Two Volvo wagons shared my driveway recently, about three feet and 15 years apart. One was considerably shinier than the other.

The old one - a silver-gray 240 DL, circa 1986 - belongs to my wife. Boxy and funky, reeking of reverse snobbery, her Volvo has been a loyal and reliable creature since the day we bought it, used, nearly eight years ago.

Her Volvo has been driven mainly as a local runner, transporting a pair of boys, countless loads of groceries, bricks, Christmas trees, shrubbery, a lawn mower, lumber, bicycles, etc. It's been used as a moving van, pickup truck and dirt-road denizen. It's been to San Diego twice.

A repaint only partially hides the scars.

The new one was Volvo's beautiful new V40, as stylish and handsome as the 240 is dated and homely. The V40, and its sedan counterpart, the S40, are Volvo's bid to bring its cars' prices back down to the entry level. Starting in the low 20s, they still offer high levels of sophistication and driveability, as befitting a Volvo.

They also bear Volvo's newfound emphasis on distinctive styling. In recent years, those who once mocked Volvo designers' dependence on the basic box have been turned around by some of the fine, streamlined bodies coming from the Swedish stalwart, especially the lovely C70 coupe and convertible.

The S40 and V40 (S for sedan, V for vagon, I mean, wagon) are the result of a joint venture between Volvo and Mitsubishi, which resulted in a shared chassis, some suspension components and a Mitsubishi automatic transmission. The relationship was cemented before Ford Motor Co. acquired Volvo last year. Mitsubishi sells its own version of the 40, though not in the U.S. market.

The Mitsubishi influence apparently was required to help Volvo keep its costs down. The completely loaded-up V40 I drove came to just over $30,000, a decent price for a small luxury car that competes nicely against Audi, Saab and BMW.

Where the Volvo slips from their lofty ranks is in handling and road manners, not quite managing the crisp, taut immediacy of the Germans or the calm competence of Saab. Although the Volvo's cornering is balanced, it is accompanied by significant body roll and, if the pavement turns uneven, some unwanted wiggling.

Still, the overall ride is befitting a midlevel craft that melds luxury with performance, maybe a bit firm for some, quiet on the highway, unflustered and able to turn a back road into an enjoyable romp. Definitely improved over 240's chunky ride.

Power is provided by a small four-cylinder engine lightly boosted with a turbocharger, providing decent performance though accompanied by some turbo lag at low speeds. The test car was equipped with the Mitsubishi automatic, which works well. Stick shift also is available.

There is some four-cylinder vibration at idle, but acceleration is smooth. The V40's handling, ride, power delivery and refinement are light years ahead of the 240.

But the V40 is smaller than the 240 wa gon, and that is readily apparent in the cabin space. Headroom and legroom are good up front, though the V40 is narrow, more like a compact than a midsize car.

The interior is exceptionally well-finished with the solid bits and pieces expected expect from Volvo. The main gripe about the interior is the same I've had about most recent Volvos: switches and controls seem haphazardly arranged.

And I thought the stereo was subpar, despite being upgraded with premium speakers. Some of the other options on the test car include a big sunroof and leather package that included genuine artificial wood trim for $2,300.

Also, a weather package that included electronic stability control, headlight washers and heated seats for $850; a sport package, including fog lights, sport steering wheel, power driver seat, CD player, trip computer and those premium speakers, for $1,900; metallic paint for $400; and roof rails for $310.

Even with those expensive add-ons, the V40 is well -priced. T he Mitsubishi influence is a sticking point for some, as well as the car being built in Holland rather than Sweden, but I don't see any problem.

Volvo quality shines through in every aspect of this attractive, sporty wagon, wis carving out its own place in the market. And like that old 240, Volvo's vaunted emphasis on safety and crash worthiness is still a strong selling point.

2000 Volvo V40

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door station wagon, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $23,900.
Price as tested: $30,162.
Engine: 2-liter in-line 4, 160 hp at 5,100 rpm, 170 lb.-ft of torque at 1,800 rpm.
Transmission: 4-speed automatic.
Curb weight: 3,040 pounds.
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches.
EPA mileage: 21 city, 28 highway.
Highs: Overall refinement. Handsome styling. Moderate price.
Lows: Haphazard controls. Suspension roughness. Subpar stereo.