NEW YORK I began the new year the way I ended the old one. I took a long drive along Interstate 95 and the New Jersey Turnpike.

You can tell a lot about a car on those highways. A slug in that milieu becomes a prominent obstacle. Posted speed limits are one thing. Real-world median speeds are another. On I-95 and the turnpike, traffic runs as fast as 80 miles per hour. If you're a slowpoke, you'll spend what feels like an eternity with a scornful world on your tail.

But panic often accompanies speed. Think of the highway as your old high school classroom. Some former classmates were bona fide fools. If you had any sense, you stayed away from them. Now, many of those people are driving in lanes next to you. Escaping their company isn't always possible. If you're lucky, you're in a car that brakes and handles well in panic maneuvers.

I was lucky. I was driving the 2006 Volvo S40 T5 AWD sedan. It's an all-around better car than the original S40, introduced in Europe in 1996 and brought to the United States in 2000.

The first S40 was okay. But it was discernibly lackluster in overall presentation and performance. It created all the excitement of a Toyota Corolla or Volkswagen Golf.

But the newest model is truly hip. It's light, tight, all-around right. It has a sassily sculpted body similar to that of the larger S80 sedan. The interior is pleasantly simple, a characteristic highlighted by what Volvo calls the car's "ultra slim center control panel."

That control panel, or console, is a wafer of a thing joining the dashboard with the floor-mounted gearbox. It fills space without obliterating it, leaving easily accessible storage room behind its faceplate.

Simplicity simply works well here. An aside: I recently wrote an article lambasting the rear seating comfort of the "Ultra Luxury" version of the Lexus LS 430 sedan. A Lexus dealer responded, saying that I had done readers a disservice by not pointing out that the rear seats in that model were adjustable, and that they also could be heated and cooled automatically.

The Lexus dealer was right. I should have made it clear that the tested LS 430 had those optional, multi-mode seats. But doing so would have made my criticism even more damning because no matter how I adjusted those seats, they remained uncomfortable for their fussy occupants.

Put another way, more complexity isn't necessarily a good thing. Volvo, as evidenced by the seating in the S40 T5 AWD, understands this. The seats front and rear are simple, orthopedically sound and exceptionally accommodating. They also cost less than those in the $70,000 Ultra Luxury Lexus LS 430.

But what I like most about the S40 T5 AWD is its combat performance, which is the best way to describe a car's behavior on I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike. It's war out there, especially when traffic is heavy and weather is bad.

The S40 T5 comes with a 2.5-liter, turbocharged five-cylinder engine that develops a respectable 218 horsepower and a maximum 236 foot-pounds of torque. Power flow is smooth, consistent.

I drove the model with the six-speed manual transmission -- one of the most agreeable manual gear boxes I've ever used. The electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system does its work quietly, automatically shifting and adjusting drive power where needed, as needed.

This is my kind of car. It looks good, feels good, does what it does exactly the way it's supposed to do it; and it doesn't ask you to spend a ridiculous amount of money in the process.

- - -

Nuts & Bolts

2006 Volvo S40 T5 AWD Sedan

Downside: The S40 T5 AWD is that strange breed of car that the automotive industry calls a "sport sedan." Its suspension is thus tuned for hard running and cornering, which means that the ride can be hard and bumpy on less-than-perfect roads.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Ride gets an excellent mark on well-maintained roads, but it can be punishing on rutted and ruined thoroughfares. Acceleration and handling are excellent, which means the car accomplishes lane changes quickly and that it is wonderfully responsive in escape and avoidance maneuvers.

Head-turning quotient: It's classy, sassy and attractive.

Body style/layout: The S40 T5 AWD is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive, entry-level luxury compact sedan with a traditional notchback trunk with an easy-load floor. That means the floor is flat and unobstructed, which in turn means you can slide packages in and out without a lot of lifting and bending. The S40 is available also as a front-wheel-drive car.

Engine/transmission: The car comes with a transversely mounted, turbocharged 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine that develops 218 horsepower at 5,000 revolutions per minute and 236 foot-pounds of torque from 1,500 rpm to 4,800 rpm. A six-speed manual transmission is standard. A five-speed automatic, which also can be shifted manually, is optional.

Capacities: There is comfortable seating for four people in this car. Cargo capacity is 12.6 cubic feet. The S40 T5 AWD can be equipped to tow up to 2,000 pounds. Fuel capacity is 15.3 gallons. Volvo recommends the use of premium unleaded fuel in this one. But I used the mid-grade unleaded with no discernible problems.

Mileage: I averaged 24 miles per gallon in highway driving carrying three passengers and 200 pounds of luggage.

Safety: Loaded, as you would expect from Volvo. It has standard four-wheel antilock brakes; an optional combination of traction and stability control; rigid body construction; side and head-curtain air bags.

Price: Base price on the tested S40 T5 AWD sedan is $28,390. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $26,722. Price as tested is $33,595, including $4,510 in options and a $695 destination charge. Dealer's price as tested is $31,293. Prices sourced from Volvo and .

Purse-strings note: It's a buy. Compare with Acura TSX, Audi A4, BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.