Car reviews - Volvo - S40 - S sedan
Value, styling, cabin fittings, safety, equipment
Room for improvement
No standard stability control, limited rear headroom
6 Oct 2006
‘S40’ is an appropriate name for a car that has taken its maker 40 years to get right.
Back in the mid-1960s Volvo’s 120 Series – also known as the Amazon – was one of the most rounded and complete family cars available.
Strong, safe, stylish and superb value for money, it still has legions of fans worldwide today - perhaps more than any subsequent family Volvo since then.
Models like the 240 grew heavier, more ponderous, less attractive and increasingly undesirable.
Even its modern day descendents – undeniably stylish, swift, safe and sumptuous – could not put equal the 120 for driver appeal, or everyday affordability.
So who would have believed that a car wearing an ‘S40’ badge would mark Volvo’s long-awaited return to form?
The 1996 S40 Mk1 original, although handsome, was a mess, lacking the necessary quality, driveability, durability and desirability to take on the likes of the Audi A4 it was pitched against.
Yet Volvo almost missed the mark again with the current, second-generation S40, released in Australia in mid-2004.
Unlike its Mitsubishi co-derived predecessor, this time Volvo collaborated with Ford, and together they devised the lauded C1 platform that underpins the Mk2 Focus and Mazda3.
So what happened? In a nutshell, it was ridiculously overpriced for what amounts to a small four-door sedan, expected to punch above its weight class against formidable foes such as BMW’s 3 Series.
And so what’s changed then?
A $10,000 price drop, that’s what.
Now up against the BMW 120i, Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz B200, as well as mid-sized Japanese sedans such as the Mazda6, Honda Accord Euro and Subaru Liberty, the 2006 S40 – in new S mode – is relieved of its excess price baggage, and allowed to really shine.
Free of price pressure, the $39,950 S40 S suddenly comes across as a fantastic little Euro runabout at an exceptional price. Not since last year’s VW Golf GTI has that happened.
Worth almost every penny is the chunky Volvo styling, Xeroxed down to about 70 per cent, shorn of excess overhang and smartened up for its role as the company’s compact sedan. Two years on from its release and the S40 is still a classy little head-turner.
Underneath that pointy proboscis lies another uniquely Volvo feature – a 125kW five-cylinder engine.
Guttural in sound, punchy in performance, it imbues the S40 with the sense of power – considerably more so than the mere four-cylinders of its rivals.
Combined with a very slick-shifting five-speed automatic gearbox, acceleration is brisk (but you do need to not spare the power pedal), and there’s enough mid-range response and high-rev oomph for painless overtaking.
Yet there are also sufficient reserves of low-down torque for around-town tootling, so a feather-footed approach does reap lower fuel consumption benefits. Otherwise you’ll be a fairly frequent visitor to the petrol bowser.
Volvo calls its Tiptronic-style auto ‘Geartronic’, and it makes sense since you can manually select and hold each gear until you hit the 6500rpm redline.
Which is more likely to happen since company-owner Ford have finally – repeat finally – engineered a Volvo that will put a big smile on the face of keener drivers.
This is another thing that hasn’t happened to an affordable Volvo since the 120/Amazon.
Take the rack and pinion steering – unlike the lifeless old front-drive Volvo models this one reacts to inputs promptly, resulting in responsive, sporty handling with surprisingly good feedback from the front wheels.
Still, it is low-geared enough to feel relaxed, not frenetic, in the process.
Throw the S40 into a corner with enthusiasm and you’re rewarded with an eager change in direction instead of the expected wide turn-in that used to define front-wheel drive Volvos.
Indeed, the limits of grip is high enough, and the 2.4 ‘five’ lively enough, to encourage the keen driver to press on, such is the nature of the S40.
And while the ride does err on the firm side, it’s still supple and compliant enough to take most urban road irregularities.
Owners of old S40s and V40s will think this car has jumped two generations of engineering development.
Yet there’s still that overriding feeling of safety and security in the way this car feels rooted to the road at speed (making it a great little grand tourer) and stops with absolute haste.
This solidity carries on inside too.
The S40’s character is defined by striking and finely crafted cabin, which is either a beautifully presented work of interior architecture, or, if you don’t subscribe to the ‘less-is-more’ school of design, spartan and stark.
Simplicity prevails. Most intriguing is the ‘floating’ vertical centre console, finished in metallic trim, and featuring a remote-control sized (and styled) stack of buttons for audio and climate functions, flanked by four corresponding knobs.
It only takes a moment to learn what each of the 30-odd buttons do, since most possess instantly understood symbols that are displayed on a small LED screen above, sited just below a stylised CD slot.
The console alone says ‘Swedish’, ‘industrial design’, ‘function’ and ‘aesthetics’ all in one, permeating the Volvo with a higher quality and class.
And that’s it for the dash – save for four vent outlets, concise two-dial instrumentation, a narrow but extremely deep glove box, and a lovely little three-spoke steering wheel.
A BMW 3 Series could do with the sort of fresh cabin thinking going on in here.
The front seats, too, are brilliantly comfortable and supportive, cupping you snugly and keeping you in place when you decide to drive the S40 in a very un-Volvo manner.
Restrained design continues throughout the S40 S’ interior. Check out the elegant white-stitched black cloth seating metallic trim door pull surrounds and handles, and sombre grey tones.
Some people might find it all too low-key for them. And the almost uselessly small console bin and front door pockets (with no such provisions for the rear-seat passengers), added to the lack of a rear centre armrest and cupholders might further put them off.
And adding insult to injury is a lack of rear headroom for taller folk – particularly if the hard centre position is picked – making this five-seater Volvo a 2+3 seater in reality. This is the price to pay for the S40’s sexy coupe-like silhouette.
Yet the rear bench is quite comfortable for outboard passengers, with adequate legroom and quite good shoulder space.
And smaller kids will appreciate the in-built seat cushion booster that lifts up into place. But they won’t be happy with rear side windows that only lower halfway down.
The boot is long and wide, not especially deep, and easy to load and unload, aided by a low lip and split fold rear seats.
One of the most appealing S40 aspects is just how solid and well engineered the body feels – when you open and shut the doors or bang on the dashboard.
There’s a sense of isolation and strength to it that seems all the more remarkable when you consider the S40’s super-keen pricing.
By the way you’re not exactly getting a stripper model here either. Compared to last year’s previous base model, the SE, leather upholstery, a trip computer and some fancier cabin trim have vanished.
But you still get an armada of airbags, traction and climate controls, anti-lock brakes with EBD and BA, one-touch power windows, electric mirrors, keyless entry, alloy wheels and a host of other little goodies.
Consider the facts then. Here we have a sub-$40,000 European car with outstanding styling inside and out, a powerful five-cylinder engine, undeniable safety and security qualities and the practicality of a compact four-door sedan with a big boot.
On the strength of this cheapest of S40 models, we’re very excited about the potential and appeal of future Volvos. We just love it.
And it’s fair to say this hasn’t happened in many people’s lifetimes.
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