2003 Volvo S40 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
All the Volvo virtues at a more affordable price.
Volvo's S40 and V40 bring this Swedish marque to more affordable levels. Think of the S40 as 100 percent Volvo in a new economy size. It's the Volvo that's easiest to afford.
Its turbocharged engine performs like a V6 and it has terrific brakes. It comes with Volvo's well-designed interior ergonomics. And the company's commitment to crash protection and driving safety.
It's smaller than similarly priced models from Honda and Toyota. So it's really a matter of values, as much as value. You can drive a bigger car. Or you can drive a Volvo.
Two body styles are available: a four-door sedan, called the S40 ($23,900), and a wagon called the V40 ($24,900). The Volvo S40 sedan and V40 wagon are front-drive compact cars powered by a smooth, turbocharged, all-aluminum four-cylinder engine.
A high level of standard equipment includes 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. As you would expect from Volvo, safety items such as multi-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags, side-curtain airbags and four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS are all standard.
For 2002, Volvo has grouped popular options into Premium, Premium Plus, and Sport option packages.
Premium package ($1,900) adds a power glass sunroof, premium sound system with in-dash CD player and upgraded speakers, trip computer, power driver's seat and simulated wood trim on the door panels, glove compartment, gear shifter and gear shifter panel.
The Premium Plus package ($2900) delivers all that and leather seating surfaces, too.
The Sport Package ($650) consists of black headlight trim, Stellar ten-spoke alloy wheels, special sport seats with a leather-and-cloth seating surfaces, plus a rear spoiler, front fog lights and leather-rimmed steering wheel. A high-tech aluminum-effect inlay trims the instrument cluster.
If the Premium Plus and Sport packages are ordered together, then the upholstery is full-leather with the Sport's aluminum dash trim.
A Cold Weather Package ($850) includes a sophisticated traction/stability control system called Dynamic Stability Assistance, plus heated seats and headlamp washer/wipers.
Stand-alone options are few and include leather upholstery ($1,300), a power driver's seat ($450), and power sunroof ($1,200). A dog guard and cargo mats are available as dealer-installed accessories for the V40 wagon.
Like all the Volvos in this new generation, the lines of the S40 and V40 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 sweeps back in a wedge profile to a relatively high trunk. The side windows are fairly large, making the S40 appear bigger than it actually is. Volvo designers refined the basic look last year with better-integrated bumpers, dual headlights, clear-lens taillights, and re-shaped front fenders. Headlamp washers and wipers indicate this is an upscale car, and perform the useful function of wiping that dirty white film away on snow days.
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 with some station wagon models from other manufacturers).
Inside, the S40 won't be mistaken for an econobox, but neither will it be taken for a luxury car. We like the nylon material used for the roof liner better than the mouse fur used on many compact and mid-size cars. The top of the dash and the doors are covered in a nice soft plastic. The Premium Package includes a small amount of imitation wood trim that accentuates the dashboard, center console and door panels. Climate control on all models is automatic. But the right mirror doesn't tilt down for reverse. The steering wheel doesn't feel as nice as a BMW or Audi steering wheel feels. The sun visors feel flimsy and the roll-up center console cover adds little to the interior appearance.
Ergonomically, this car is excellent. High-quality switchgear is attractive and easy to use. Rotary dials have a nice feel with soft clicks between settings. It's all mounted on attractive gray dash panels. There's a nice rubber-covered cubby hole in front of the shifter that does a good job of holding change, wallets, or sunglass cases. Gauges are neatly designed with a gray-on-gray theme, although some people might find the lettering a little small to see. An onboard computer (Premium Package) provides useful trip information such as average speed and average fuel consumption (28 mpg while we drove the car).
The heated seats are comfortable, but adjusting to a comfortable position took awhile. Front headroom and legroom are good, but tall passengers will find themselves cramped in the rear seats 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 S40 and V40 for securing stuff.
Safety was a key consideration in designing the S40. A sophisticated dual-stage airbag system senses whether each seat is occupied, and whether the occupant is wearing a seat belt. It also sorts impacts into five different trigger thresholds. The system then decides at each individual seat whether to activate the seat-belt pre-tensioner and/or the airbag, plus whether to inflate the airbag at 100-percent or 70-percent speed. With this system, a belted front-seat occupant would be subjected to a 100-percent airbag inflation only in the severest (level-five) crash.
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, which provide additional head protection, are standard equipment.
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 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.
The S40 feels powerful. Squeeze down on the throttle and you're rewarded with smooth, linear and quick throttle response that's very satisfying on a winding road or when accelerating onto a freeway. Stomp on it at any speed and the five-speed transmission quickly downshifts and the car takes off. The transmission shifts smoothly even under hard acceleration.
In every day driving, it moves briskly away from intersections, the five-speed automatic shifting smoothly through the gears. Overall, the S40 is quiet, with only a little tire noise coming through to the passenger compartment.
The S40 and V40 are powered by Volvo's 1.9-liter inline four-cylinder engine that uses light-pressure turbocharging and continuously variable valve timing to produce an impressive 160 horsepower at 5250 rpm. Even more impressive is its 177 pound-feet of torque all the way from 1800-4800 rpm. Torque is that force that propels you quickly from intersections or helps you accelerate up a steep hill.
In fact, its performance is on par with many V6-powered compacts. The low-pressure turbocharger boosts the low-end torque, so Volvo's little four-cylinder engine feels more like a medium-size V6. Unlike the boisterous turbo-motors 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.
The high-torque turbo engine works very well with the five-speed automatic transmission. Five gear ratios is better than four. The five-speed automatic offers significantly better fuel economy, slightly better acceleration performance, and makes less noise than a four-speed automatic.
The S40 feels stable at highway speeds. It handles nicely, in the European style. It isn't as hard-edged as a BMW 3 Series, but it is crisper and more satisfying than a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. The body leans in corners as one would expect of a Volvo. But there's an impressive amount of grip here, more than we expected. Drive beyond the grip of the tires and the S40 slides around corners in a predictable fashion. That's good to know. If you ever start sliding on a wet corner one night, just keep your wits about you and steer through the corner.
Like most Volvos, the steering is slower than it is on Japanese cars. The steering feels fine on twisty roads, but on straight roads it feels a bit dead on-center. Apparently Volvo engineers modified the steering and suspension for the U.S. market, making them both softer to suit their perception of American tastes.
This car has good brakes. Brake hard and the S40 delivers quick stopping performance. The pedal feels nice and firm and it's easy to judge and modulate braking performance. It's smooth and stable under hard braking and the anti-lock braking system is tuned well. It strikes a good balance between helping the drive to maintain control under hard braking while delivering short stopping distances.
The Volvo S40 is a perfectly competent compact sedan that should satisfy buyers looking for a smaller, less expensive Volvo.
S40 sedan ($23,900); V40 wagon ($24,900).
Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
Options As Tested
Sport Package ($650) includes rear spoiler, front fog lights, leather-wrapped sport steering wheel; Premium Plus Package ($2,900) includes power driver's seat, power glass sunroof, CD player, premium speakers, trip computer 10-spoke alloy wheels, leather upholstery, woodgrain interior trim; Cold Weather Package ($850) includes Dynamic Stability Assistance, heated seats, headlamp washer/wiper; metallic paint ($400).
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