i versions is a modified version of the five-cylinder engines that Volvo uses in its larger sedans, wagons and SUVs. Most of the external components, from alternator to manifolds to air conditioning compressor, have been designed for a compactness that makes the transversely mounted engine package 7.8 inches thinner and 1 inch shorter. This was all done in holistic pursuit of building the frontal deformation zone for crash safety. It's a modern dual-overhead-cam engine with variable camshaft timing.
The turbocharged engine in the T5 is wonderfully smooth. Its acceleration is quick and linear, with a broad power curve allowing it to evenly gain speed throughout the rev range. But it should be good; it's the same size as the S60's engine yet it's not being asked to make as much horsepower. At 80 miles per hour, with the five-speed automatic transmission, it's only loafing along at 2500 rpm, so there's a lot of power to spare.
The T5 is comfortable at high speed, very stable and relaxed, something we learned in the wide-open California desert where we were able to open 'er up. The T5 feels ready and eager for spirited driving. This is one small car that can be a great Autobahn cruiser, able to run with the big boys, the expensive 130-mph BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. It was so stable at high speeds it didn't feel like a front-wheel-drive car at all.
We couldn't have been happier with the electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission. The upshift from fourth to fifth gear was so smooth that we only knew it was happening by observing the tachometer needle drop. The automatic features a manual shift mode called Geartronic, and in the manual mode, it actually let us control what gear we wanted to be in, without stepping in and overriding our wishes. It's the same transmission that's used in the 300-horsepower S60R, so it's bulletproof in the S40.
The sport sedan and wagon use the same suspension design as the S60 and S80, with geometry that has been calculated for quickness and precision. We drove for a stretch at 30-40 mph over a terrible surface with a lot of big rough patches, and it was clear the suspension was firm but it was never jarring. We could feel the wheels moving, but it wasn't getting to our hands or the seat of or pants, or the body of the car.
We drove up into the mountains over a fast, smooth and winding road, with lots of hard braking and abrupt changing of direction. In that situation the suspension approached its limit and stiffer would have been nice; but that situation was already faster than 95 percent of drivers will take even the T5. The S40 suspension wasn't made for that, as it shouldn't be; if it were, it would have been uncomfortable on the slower and rougher surface. Every suspension has a range, and the S40's range is right on the money. The available Dynamic suspension has slightly stiffer springs and bushings (about 20 percent, according to Volvo).
The steering is electro-hydraulic with light, distinct and controlled feedback. We took those words verbatim out of the S40 press kit. This is something we wouldn't normally ever do, but it's perfectly true. Our own notebook words were: "firm, tight, the right amount of resistance." The torque steer normally inherent in front-wheel-drive cars was minimal to the point of insignificance. Years ago it was a problem in Volvos, as it is in many powerful, front-drive cars, but engineers have been whittling away at erasing it with improved halfshafts and universal joints.
We used the brakes a
The Volvo S40 is a superior small sedan. If it has weaknesses, especially for the price, we couldn't find them. The body and chassis boasts excellent crashworthiness, and the size is both compact outside and spacious inside. Its smooth exterior lines are distinctive, even unique, and beautiful. There are many good new cars nowadays for $25,000, but if you went down the list comparing features, qualities and components, the Volvo S40 would be difficult to beat. Upgrading to the T5 with its turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine puts you into the same levels of performance as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. The V50 packages all this into a practical sport wagon.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from California.