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First Oz drive: Volvo S40 turns the corner

Breakthrough: The new S40 sets new benchmarks for a compact Volvo.

Ride and handling are no longer dirty words for Volvo's S40

12 May 2004

OKAY, let’s not get too carried away here. There’s no doubt the S40 that goes on sale in Australia at the end of this month is a breakthrough car for Volvo in terms of ride and handling, but the fact remains it brings the company to the same level as many of its prestige and luxury opponents, rather than establishing a new standard.

That’s a reflection of the fact that for all their laudatory good points – intuitive and ergonomic interiors, a commitment to safety, social conscience and in the past decade a sense of style – Volvos have consistently been sub-par when it came to chassis capability.

Woolly steering, disappointing ride quality and a preference for understeer, torque steer and bump steer have all undermined a series of cars from the Swedish manufacturer that have otherwise been excellent – V70, S60 and XC90.

The old S40 was a forgettable car. Under-powered, under-damped, underdone - it was simply not good enough.

So it is understandable that the new car is really all-new. New and larger engines, new looks, new and more expensive pricing. But most fundamentally it is based around the same C1 technologies architecture – that’s the mechanical underpinnings hidden by the sheetmetal - that the Mazda3 and forthcoming second generation Ford Focus utlilise.

Volvo gets a share of C1 because it is has been part of the Ford empire since 1999 and is the biggest player in the blue oval’s Premier Automotive Group (PAG).

Because Ford and Mazda are mainstream and Volvo is most definitely upstream, there’s plenty of spin put on just how much of C1 the Swedes influenced and how many parts of it are shared with its more plebeian brethren.

No doubt there’s plenty of people within Ford and PAG who remember the negative publicity surrounding Jaguar’s use of the Mondeo underpinnings for the compact X-Type. It’s a raw wound and a salutary lesson.

So Volvo made sure C1’s quality level was high, that the safety level was to its exacting standards and ... let Mazda and Ford figure out the dynamics.

So no surprise that the MacPherson strut-type front suspension and the multi-link rear set-up (call it Control Blade if it’s a Ford) are the same fundamental design as Mazda3 – and no doubt Focus when it breaks cover at the Paris motor show.

No surprise either that S40 and 3 measure up with the same 2640mm wheelbase, have wide tracks or that they both have electro-hydraulic power-assisted steering.

The S40 really begins to establish its own identity in the details of suspension tune, driven by the S40’s totally different drivetrain and significantly heavier weight that is about 200kg more than the 3.

In Australia the S40 range – and the V50 wagon that arrives soon after it – is powered exclusively by five-cylinder engines sitting transversely and driving the front wheels, whereas the old car was a 2.0-litre four-cylinder.

The fives comprise a naturally-aspirated 2.435-litre engine producing 125kW at 6000rpm/230Nm at 4400rpm, and a turbocharged and intercooled 2.521-litre engine producing 162kW at 5000rpm and 320Nm between 1500rpm and 4800rpm.

Both engines are all-aluminium with double overhead camshafts, 20 valves and continuously variable valve timing on the inlet cams, while the turbo also gets CVVT on the exhaust and performs best on 95-98 RON fuel.

While fundamentally familiar from widespread application across the Volvo range, this RNC version of these engines is 200mm slimmer and 25mm shorter so it can fit in the engine bay.

There are three transmission choices – five-speed manual or automatic with Geartronic semi-manual shift for the normally-aspirated engine and the same five-speed auto or a six-speed manual mated to the turbo.

Claimed fuel consumption varies between 8.7L/100km for the 2.4 manual to 9.2L/100km for the turbo auto.

Housing all the mechanicals is a body that even Volvo concedes is evolutionary in styling, adopting the vertical grille, V-shaped bonnet and heavy shoulders which have become signature items for the company.

There are new touches like the more exaggerated shaping over the fender and the way the A-pillar now blends seamlessly with the roof, but it is familiar overall.

18 center imageBy the measuring tape, the new S40 is 48mm shorter, 54mm wider and 44mmm taller than the old car.

Inside, Volvo is trying to tell us that there’s been a revolution, but that all seems to be built around a "floating" vertical centre console which comprises the heating, ventilation and audio controls, and is attached only at its top to the dash and to the horizontal centre console at the bottom, leaving a hole in behind. Time will tell whether this is a valid car design innovation or simply a gimmick.

Less sexy but just as appreciated are integrated child booster cushions, split-folding rear seats and a height and reach adjustable steering wheel with inbuilt cruise and stereo controls.

There are three levels of S40 in Australia, the 2.4, 2.4 SE and the turbo T5.

Externally little differentiates them, there are different alloy wheel designs and the T5 goes up one inch to 17-inches and gets a lip spoiler on the boot.

But inside there is a fair difference in specification as the pricing goes up.

The manual 2.4 kicks things off at $45,990, with the auto adding $2000. Standard equipment includes a cloth/neoprene interior called T-Tec, climate control air-conditioning, cruise control, single-CD player, approach and home safe lighting and front foglights.

The 2.4 SE is $49,950 for either manual or auto and noticeably adds leather upholstery, wood effect interior inlays, powered driver’s seat and a trip computer.

The T5 is $59,950 for either transmission and it takes the SE’s features except for preferring sportier aluminium inlays, a higher performance sound system, bi-xenon headlights and dynamic stability control.

The pricing of the new S40 range is simply way beyond the old car, which started at $39,950 and topped out at $51,950.

Being a Volvo, standard safety equipment is naturally high on the agenda and is almost identical across the range, including anti-lock brakes with EBD, dual front airbags, inflatable curtain airbags for front and rear passengers, side airbags for the front seats and collapsible pedals.

Headrests and three-point seatbelts are standard all round. The big difference is that the T5 gets the more sophisticated stability control, while the other two make do with traction control.

The underlying strength of the C1 architecture means the new S40 is 68 per cent more torsionally rigid than its predecessor – a massive increase that is as much an indictment on the old car as a bragging point for the new. Volvo is confidently predicting a five-star Euro NCAP result for this car.

Volvo Car Australia is making its own predictions for S40 – that there will be 400 sold here this year and a further 1200 in 2005, ranking it up there with the XC90 as VCA’s biggest selling car.

Volvo S40 2.4 $45,950
Volvo S40 2.4 (a) $47,950
Volvo S40 2.4 SE $49,950
Volvo S40 2.4 SE (a) $49,950
Volvo S40 T5 $59,950
Volvo S40 T5 (a) $59,950

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