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Future models - Volvo - S40

First drive: S40 a compact contender

First look: Australians will catch their first glimpse of the new S40 at the Melbourne motor show in March.

Volvo launches its latest instalment in image re-building – the S40

11 Dec 2003


"VOLVOS are no longer square. They are now a little bit round," said former Volvo Car Australia boss Jan Eriksson in a masterpiece of understatement nearly six years ago.

The succession of products – S80, V70, S60 and XC90 – wheeled out by the Swedish marque since Mr Eriksson voiced his astute observation provide proof that Volvo’s stereotypical bumper-dominated bricks on wheels are indeed a thing of the past.

The latest instalment in the saga is the all-new S40 compact sedan, launched last week to the international motoring media in Malaga, Spain.

Penned by Volvo’s up-and-coming style-meister – 27-year-old UK-born designer Al Briscoe – the newcomer bears a clear family resemblance to the S60 and S80, but a bolder face and more tapered contours set it apart from its bigger brothers.

Australians will catch their first glimpse of the new S40 at the Melbourne motor show in March, but deliveries will not start until June. Its wagon sibling, the V50, will come on stream a couple of months later.

Volvo Car Australia managing director Steve Blyth said the revamped S40 would be the cornerstone of the brand’s plan to increase annual sales to 4000 by 2005. The S40 would account for 1200 of these, if all goes according to plan.

Pricing is yet to be finalised but Mr Blyth said the new S40 line-up would be positioned slightly above the existing range. The price increase will be justified by better equipment levels and more potent five-cylinder engines in lieu of the current four-pots. There won’t be a sub-$40,000 ‘poverty pack’ model, as VCA officials say there is no demand for stripped-out luxury cars.

Expect the entry level model to cost just under $45,000. This variant will come with a Dala interior (smart looking fabric trim), 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and power windows and mirrors.

Further up the scale will be the mid-spec model – which may be badged SE. This version will add leather interior, different wheels and a five-speed automatic as a no-cost option. The other transmission is a five-speed manual.

Both these models will be powered by a 2.4-litre normally-aspirated in-line five-cylinder engine with 125kW and 230Nm. This engine is similar to the unit used in the S60, but some clever relocation of ancillaries means it is 200mm slimmer and 25mm shorter. This has improved the car’s overall packaging efficiency and safety characteristics.

The range-topper will be the blown T5, powered by a 2.5-litre turbo engine that cranks out 162kW at 5000rpm and a fat, flat 320Nm of torque from 1500 to 4800rpm. Visually, it will stand apart from its lesser siblings by virtue of its 17-inch alloys shod with low-profile rubber.

Leather trim will be standard fare in the T5, as will DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control). The latter feature will be offered as an option in the lesser S40 models.

Unlike the non-turbo variants, the force-fed model comes with a six-speed manual transmission, or a five-speed auto at no extra cost.

An all-wheel drive version of T5 will join the fray in early 2005 and it's possible a high-performance R model will be added down the track.

Volvo has configured the car so that the closer the collision forces get to the passenger compartment, the less the materials used deform

Volvo may have added a modicum of sexiness to its products, but it has by no means ditched safety as a core value. The Renault Megane II has set the standard in the small car class by bagging a five-star rating in EuroNCAP testing and Volvo officials say it is important for its contender to at least match this performance.

"It (the S40) must be the safest car in its segment, because that’s what it takes to be a Volvo," said the product manager for S40, Robert Scheiber.

Standard safety gear across the range will include dual front airbags, Volvo’s Side Impact Protections System (SIPS), side airbags and side curtain bags. And you also get WHIPS. This has nothing to do with kinky bedroom activities – it is merely Volvo’s acronym for Whiplash Protection System, which is designed to minimise the risk of neck injuries in rear-end collisions.

An interesting design innovation in the new S40 is a steering wheel that collapses horizontally to place the airbag in an ideal position in a frontal collision.

Volvo has configured the car so that the closer the collision forces get to the passenger compartment, the less the materials used deform. In order to achieve this, four grades of steel are used in its construction – conventional bodywork steel, high strength steel, extra high strength steel and ultra high strength steel. The objective is that the passenger compartment should remain intact in most collisions.

The S40 is claimed to offer high passive safety levels not only for its occupants, but also for pedestrians and cyclists. Volvo says the exterior’s clean, smooth surfaces help in this regard. In addition, there is an energy-absorbing structure in the bumper to reduce the risk of leg injuries to pedestrians.

Importantly, there is 70mm of free space between the cylinder-head and bonnet, which means there is less chance of pedestrians sustaining head injuries in a collision.

Interior space levels are claimed to be appreciably better than before – thanks partly to increased dimensions in most directions. The newcomer is wider and taller than before and its wheelbase is 78mm longer, even though overall length has shrunk by 48mm.

