2005 Volvo V50 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
All-new world-class sports sedans.
The Volvo S40 is all-new. It comes loaded with features for a very competitive price. For starters, the base price of $24,190 is $510 less than the current S40. Standard equipment includes a 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine, curtain and side-impact airbags, projector-type headlamps, and ABS with EBD, which electronically balances the braking.
Volvo says the primary engineering challenge was to get the same safety in the S40's small package that's in the flagship S80 sedan. To that end It has been designed using something called VIVA, for Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture. What appears to be an unprecedented amount of time, research, testing and detail has gone into the construction of the chassis and body in the interest of crash protection. There are several zones of deformation upon impact, built with different strengths of steel depending on that zone's function: conventional, high strength, extra high strength and ultra high strength steel.
The S40 was launched as a 2004 1/2 model in January 2004, but it's essentially a 2005 model. The previous S40 line (2004 and older) was vast and the new S40 line will likewise grow over the next couple of years. The all-new 2004 1/2 models come with front-wheel drive and a five-speed automatic; 2005 models offer all-wheel drive and a six-speed manual gearbox as well. Also available for 2005: a V50 sport wagon.
The new S40 looks like a sports sedan, particularly when fitted with the optional 17-inch Saggita alloy wheels. The design is clean and elegant, Scandinavian simplicity. Inside, the S40 represents a sharp departure from previous Volvo designs, and the new interior is comfortable and convenient.
On the road, the S40 is stable and relaxed. Even at high speeds, it can easily run with expensive sedans from BMW and Mercedes. The turbocharged T5 engine is wonderfully smooth, with quick but linear acceleration performance. The entry-level 2.4i engine feels nearly as quick and is just as smooth. The five-speed automatic is smooth and responsive. The suspension is firm but not jarring, offering an ideal balance of ride and handling, and the brakes are excellent. The all-new Volvo S40 is a superb sports sedan.
The Volvo S40 is available as two models:
The 2.4i ($24,190) uses a new five-cylinder inline engine making 168 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm, on premium fuel. It comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, but a five-speed manual will also be available. Standard equipment includes air conditioning and power windows and door locks, stability traction control (STC), 16-inch alloy wheels, remote entry, in-dash CD system and theft-deterrent system. The Premium option package ($2,295) includes leather upholstery, power moonroof, electronic climate control and power seats. The Sport option package ($750) includes dynamic suspension, sport alloy wheels, foglights and seating surfaces in a handsome durable outdoorsy material developed for Volvo called T-Tec. A premium sound system with 6-CD player is optional ($850).
The T5 ($26,990) uses a slightly larger 2.5-liter turbocharged version of the engine, making 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque over the wide range of 1500 to 4800 rpm. The T5 adds as standard equipment foglights, a power driver's seat and the T-Tec seating surfaces. It comes standard with a five-speed automatic, but a superb six-speed close-ratio gearbox will also be available. Option packages for the T5 are almost the same as for the 2.4i, except the Sport package alloy wheels are 17-inch, with 205/50R/17 performance tires, a steal given the suspension upgrades and the beauty of those wheels. Only the T5 will offer the availability of all-wheel drive.
Stand-alone options for both models include electronic stability control (Volvo calls theirs DSTC for Dynamic Stability and Traction Control) for $695, metallic paint ($450), the power moonroof ($1200), and bi-xenon headlamps ($700).
Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles. Even better: Volvo pays for factory schedule maintenance for first three years/36,000 miles.
A comparison of stats with the previous S40 gives a good understanding of the new shape and stance. The new S40 is 1.9 inches shorter overall but has a wheelbase 3.1 inches longer, meaning shorter overhangs and better balance. It's 2.1 inches wider overall and about the same in its track, and it's 1.7 inches taller but doesn't look it.
A walk around the new S40 is rewarded with small pleasures. The design is lovely, subtle and original but mostly very clean: Scandinavian simplicity at its artistic best. Clearly, Volvo doesn't do boxes any more with its sedans. From a distance the S40 looks somewhat like an Audi A4, which is its primary competition, but when you look again you appreciate the unique soft snub nose. Form followed function, as short overall length was a primary engineering objective. Sexiness was a styling objective, and the S40 achieves both.
