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Car reviews - Volvo - S40 - T5 AWD sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth, sweet five-cylinder turbo, Scandinavian interior design influences, general solidity and safety, front seat comfort, premium stereo, value over FWD predecessor
Room for improvement
Poor rear headroom, small boot, not as quick as the figures suggest

16 Jun 2006

GoAuto 16/06/2006

VOLVO'S S40 was a perky small car from the moment of its launch in 2004. With compact, economical lines, a Scandinavian-influenced interior, Volvo safety credentials and a unique, laterally-installed five-cylinder engine underpinned by the best chassis we've probably ever seen from the Swedish car-maker, the little sedan drew a lot of instant critical acclaim. The whole S40/V50 range did.

The S40 T5 didn't miss out on the praise either, with its 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder winding out what looked like WRX-beating power figures and putting them to the ground as effectively as might be expected of a well-sorted front-drive chassis.

And the S40 T5 did turn out to be a handily fast small car, swift and well balanced but not, as it happened, in the same performance league as the all-wheel drive Subaru.

Now, that advantage has been sidelined with Volvo's latest S40 and V50 T5s. Both have picked up on-demand all-wheel drive to better deal with the power, as well as bigger brakes and upgraded equipment levels - all for less money.

But one thing should be made clear from the start the all-wheel drive S40 is in no way a WRX challenger.

The on-demand Haldex AWD system adds much of the 80kg or so weight gain suffered by the new T5s, blunting the straight-line performance as much as it enhances the general all-weather, all-terrain roadholding.

The result is that, at 7.1 seconds to 100km/h, the AWD T5 S40 is slower off the mark than its 2WD predecessor and even further behind the WRX (which recently gained half a litre in engine capacity but is less rapid than the previous 2.0-litre, with a zero to 100km/h time of 5.9 seconds).

So don't go thinking of the 55 grand S40 T5 AWD as a rich man's WRX. That's not the sort of car it is.

What it is, is a very swift, foolproof little prestige car that flaunts all the usual Volvo safety credentials yet is aurally delightful and fun to drive at the same time. If you were to make any WRX comparisons, you could say it's a bit like a Subaru with the sharp edges honed off.

Sitting on neat 17-inch alloy wheels but otherwise very understated, the S40 T5 sets off the styling themes familiar on larger Volvos.

There's the rounded, boat-like prow and the same taillight themes evident on the S60 and S80 Volvos, along with a chunky, short-overhang profile and a tendency to sit a little higher than the 2WD T5s (this is not for tackling gnarly bush tracks, but was apparently done to allow clearance for the rear propeller shaft - the fuel tank had to be made slightly smaller too), while the rear roofline drops away in a manner that suggests back-seat headroom might be a problem.

Sure enough, it is a bit tight for tall passengers. But more of that later.

Apart from the all-wheel drive - brought into action by a multi-plate Haldex clutch - the driveline is not a lot different to the previous S40 T5.

The compact twin-camshaft, 20-valve alloy engine (based on the original Volvo five-cylinder but trimmed considerably in size and weight) uses a long-stroke configuration and displaces 2.521 litres, producing its 162kW at a conservative 5000rpm and bringing in its 320Nm torque maximum from as low as 1500rpm.

From there it's a flat line all the way to 4800rpm, guaranteeing flexibility and always-ready response.

Two gearboxes are offered, at the same price, and are the same transmissions used in the two-wheel drive T5s: The six-speed manual, tested here, and a sequential five-speed automatic.

The system operates as a two-wheel drive in normal circumstances but, by way of a set of sensors detecting differences in wheel speeds, is able to progressively direct power to the back axle as it becomes necessary.

The result is plenty of bite on all types of surfaces and, generally, an unawareness of the juggling processes going on.

The T5's six-speed gearbox is not, at first, among the most pleasant to operate with its longish lever throw, small floor pedals and almost-aggressive clutch action, but is acclimatised to with surprising ease.

Once that's accomplished, it's a matter of giving the engine its head, listening to the smooth five-cylinder beat and watching the tachometer flicking quickly to its red line. The engine sounds surprisingly good between 3500-5000rpm and the torque is noticeably strong from about 2500rpm.

During our test we didn't notice the back wheels kicking in when needed, but we did find the S40 AWD does have a distinct understeering tendency that would be moreso if it wasn't for the stability control system. Switch it off and the baby Volvo "pushes" even more.

But what can't be denied is the sense of security imbued by the car. Driven with less aggression, the Volvo points accurately via its relatively fast, well-weighted electro-hydraulic steering, rides well if a little firmly and goes about its business with a quiet sense of control.

At 100km/h in sixth gear the S40 T5 is spinning at a quite relaxed 2300rpm, so there's not a lot of engine noise to drown out the killer 12-speaker, six-CD premium sound system.

The interior is nicely Swedish, made distinctive by the almost paper-thin panel extending between the centre console and the dash proper and containing controls for setting the interior climate (using Volvo's universally understood pictogram buttons) and operating the sound system.

A little gimmicky, maybe, but a neat touch that also provides the benefit of a hidden oddments tray in the space behind.

The general ambience is pleasantly restrained, quite classic in all its shapes and ergonomically friendly. There are a few disappointingly small storage areas, such as the tiny pockets in the front doors and the meagre centre storage bin, although they are offset by handy but limited and concealed netting storage pockets located in front of the seat bases.

The driver gets power seat adjustment (with a three-position memory), a two-way adjustable steering wheel and no left footrest. The leather-trimmed seats are, of course, are well formed and comfortable enough to continue the Volvo tradition for looking after passengers.

But if you try to cram adults into front and back seats you'll quickly realize the S40 is a Mazda3, Ford Focus-sized sedan. The back seat is short of headroom and adequate leg space can only be found with a lot of juggling and compromise.

And, surprisingly, there's no rear centre armrest - which would have served as a nice reminder that although nominally a five-passenger car, the S40 is more comfortable with four.

The split-fold is welcome because the boot is quite small too, with a high floor (covering a space-saver spare) and a shallow opening that at least has the benefit of tucked-away hinges.

The S40 T5 is well equipped too, with bi-Xenon lights, standard heated seats, rear parking sensors, child-friendly rears eats and all the usual gear including cruise control, trip computer, rain-sensing wipers and an almost-full compliment of airbags (dual front, dual front side and dual headbags).

Maybe Volvo should promote the S40 T5 AWD similarly to Audis' presentation of previous A4s - which were quite tight inside - as "sports saloons". The emphasis is on driving pleasure more than the ability to please a carload of passengers.

But it's an endearing car, the new S40 T5. The value aspect can't be argued as it's cheaper than before yet offers more - including the monster stereo - of what was already a good thing. It makes you wonder how owners of previous S40 T5s feel.

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