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Car reviews - Volvo - S40 - SE sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Ride quality, handling dynamics, value for money over base S40, standard equipment level, styling, extra cabin space, stiffer body, active and passive safety, responsive steering, performance, engine smoothness, slick auto transmission, functional interior, comfort
Room for improvement
Suspension noise, engine noise, no centre rear armrest, optional seat heating, small boot/opening

7 Jan 2005

THIS is a good Volvo. Undoubtedly one of the best in recent memory.

It’s not that other products from the now Ford-controlled company are dogs – rather that, for the first time since it’s wholesale adoption of front-wheel drive, here at last is a Volvo with a decent suspension.

The S60 is a very competitive mid-size prestige car afflicted with what feels like a primitive chassis the S80 has got many things right, but lacks ride and handling finesse.

The traditional Volvo values – safety, build quality, intelligent detail design – are subjugated by the shortcomings of a suspension that never seems quite sure of what it is trying to do.

The S40 – and its station wagon sibling, the V50 – at last gets the chassis basics right. And it’s all to do with the fact that the design is not actually Volvo’s. A Ford global effort, the all-independent system can also be found underneath the new Mazda3 and the next version of the Ford Focus.

So what you get, mixing Volvo values with dynamic qualities that are right up there with the best of its competitors, is a very appealing car. It suggests Volvo has been cured of the blind spot it’s suffered since the launch of the 850 in the early 1990s.

The S40 is priced to compete directly with the likes of Saab 9-3, Audi A4 and Alfa 156. It even suggests it might get a look-in as an alternative to BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-class.

At this stage it lacks much of the engine diversity of its new-found peers. There’s just the five-cylinder transverse engine that has been doing duty in various Volvos since the 850, fiddled of course, and available in two forms the 2.4-litre normally aspirated 125kW version and, in the T5, the 162kW 2.5-litre turbo.

The range comprises the sedan and V50 wagon and is pretty simple there’s the base car, the better-equipped SE, and the T5.

Dimensionally the S40 sedan is pretty much lineball with the rest of the prestige bunch - and so, at 1399kg, is the kerb weight.

It is a lot bigger than the outgoing S40 – width, height, wheelbase are all up substantially, meaning there’s more shoulder and legroom inside. The only dimension that’s smaller is the overall length, which basically means the overhangs are shorter.

Naturally the new car progresses in terms of strength and safety compared to its predecessor, which was developed jointly with Mitsubishi. Volvo says the new car is torsionally 68 per cent stronger (34 per cent for the wagon).

Built in Ghent, Belgium, the new S40/V50 uses four grades of steel in a carefully thought-out structure that collapses progressively in front or rear impacts to give the same passive safety as the much bigger S80.

The design addresses aspects like the intrusion of a front wheel into the cabin in an offset frontal collision, the possibility of striking a truck platform or a loading pier (this is achieved through the use of upper side members as part of the impact-absorbing hierarchy), or impacts with pedestrians.

The S40 also Whips and Sips. Rear impacts utilise Volvo’s WHIPS anti-whiplash protection system to protect front-seat passengers, and there is also the SIPS side-impact protection system.

This takes advantage of the S40’s greater width to better protect passengers and is aided by full-length curtain airbags and side airbags for the front seats.

The revised five-cylinder engines play a part in the safety architecture too. Tighter dimensions allowed more space for the anti-intrusion aspects of the body design.

Attention to such things as the exhaust manifold outlets - which are angled down towards the engine block – the use of a compact fibreglass-reinforced plastic inlet manifold, and repackaging of the alternator, water pump and air conditioning compressor, all help in the reduction of both size and weight.

But it’s the S40’s suspension that creates the most gratifying aspects of this new Volvo. It might be shared with Ford and Mazda, but the benefits weigh heavily in favour of any losses suffered in Volvo engineering pride.

The system is fully independent, with struts up front and a coil-sprung, multi-link layout at the rear. Absolutely nothing unusual and, indeed, nothing outstanding when compared with the best of its competition. But the effects, in Volvo terms, are mind-altering.

The new chassis, plus the longer wheelbase and significantly wider tracks, contribute to a Volvo that feels planted and responsive to the steering wheel, yet is quite absorbent of bumps.

The spring and shock absorber settings chosen by Volvo tend towards a firmish ride, but there’s nothing of the thumping heaviness that seems to afflict other Volvos - although it can get noisy if pushed hard over challenging bumps that test the extent of suspension travel.

The electro-hydraulic steering strikes a nice balance between confidence-inspiring weighting and easy parking. It is quite responsive to the driver’s commands.

Even the base models, which use less aggressive suspension settings than the T5 versions, feel quite lively – hardly a term you’d use to describe other members of the present range.

The normally aspirated five-cylinder engine is a bonus as it’s the base engine for the Australian market.

Its 125kW are delivered quite willingly, if a little noisily, and the sensation, as you’d imagine, is something between a four-cylinder and a six-cylinder.

In fact, it’s more like a six in terms of smoothness, even if the inlet manifold seems to contribute more than the normal amount of noise into the cabin. It sound s bit like a detuned Nissan 350Z.

The five-speed auto gearbox is a nice, intuitive shifter that will notch down a ratio on downhill grades when the brakes are applied and offers the sequential control required of all good contemporary autos.

That, then, is the driver cared for.

Passengers should be equally as happy with this new little Volvo, because they have more space to move around, better seats and the improved ride comfort.

Climate-control air-conditioning, leather trim, and a power adjusted driver’s seat (with memory) are standard in the SE - which is only $2000 more expensive than the auto version of the base car - but there are a couple of surprising omissions.

Buyers are asked to pay more for heated front seats (cause for rejoicing at Saab), and there’s no centre rear armrest. Base S40 buyers are asked to pay for leather, trip computer and electric front seats but still get climate control and 16-inch alloy wheels (of different spoke design to the SE).

The S40 interior looks fresh and inviting, and the instruments are cleanly laid out in simple, logical fashion.

Volvo’s attempt at slight wackiness, the "floating" centre console which is a thin wafer of curved plastic housing climate and radio controls, lends an architectural air but doesn’t have real practical benefits other than a small storage area in a recess set behind it.

The seats look flattish, but of course they are comfortable for the long haul and, in the back, incorporate two fold-out booster cushions for children, which is typical of Volvo’s family-oriented approach.

And the driver is able to get perfectly comfortable with the power seat and two-way adjustable steering column.

The S40’s 404-litre boot is nothing special in terms of volume and, although it gets a split-fold rear seat to increase its utility, the opening is quite small and the boot floor itself quite high as a result of the full-size alloy spare.

But the hinges are at least tucked out of the way in the rain guttering and the lid itself opens high and wide.

Taking everything into consideration, the S40 is very much a new beginning for the company in that it includes all the things we’ve come to expect of a Volvo, but adds the decent road dynamics that have been lacking for a long time.

If these values can be translated higher up into the model range, Volvos could at last start to become what was promised when the great-looking but flawed S80 was launched here in May 1998.

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