Rounded front corners (but mostly the new engine package) enable this shortness, and the rear corners are pushed in as well, giving the S40 an overall stylish shape. A classy contribution is the lack of chrome, with the normal bits, from window trim to ding guards, all being black or body colored. The doors are slightly convex, as opposed to the previous concave shape, and high shoulders make the occupants feel protected.
The S40 is a Volvo from any angle, but head-on it's unmistakable with its dark eggcrate grille with the diagonal Volvo slash in center. The headlamps bend horizontally from the sweetly flared fenders toward the grille, with three visible lamps: one rectangular, one round and one trapezoidal. The front air dam is divided by two splitters into three neat sections.
Meanwhile the rear end is sharp, and when viewed in silhouette with the soft snub front end, gives the car direction. The eye is further led along by rocker panels that are slightly wider in the rear, giving the illusion of forward rake and more motion. More dramatically, the sloping roofline quickly meets an abrupt and lipless rear deck; the distance between the bottom of the glass and the 90-degree edge of the deck is not much more than a foot. Yet all the lines, including the rear hips, cascade smoothly together.
The license plate indent is clean, unlike many others. The smooth rear bumper rides over two stainless exhaust tips, pointing conspicuously and curiously down toward the ground; if they point down just to look cool, it works. The huge red taillights are trademark Volvo, each with a clear plastic band containing its backup light.
Last but not least, the optional 17-inch Saggita alloy wheels on our T5 test model, 14 spokes or seven twin-spokes depending on how you count, are some of the best-looking wheels we've seen in a long time. Volvo hasn't missed a single opportunity to make the S40 look terrific.
Like many new cars nowadays, the Volvo S40 is built on a component-sharing strategy with other car companies partly and jointly owned by a giant one. In this case Ford is that giant company and the S40 shares components with the Mazda3 and a European-market Ford Focus that isn't sold in the U.S. But in the big picture that's a mere footnote, for its lack of importance to the car-buyer or the individuality of the car.
Volvo says the S40 exterior design is an evolution, but the interior is a revolution. Certainly one part of it is new invention. The center stack is only about one inch thick, like a computer monitor with a flat screen. Behind it is a storage bin. Simple, clever, practical, handsome, Swedish.
You have to reach around the back of the stack to gain access to that shallow storage space, but it's better to have it than to waste it. The stack begins behind the beautifully minimalist shift lever (no goofy balls here), and curves gracefully upward to link the console with the instrument panel. The audio, climate and other buttons are arranged vertically and there are four round knobs at the corners. One of those four knobs is a menu control that easily accesses more detailed information and controls. Above the buttons is an information screen. That's all; it's everything you need, and it's all intuitive, unlike the top-of-the-line models from Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
One problem we had with the thin stack, however, is that during hard cornering, of which the S40 is eminently capable, our right knee rode hard against the edge, and it hurt. A racer's solution would be to patch it with foam and duct tape and be content.
Silver duct tape would match nicely. Our T5 came with brushed aluminum trim, which again was perfect from a style standpoint. Not too much and in all the right places, including the whole center stack. We later drove a 2.4i with a dark wood trim, and it wasn't nearly as good-looking.
The interior comes in three colors: gray, dark gray or dark beige. The buckets in our T5 test model were T-Tec; we think we might pay the $2295 for the Premium Package just to get the plush leather. But maybe it wasn't the T-tec material we didn't like, so much as it was the thin padding under our butt, although lumbar support is standard.
Volvo leads the auto industry in environmental awareness as well as safety. There's an emphasis on environmentally compatible cabin materials and systems, such as trim materials with low PVC content, a standard pollen filter and an optional air-quality system including an activated carbon filter.
Everything is carefully compact in the interior, including the strong stubby door handles, easy to grab and pull. The console compartment is deep, with two good cupholders forward of it, and the glovebox is decent-sized. The instrument panel is clean and simple and workmanlike, with a big 160-mph speedometer (149 top speed of the T5) and 8000-rpm tachometer (redline 6500), white numbers on a black background with red needles.
The new body design opened up a lot of interior space. Since it's wider, taller and has a longer wheelbase than before, the cabin is bigger in all three directions; and even more room is created by the short engine compartment thanks to the new engine. And Volvo typically has created intelligent ways to use that space, as it did with the XC90 SUV; this may be a sedan, but why not? The rear seat is a 60/40 split and the seatbacks open up to the trunk when dropped. The front seat folds as flat as the rears, creating an unprecedented open floor space for a small sedan.
