It was a fly-by birding, a pre-dawn raid. Splat! Trickle.

Splats don't trickle in sunlight. That happens at dew point in the dark, and it happened all over the 2001 Volvo S40 sedan.

I looked at the mess, trying to figure out why the birds chose this car. Maybe they didn't like its silver paint, or perhaps the car's color enhanced its value as a target. Maybe they didn't like Volvo, or maybe they didn't likethis Volvo, the least expensive of all Volvos sold in the United States.

Dumb, mean-spirited birds!

I washed away their droppings. Beneath was a front-wheel-drive compact that was pretty in the way that ordinary things are pretty.

There was nothing fancy about the S40's body, though it had some of the attractive styling cues of the larger Volvo S60 and S80 sedans. It had slightly bulging rear fenders and a modestly wedgy nose, and, of course, there was Volvo's signature waterfall grille.

But it was more mainstream than luxurious. The interior was plebeian -- vinyl-covered instrument panel, rubberized steering wheel, manually operated seats covered with optional leather.

No matter. It was all put together right. Ergonomically, the S40 was one of the most sensible cars I've driven. Everything, including the coin tray at the bottom of the center console, was exactly where it was supposed to be.

And the driver's seat! If I could put that seat in every vehicle I drove, I would. It supported my back, braced my neck, cradled my head -- and it did it all without the electronic sensors and buttons often found in the seats of other luxury cars.

That kind of intuitive design reduces driver stress and turns a car into a mate. I wound up driving the S40 much more than the 2001 Jaguar XK8, which was parked in my driveway at the same time.

I drove through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, mixing interstates with back roads, moving through rainy weather. The test S40 came with standard, four-wheel antilock brakes and optional traction control (which Volvo calls "Dynamic Stability Assistance"). There was no slipping or sliding. There was lots of mental peace.

Consumers would be hard pressed to find a compact car more crashworthy than the S40. The test model, for example, was equipped with dual-stage front bags for the driver and front-seat passenger. The bags deploy with more force in severe crashes, especially if sensors indicate that seat belts are unlatched. They deploy with less force in low-speed crashes, or in collisions where seat belts are in use.

In addition, there are side-impact bags and standard, overhead inflatable curtains. The curtains, one on each side of the car, are woven in one piece and installed inside the roof lining. They extend from the windshield ("A") pillars to the rear ("C") pillars, and are designed to protect the head in crashes.

The car felt like a mini-tank -- rigidly const ructed, fast, relatively low weight (2,767 pounds), tough.

Its 1.9-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine had enough kick -- 160 horsepower at 5,100 revolutions per minute. Peak torque -- 177 horsepower at 1,800 rpm -- was sufficient for the way most of us drive. Acceleration was smooth. There were no annoying downshifts or stalling. A new, electronically controlled, five-speed automatic transmission moved power to the front wheels.

I drove the S40 for 10 days, during which I fell in love with the thing, which is why I become livid every time I think of the aerial assault by those birds. Uncouth animals!