After the rest of its line was treated to makeovers, the lowly Volvo S40 sedan finally gets the spa treatment.
This all-new sedan replaces the old S40, a model that dated from the mid-'90s and was developed in a joint venture with Mitsubishi. The all-new S40 takes little from that car.
Instead, the new worldwide Ford C1 platform, used for the Mazda3 and European Ford C-Max, is employed. Both Mazda and Volvo are owned by Ford Motor Co.
The transformation is startling.
The old model was certainly adequate and did a somewhat convincing job of acting like a Volvo, despite its flimsy interior and dowdy styling.
The new car is 2 inches longer than the old model, with width increased 2.1 inches and height raised 1.5 inches over the outgoing model. The new dimensions help.
The 2004.5 S40 has the sexy, sturdy look of its larger compatriots, while offering a healthy dose of Swedish style. It is tautly styled, with Volvo's inset greenhouse making the most of the fashion statement on the exterior.
But it is the interior that is truly stunning.
Plop yourself down into Volvo's typically firm, supportive front bucket seats and gaze toward the center of the instrument panel. There, you'll find a distinctive new center stack, clad in a lovely metallic finish. With a deft touch that only Scandinavian design can apply, all the audio and climate control switchgear are clustered in an non-confusing, straightforward manner. It doesn't look cluttered and the buttons have a nice feel.
Somehow, Volvo has mastered the art of making a lot look like a little, while also keeping the interior from being overwhelmed by controls or cheap plastic.
It's quite a remarkable design, one first seen on the Volvo VCC (Versatility Concept Car) and it sets the mood for the interior's modern ambience.
Of course, the car is more than just great design.
The new platform is 68 percent stiffer than the previous model. This means not only does the new car ride and handle better, it also feels better as well.
Power is courtesy of a 2.4-liter in-line five-cylinder engine rated at 168 horsepower in the 2.4i model. You can have the same engine turbocharged, in which case it develops 218 horsepower in the T5 model. A five-speed manual or five-speed automatic with sequential shift capability is available with a normally aspirated engine. A six-speed manual is standard with the turbo mill. All-wheel-drive is also available on T5s.
Volvo supplied a base 2.4i model for testing.
Considering the car's horsepower rating, there is still enough power for most drivers. The motor proved smooth despite the odd number of cylinders. It also doesn't make a whole lot of noise except under hard acceleration. Combined with an equal lack of road noise, it is a very refined driving experience.
Handling is much improved, although it's not as sporty as the Mazda3, which uses the same platform. Steering feels a bit uncommunicative at the limits, but handling is still secure. Braking is excellent.
Spending time behind the wheel is enhanced by the S40's comfortably thick steering wheel, supportive front bucket seats and spacious front cabin. Rear seat travellers aren't as lucky. The rear doors have small openings, making access a chore. Worse, legroom is lacking, although foot space is better than you'd expect. Seat comfort is good, despite the cramped quarters.
But the S40 isn't any different from competitors in this regard.
Other nitpicks include a windshield wiper lever that could be inadvertently activated when reaching for the ignition key, and a parking brake lever that can pinch your finger at the forward end.
Of course, Volvo is known for safety. So every S40 comes with a whiplash protection system, side impact protection system, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution, and emergency brake assistance. Those latter two features use electronics to ensure that you're applying enough force in a braking emergency.
When it's all totaled up, the new S40 is miles ahead of its predecessor, and with a price that starts at just $23,260, it's a bargain in the entry-level luxury field.
With the new Volvo S40, fashion has found its niche at a company once known only for safety, without diminishing Volvo's core beliefs.