The chopped-off rear end makes the trunk opening small, but it leads into a deep forward well. Below the floor of the trunk is a spacesaver spare tire and a first aid kit, and the trunk lid has a special tensioner/absorber to make its opening and closing smooth and easy.
It's easy to put the new S40 in a nutshell: it's a smaller version of the S60. The old S40, with its four-cylinder engine, was nothing like that. But the five-cylinder engines in the new S40 allow it to be built just like its big brothers, including even the S80. And because it was designed on the heels of the sensational S60R high-performance sedan, a lot of what was learned with the S60R was applied to the S40.
The engine used in the S40 2.4i is not quite the same dual-overhead-cam five-cylinder engine with variable camshaft timing that Volvo uses in its current sedans, wagons and SUVs; most of the external components, from alternator to manifolds to air conditioning compressor, have been designed for a compactness that makes the transversely mounted engine package 7.8 inches thinner and 1 inch shorter. This was all done in holistic pursuit of building the frontal deformation zone for crash safety.
The turbocharged engine in the S40 T5 is wonderfully smooth. Its acceleration is quick and linear, with a broad power curve allowing it to evenly gain speed throughout the rev range. But it should be good; it's the same size as the S60's, but it's being asked to make less horsepower. At 80 miles per hour, with the five-speed automatic transmission, it's only loafing along at 2500 rpm, so there's a lot of power to spare.
We drove the T5 for more than 200 miles, many of them in the wide-open California desert where we were able to open 'er up. The T5 is comfortable at high speed, very stable and relaxed. In fact it's ready and even eager for more. This is one small car that can be a great Autobahn cruiser, able to run with the big boys, the expensive 130-mph BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. It was so stable at high speeds it didn't feel like a front-wheel-drive car at all.
Our test model had the electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission, which features a manual shift mode, and we couldn't have been happier with it. The upshift from fourth to fifth gear was so smooth that we only knew it was happening by observing the tach needle drop. And in the manual mode, it actually let us control what gear we wanted to be in, without stepping in and overriding our wishes. It's the same transmission that's used in the 300-horsepower S60R, so it's bulletproof in the S40.
The S40 uses the same suspension design as the S60 and S80, with geometry that has been calculated for quickness and precision. We drove for a stretch at 30-40 mph over a terrible surface with a lot of big rough patches, and it was clear the suspension was firm but it was never jarring. We could feel the wheels moving, but it wasn't getting to our hands or butt, or the body of the car.
We drove up into the mountains over a fast, smooth and winding road, with lots of hard braking and abrupt changing of direction. In that situation the suspension approached its limit and stiffer would have been nice; but that situation was already faster than 95 percent of drivers will take even the T5. The S40 suspension wasn't made for that, as it shouldn't be; if it were, it would have been uncomfortable on the slower and rougher surface. Every suspension has a range, and the S40's range is right on the money. The available Dynamic suspension has slightly stiffer springs and bushings (about 20 percent, according to Volvo).
The steering is electro-hydraulic with light, distinct and controlled feedback. We took those words verbatim out of the S40 press kit. This is something we wouldn't normally ever do, but it's perfectly true. Our own notebook words were: 'firm, tight, the right amount of resistance.'
The torque steer normally inherent in front-wheel-drive cars was minimal to the point of insignificance. Years ago it was a problem in Volvos, but engineers have been whittling away at erasing it with improved halfshafts and universal joints.
We used the brakes a lot, and they were.
In the past two years, Volvo has proven it can build a superior SUV, a superior high-performance sedan, and now a superior small sedan. If the redesigned S40 has any weaknesses, especially for the price, we couldn't find them.
The new 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine brings it into the same league as its proven big brothers, the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. A total redesign of the body and chassis greatly increases an already good safety level, and the new size is both more compact outside and more spacious inside. Its smooth exterior lines are distinctive, even unique, and beautiful. There are many good new cars nowadays for $25,000, but if you went down the list comparing features, qualities and components, the Volvo S40 would be difficult to beat.
Volvo S40 2.4i ($24,190); T5 ($26,990).
Options As Tested
Sport package with suspension upgrades, 17-inch alloy wheels, 205/50R17 tires ($750).
Volvo S40 T5 ($26,990).
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