We've driven our share of world cars. But what would you think of a Swedish-brand sedan, owned by an American company, that's built in the Netherlands, with technical assistance from a Japanese partner? That tongue-in-cheek description of Volvo's new S40 and its companion V40 wagon doesn't tell the whole story. The 40-series cars share their basic underpinnings with the Mitsubishi Carisma, which is not sold in this country. To Volvo's credit, the new compacts strongly reflect their Swedish heritage, in terms of design cues and outstanding safety features. He: The 40-series cars have been in production for several years at Nedcar, which is the Dutch joint venture between Volvo and Mitsubishi. But I didn't get my first chance to drive the sedan and wagon until last summer, just before they were introduced here in the United States. No question these are Volvos through and through. But I had a few quibbles back then, and a recent extended drive in the S40 only underscored those concerns. First, the S40 is small - a foot shorter than the Camry - and it feels a little cramped in the back seat. Second, it comes with only a single engine and transmission - a turbo charged 1.9-liter four-cylinder that delivers 160 horsepower and is mated to a four-speed automatic. She: Jeez, you're so technical. I was ready to get all emotional about the S40. In fact, it reminds me of my old navy-blue flannel pajamas with the angels on them. He: You mean the ones with the side air bags? She: No, I mean the ones that are so comforting. But let me explain. For part of the time we had the S40, you were in the hospital. I had my choice of several test vehicles, including ones with tons of confusing buttons and levers. He: I always hated those really complicated pajamas. She: You're just afraid I'm going to get all gushy so you're trying to interrupt. Anyway, I always took the S40 on the hour-long drive to the hospital. I just find it the perfect car for women who want to get in a vehicle and feel like they trust it. And it was also the right size for me. I felt alone that week, and that S40 was my trusty companion. It was right up there with my parents and my best friend Pam in getting me through that trying week. Here's who I think would feel really great in that car: Widows who aren't on a fixed income; young single women who appreciate vehicles with throw back charm and don't have anything to prove to guys by buying a truck; and young ladies, in the classic sense of the word. He: OK, sounds like you've just described the official poster car of the Red Cross. Just what every guy is looking for in personal transportation, right? But I think you may be doing Volvo a disservice by describing its limited appeal to women. The S40 rides and handles like a Volvo, which is a compliment. It also looks like a Volvo, and has those great safety features, including standard antilock brakes and a full complement of air bags. At a base price of around $23,000, it's a pretty nice package. But our test car was loaded with another $5,500 worth of options, including such marginal stuff as a sunroof and a trip computer. Spare me some of the goodies and keep the price down, and this is not such a bad deal. But when the sticker starts pushing 30 grand, I'd much rather own and drive a Passat, which I think is the best in this class. She: What you're saying is that you have room to maneuver, price-wise, with this vehicle. What you're forgetting is the great warranty - 48 months or 50,000 miles - which is the same as a Lexus LS400 and twice as long as the Passat's 24/24 warranty. That's something that is going to be important to a lot of women. And let's not forget looks. Where the Camry and some other mid-size sedans are cookie-cutter generic, the S40 has good enough looks to have earned it an Italian design award. And you know how fussy those Italians are. He: I know how funny those Polish women are. Now only Volvo could trim this car in blue flannel and put angels on the side. 2000 Volvo S40 Anita's rating: world class Paul's rating: above average Likes: The look and feel of a Volvo, only in a smaller, cheaper package. Great warranty. Attractive design with classic Volvo styling cues. Exceptional safety features, including standard side air bags. The only Dutch-built car sold in North America. Dislikes: No six-cylinder option. No manual transmission. Options can push sticker to nearly $30,000. Smaller inside than you'd think. Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan. Price: Base, $22,900; as tested, $28,452 (inc. $575 destination charge). Engine: 1.9-liter I-4; 160-hp; 170 lb-ft torque. EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway. 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,158 (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.) Where built: Born, Netherlands
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