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Car reviews - Volvo - S40 - 1.8 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
An affordable Volvo
Room for improvement
Suspension improved but still not best in class

Volvo logo5 Jul 2001

THE 1.8-litre version of Volvo's "little" car, the S40, undercuts the 2.0-litre version on price but asks no sacrifice in terms of equipment levels.

With a sticker price hovering around the $40,000 mark, the 1.8- litre S40 looks reasonably alluring. Dual front airbags, side airbags, and Volvo's anti-whiplash front seats are all part of the deal.

The S40 and V40 were subjected to a minor update at the end of 1999. Visually, there's not a lot to discuss. Part-leather interior trim, pockets in the front seat cushions and a new colour for the exterior plastic parts (dark anthracite) such as door handles, bumpers and side mouldings are about the only clues that this is Volvo's latest.

As it should be, the most important changes are under the skin. And, particularly, they relate to the suspension.

Volvo might be playing coy, but the suspension engineers seem to have achieved a lot from very little.

The company tells us that all they basically did was redesign the top MacPherson strut mount to separate front-end damper and spring forces, adopt strategically placed, softer bushes and re-rate the dampers at the front and in the independent multi-link rear suspension. They also beefed up the front end by reinforcing the cross member.

The result is a noticeable about-face on the ride/handling front. But more about that later.

Other invisible but tangible work was done on both the 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines, reworking the torque and power curves to develop similar outputs, but at different points in the rpm range. So while the outright power of the 2.0-litre might be slightly less (100kW compared to 103kW previously), it comes in 200rpm lower, at 5800rpm.

The torque, increased from 183Nm to 190Nm, is produced at 4000rpm where the previous version required 4500rpm. The result is improved mid-range torque, and generally better engine response across the rpm range.

Volvo says the new four-cylinder engines comprise virtually all- new moving parts, with the accent being on reducing friction while also lowering fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.

Australia also picks up the latest iteration of the 1.8-litre, previously unavailable here. Like the 2.0-litre, the smaller powerplant benefits from a redesign program that sees it producing more useable power combined with improved economy and lower exhaust emissions. But with 90kW and 170Nm, it's performance is - well, adequate.

The upshot of the entry-level 1.8-litre initiative, and the general upgrade, is a more livable and affordable small Volvo.

The S40 comes across as a slick package, at first observation very good value at Volvo's pre-GST adjusted prices.

From behind the wheel, the suspension rework has indeed transformed the car into an acceptably comfortable conveyance, able to handle just about everything it can be thrown at.

But it's far from being best in class as the limits of travel can still be found with just a little effort, resulting in the odd muted thump from the front end as the suspension tops out, or hits the bump stops on compression.

Under less arduous conditions, the S40 rides in a well-damped, comfortable way, although there is still an awareness of a relatively short suspension travel. Is this a little bit of its joint Mitsubishi parentage still creeping through?

Then again, Volvo has never scored any points as a suspension specialist anyway.

The car turns in well enough, via slightly over assisted steering, and even though it's only a 1.8-litre it's not too hard to break traction at the front wheels under acceleration - especially when a little steering lock is applied.

The engine itself is actually quite smooth and surprisingly quiet, considering the work it's asked to do, cruising easily without introducing an unacceptable racket.

It does not object to being wound out towards its 6500rpm red line, and is actually quite swift if asked.

The five-speed manual gearbox makes best use of what is available, although it's far from being the most pleasant manual on the market.

The shift quality is okay, and the clutch action is progressive enough, but the engine management system is less than smooth at handling the transition from acceleration to lift-off, resulting more often than not in lumpy gearshifts.

And attempts at quick upshifts from first to second can often by accompanied by gnashing of gearbox teeth as the synchromesh mechanism struggles to keep up.

The interior ambience of the S40 is appropriately upmarket, with the leather seat inserts adding, as much as anything else, a classy tang. Although on our white test car, the extensive use of grey trim downgraded the luxury appearance. The dark green of a test V40 wagon worked better with the grey interior.

The front seats are Volvo-comfortable, with adequate adjustment for tall drivers and a promise of long-distance comfort, with support provided in all the right places.

In the back it's a little tighter, but not impossible if front- seat passengers are prepared to make a small sacrifice in legroom.

Cleverly built into the divided rear seats are two fold-out children's seats and, of course, lap-sash belts - and head restraints - are provided for all passengers.

The boot is large, and made more useful by the provision of a 60- 40 split-fold rear seat.

Smart features include speed-sensitive windscreen wiper dwell, a headlight delay that allows the lights to stay on for 30 seconds after leaving the car to illuminate the way to the house and a pollen filter to keep the interior fresh. But, annoyingly, there is no remote central locking, trip computer or cruise control.

In all, the S40 is an appealing car that carries the Volvo stamp of credibility even if at times it does exhibit signs of its mixed parentage.

And the pricing should be appealing to those who have found entry-level Volvos have crept just out of reach.

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