2001 Volvo S40 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
100 percent Volvo, in a convenient size.
Volvo's compact S40 packs all that traditional Swedish goodness, all that genuine Volvo obsession with safety, into a more manageable, more affordable package.
Volvo has been building compact cars since the mid-1970s, but only recently did Volvo decide to bring its compact model to these shores.
That model is the S40. The four-door sedan and four-door wagon (called V40) come in only one well-equipped trim level, with air conditioning, automatic transmission, power windows, power heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, eight-way adjustable driver's seat and a sophisticated six-speaker, AM/FM/cassette stereo. At $23,500, Volvo has aggressively priced the S40 sedan against a similarly equipped Accord or Camry. The V40 wagon costs just $1,000 more.
There is just one engine choice: a 1.9-liter in-line four that uses light-pressure turbocharging to produce an impressive 160 horsepower at 5100 rpm. Volvo engineers have extensively revised this engine for 2001, adding continuously variable valve timing on the exhaust side, which lowers emissions and boosts torque from 170 to 177 pound-feet at 1800 rpm. But it is mostly the light-pressure turbo that delivers terrific high-end horsepower with workhorse low-end torque, a difficult combination to achieve otherwise. The S40 feels powerful; in fact its performance is on par with many V6-powered compacts.
No manual transmission is offered, but the high-torque turbo engine works very well with the automatic transmission; which has also been upgraded for 2001, from a four-speed to a five-speed. The extra gear improves acceleration slightly but the biggest gains are in fuel economy and noise reduction.
As you would expect from Volvo, safety equipment such as multi-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags, side-curtain airbags and four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS, are standard. Stand-alone options are few and include leather upholstery ($1200), power driver's seat ($450), and power sunroof ($1200). Volvo has instead packaged a wide variety of desirable equipment, including a traction control system called Dynamic Stability Assistance, heated seats, and headlamp washer/wipers, into an $850 Cold Weather Package. There's also a $550 Sports Package, with a spoiler and fog lights; as well as various audio and interior upgrade packages.
Several dealer-installed accessories, such as a dog guard and cargo mats, are also available.
The S40 sedan and the V40 wagon are both front-drive compact cars powered by a smooth, turbocharged, all-aluminum four-cylinder engine. Like all the Volvos in this latest generation, their lines are more curvaceous, their proportions more pleasing than those of the boxy Volvos of the not-so-distant past.
Their exterior design features a sporty, low hood that extends back in an upward line to a high trunk. The side windows are fairly large, making the S40 appear bigger than it actually is. S40 appeared just last year, but already Volvo designers have refined its look with better-integrated bumpers, dual headlights, clear-lens tail lights, and re-shaped front fenders. These last were necessary to accommodate the 2001 model's slightly wider front track (that is, the distance between the centers of the right and left front tires).
The wagon part of the V40 is nicely integrated into the body, so it does not look like it has been grafted onto the sedan's trunk (as in some station wagon models from other manufacturers). 2001 models can be spotted by a new trim panel between the tail lights.
The S40 won't be mistaken for a luxury car inside, but neither will it seen as an econobox. Both sedan and wagon can be ordered with a small amount of imitation wood trim that accentuates the dashboard, center console and door panels. The top of the dash and the doors are covered in a nice soft plastic. The relatively utilitarian hues used in 2000 have been replaced by richer tones for 2001.
The gauges are neatly designed with a gray-on-gray theme, although some people might find the lettering a little small to see. An optional onboard computer provides useful trip information such as average speed and average fuel consumption (28 mpg while we drove the car). Climate control on all models is automatic, and last year's somewhat haphazard climate and radio controls have been re-arranged and improved for 2001.
Front headroom and legroom are good, but tall passengers in the rear seats will find themselves somewhat cramped unless the driver is short. Access through the doors is fine, as they open wider than in some other cars.
Access to the trunk is somewhat restricted because the rear window slopes a long way back. Trunk capacity, however, is quite good at 13.2 cubic feet (about the same as the Honda Accord). The rear seat splits 70/30 and can be folded down to substantially increase carrying capacity. The V40 wagon has a total cargo volume of 61.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, which is slightly less than the VW Passat. Cargo nets and belts are provided in both models for securing stuff.
Safety, as we said, was a key consideration in designing the S40. A sophisticated new dual-stage airbag system for 2001 senses whether or not seats are occupied, and whether or not occupants are wearing their seat belts, and sorts accident impacts into five different 'trigger thresholds.' The system then decides whether to activate the seat-belt pre-tensioner and/or the airbag at each individual seat, plus whether to inflate the airbag at 70 percent or 100 percent speed. With this system, a belted front-seat occupant would be subjected to a 100 percent air bag inflation only in the severest (level-five) crashes.
Additionally, S40 comes with side-impact airbags (SIPS) and a whiplash protection system (WHIPS). Development by Volvo has lead to a second-generation SIPS that activates in different ways depending on the type of accident. Volvo claims the system is effectively two airbags in one. Inflatable curtain (IC) air bags, providing additional head protection, have joined the standard equipment list for 2001.
WHIPS is the same whiplash protection system that is found in bigger Volvos. It is activated when the occupant of a front seat is forced back against the backrest and headrest in a rear-end collision. The body is cushioned by the backrest, which moves back in a parallel movement. It helps prevent rebounding of the body milliseconds after the initial impact.
Our first impressions of the S40 were favorable. Although the little Volvo is only available with an automatic transmission, it moved briskly away from a standing start, and the transmission shifted smoothly through the gears. The low-pressure turbocharger really does boost low-end torque, so that the little four feels more like a medium-size V6. Fortunately, unlike turbochargers of days gone by, you can barely tell this engine is boosted, as there is no whine, no sudden surge of power nor even a boost gauge.
Handling of the S40 is acceptable. In this way the S40 is not in the same class as a BMW 3 Series, but it is better than many other compact cars. There was little body roll in corners and the S40 felt stable. The steering, however, proved a little disappointing. It was fine on the twisty roads but we found it had a dead on-center feel on straight roads. Apparently Volvo engineers modified the steering and suspension for the U.S. market, making it softer to suit our tastes.
Overall, the car is quiet with only a little tire noise coming through to the passenger compartment.
In short, the Volvo S40 is a perfectly competent compact sedan which should satisfy buyers looking for a smaller, less expensive Volvo. However, it's not likely to entice people away from a BMW or even a Volkswagen Passat, both of which are more sporting in character with more spirited handling and style. The Volvo S40 has more of a Japanese feel to it, which is perhaps not surprising, considering it is the creation of a joint venture between Mitsubishi and Volvo in Holland.
S40 sedan ($23,500); V40 wagon ($24,500).
Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
Options As Tested
Sport Package ($550) includes rear spoiler, front fog lights, leather-wrapped sport steering wheel; power driver's seat ($450); Sunroof/Audio package ($1,900) includes power glass sunroof, CD player, premium speakers, trip computer 10-spoke alloy wheels; leather upholstery ($1,200); Wood Interior Upgrade ($150) includes simulated wood dash trim, wood gear lever; Cold Weather Package ($850) includes Dynamic Stability Assistance, heated seats, headlamp washer/wiper; metallic paint ($400).
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