Volvo’s engineers have prioritised rear-seat room, partially at the expense of boot space, which still measures a respectable 404 litres. Kerb weight ranges from 1399kg to 1419kg, which is by no means on the portly end of the scale.

Keen followers of the automotive industry may be aware that the new S40 shares much of its underpinnings with the Mazda3 and next generation Ford Focus, as all these brands come under the Ford Motor Company umbrella.

This is by no means a bad thing as Ford and Mazda have earned a reputation for producing cars with sharp, lively dynamics – whereas Volvo cannot make the same claim.

The S40’s suspension comprises a spring-strut setup at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear. The steering is a rack and pinion unit that endows the car with a 10.6 metre turning circle.

Volvo S40: The long and the short of it
(S40 dimensions compared with predecessor)
Length: 4468mm (48mm shorter than before)
Width: 1770mm (54mm wider)
Height: 1452mm (44mm taller)
Wheelbase: 2640mm (78mm longer)
Front track: 1535mm (63mm wider)
Rear track: 1531mm (57mm wider)


IT’S fair to say the current generation Volvo S40 has never set the pulse racing, so it should come as welcome news that its successor is stylish, dynamically accomplished and a genuine hoot to drive in T5 guise.

First off, let’s talk styling. The man that gets the credit for the S40’s boat hull-inspired lines – wide in the middle, narrower at the stem and stern – is UK-born Al Briscoe, whose design proposal was picked ahead of those conceived by two of his colleagues. The tall, athletic designer with the Michael Jordan haircut could easily pass off for a professional basketballer and his unassuming, laid-back demeanour provides few clues to his stature as a stylist.

Getting back to the car, immediately noticeable is that the new model is taller than the current model. It also has a profile that’s more akin to a single sweeping curve than is the case with the conventional three-box shape of the existing car. Its protruding snout is flanked by a handsome pair of headlight clusters and the front bumper/spoiler assembly is a very neat piece of design.

Also on the cool end of the scale are the rear three-quarter panels, which taper inwards at the tail to endow the car with a lithe, nimble stance.

Viewed from the rear, the S40 bears a strong resemblance to its S60/S80 siblings – in fact, you need to look twice to verify that it is not one of these two models.

Undoubtedly the most noteworthy feature in the interior is the ‘free-floating centre stack’. Instead of being a solid mass that forms part of the dash – as is the case with every other car on the market – it is a free-standing, slim-line panel, behind which lurks an oddments tray. The functional value of this arrangement is debatable, but it certainly is a good conversation piece.

The rest of the cabin is fairly conventional, featuring a neat, uncluttered layout. The seats are comfortable enough and even rear-seat occupants are quite well catered for. Average-sized beings should have no beefs whatsoever, but taller individuals may find their knees rubbing against the seat ahead of them.

The blown five-cylinder engine is a gem. Smooth and torquey, it emits a pleasing howl from the twin tailpipes when you work it hard

The test route at the car’s launch took in the sinuous Ronda Road near Malaga – one of Europe’s great driving roads. Having latched onto a T5 equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, the scene was set for some good, clean fun.

Happily, the T5 didn’t disappoint. If anything, it exceeded expectations.

The marriage of high power/torque and front-wheel drive is seldom a happy one, yet the S40’s chassis proved a match for the 162kW and 320Nm eked out by the five-cylinder engine. It exhibited sharp turn-in, good mid-corner poise and very little tendency to suffer from the dreaded torque-steer that is the bane of most potent front-drivers.

Push really hard and the car understeers at the limit, but this is easily rectified by backing off a tad. The S40’s handling characteristics are perhaps best described as predictable, yet entertaining.

The steering is well weighted, even though it does not provide the level of feel you would get in a 3 Series BMW.

The blown five-cylinder engine is a gem. Smooth and torquey, it emits a pleasing howl from the twin tailpipes when you work it hard. The six-speed manual transmission is also a user-friendly device, with a slick shift action and well-spaced ratios.

Hopping into an automatic non-turbo after sampling the T5 could only be an anti-climax, but even the lesser model dishes up a decent driving experience. It obviously offers less grunt than the huffer, but it still feels quicker than the likes of the Audi A4 2.0, BMW 318i and Mercedes-Benz C180 Kompressor.

Unfortunately, the five-speed auto is a bit of a slow-witted device, regardless of whether you assume manual control of cog-swapping duties. On the other hand, the brakes are strong and progressive, resisting fade even after a relatively hard workout across the Ronda Road.

Ride quality is perfectly acceptable in both the non-turbo model and the stiffer-sprung T5. Wind and road noise are also reasonably well suppressed.

Overall verdict? A very worthy contender if you can look past the ‘bloody Volvo driver’ stigma that the brand is desperately trying to overcome.

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