Serious sport sedan poise, without shunning the Volvo personality.
As a former Volvo owner, with several friends who currently own Volvos, I had to answer a few more questions than usual when driving Volvo's new S40 T5 sport sedan. Volvos, especially those from the past few years, have taken on a new luxurious and sporty character while not forgetting about the brand's roots in safety, utility, and all-weather ability. Being upright and boxy was the anti-style statement that many buyers were comfortable with, and not every owner of older Volvos is so comfortable with this new, overtly fashionable side.
But for attracting more buyers to Volvo, this gradual image change that Volvos are seeing is surely a good thing. Since 1999, Volvo has been owned by Ford Motor Co., and Ford and Volvo have since wisely coexisted, with Ford allowing the Swedes enough design and engineering independence while they can take advantage of Ford's global reaches.
So it shouldn't come as a great surprise that the S40 wasn't developed only in Sweden ; rather it's based on the same platform as the Mazda3 and the European-market Ford Focus. But for those die-hard Volvo fans, rest assured, it's readily apparent that Sweden still had a lot of control over this car.
The old S40 a very competent and comfortable small sedan, but it was a bit cramped inside and was just short of the standards of refinement and poise of compact premium leaders like the BMW 3-Series or the Audi A4. It was also the odd model out in Volvo's lineup, feeling quite different than the rest of the modern Volvos.
Worldly, but all Volvo
Design-wise, inside and out, the new S40 is all in the family. It looks like much like an S60 - with the proportions tweaked a bit. Some elements, like the headlights and front fascia are very sleek and Audi-like, hinting at what is to come style-wise in the larger Volvos. The dash and switchgear will feel very familiar if you've driven any Volvo from the past decade.
Underhood, the sense of family identity is also brought in. The S40 now uses Volvo's familiar family of in-line five-cylinder engines, originally introduced on the 850 nearly fifteen years ago. It's transversely mounted, and a crossways-mounted five in a small car would normally be a very difficult fit. But intake and exhaust manifolds, and many of the engine's external components, have been completely redesigned for compactness, with engine dimensions 7.8 inches slimmer and an inch shorter than the version installed in Volvo's larger cars. This, according to Volvo, also allows more front-impact crumple space between the engine and the cabin.
The new car is actually shorter than the previous S40, although the wheelbase is now more than three inches longer, allowing more cabin space than before. The new car is only slightly wider, but the beltline is noticeably higher.
Like the rest of the Volvo Cars lineup, the S40 has a four-wheel independent suspension, with a multi-link setup in the back. Chassis development and tuning was done in a similar fashion and layout as the S60, V70, and S80 models, which are all based on what Volvo calls the P2 platform.
The centerpiece of the dashboard is a special thin control stack, allowing the footwell to pass through behind it. It reminded us of the snazzy flat-panel monitors that everyone's upgraded to in the past couple of years. The LCD displays for climate/sound system feature a gray/black lettering on a green background - not the best during daylight, but they look better with more backlighting at night.
Front seat occupants will be very comfortable in the T5. The seats are quite short - differing vastly from the long, supportive seats in the S80 - but it's easy to get into a decent driving position, and the telescopic steering wheel offers a wide range of adjustability compared to most small sedans. When the front seats are near the back of their travel, the back seat is extremely tight - definitely a kids-only space most of the time, which can be expected of a car this size. The trunk opening is narrow, but the trunk is surprisingly roomy. The upholstery, a grippy yet supple synthetic called T-Tec, felt great, though it seemed to be a magnet for stray lint and hair.
Although the driving position is near-perfect for a wide range of drivers, the narrow footwell positions the brake pedal way too close to the gas pedal, with it requiring a greater-than-usual step up. With my size 13-wide shoes, this created some nervousness wondering when trying to get the edge of my street shoes up and around to the brake. Slimmer sneakers solved the unease. Swedes have big feet, so this one's a mystery.
A 2.4-liter version of the in-line five is standard on the S40, making 168 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, while the sporty T5 that we tested comes with a turbocharged 2.5-liter version of the same engine, making 208 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. The five idles smoothly and feels like a sophisticated powerplant, although its offbeat thrum just above idle reveals that it's an unusual setup.
The T5's drivability actually ranks quite high for a turbo, but the ever-so-slight lag makes it clear that it's breathing forced air. Response to your right foot is quick enough for good drivability, but not instantaneous. Mash down the gas, there's an ever-so-slight moment of hesitation, and then the power rushes on. If you happen to be in too high of a gear, that ever-so-slight moment is closer to a second before the power surges on. The T5's engine is one that's happiest in the middle rev range; between 2500 and 4500 rpm is where the power buildup is most dramatic.
The new triple-synchro gearbox - borrowed from the S60 T5 R model - is decidedly notchy but has nice, clear shift gates, and the linkage felt neater than we remembered of the S60 T5 R. But while the shift action was nice and satisfying, the throttle/clutch coordination and pedal placement left us wanting. The clutch felt more stiffly sprung near the top part of its travel than near the bottom, so the engagement would often come suddenly. The electronic throttle also seemed to make it a bit more difficult than it should have been to match revs when making downshifts. Even after you get used to the clutch, you still might stall the occasional stoplight if you're not thinking about it.
Flexible and frisky
This little Volvo seems to love being hustled along. We expected howling tires and understeer as we approached the limits on some hairpin corners, but it just kept holding on and feeling more balanced than any Volvo we can remember. The suspension is tight, but still compliant enough for ride comfort on some of the more pockmarked surfaces, and the electro-hydraulic power steering is very light at low speeds, but it firms up and allows more feedback during aggressive driving - right in line with what most drivers will want. The in-line five's flexible power delivery doesn't require frequent gearshifts, and it has a nice raspy trumpety sound when pushed, too.
The T5's ride is perhaps a little bit pitchy at low speeds, but it becomes very settled and smooth at highway speeds. As such, the T5 feels so stable and poised that you might even forget that it's a compact sedan. During high-speed driving, the S40 really reveals its "premium small car" engineering - it simply doesn't have the prominent road noise of most other cars its size.
Volvo uses the latest version of the Haldex all-wheel-drive system, which is electronically controlled. It relies on the instant of slippage from the front wheels before torque would be sent to the rear, but seems to respond flawlessly to the S40s on-road needs. A near full-throttle start showed an absence of torque steer and no obvious loss of traction more than a slight tire chirp.
The T5's brakes are like those on other recent Volvos, a bit overboosted and touchy compared to other cars at low speed, but powerful enough to haul this 3300-pound sedan down confidently from speeds well above the legal limit. You'll probably be stopping short of where you expect for a while, but that's not a bad thing.
Like the S60, the S40 is made in Ghent, Belgium . Our test car felt very tightly put-together, and a thorough look through didn't reveal any defects or flaws; a creaky panel around the inside of the rear pillar was the only exception.
Broader appeal...but to whom?
As much as the S40 has going for it, it's a little hard to put a finger on where buyers will be coming from. With Volvo safety now widely available in other cars, and the cars no longer having the sort of boxy Swedish utility that the company became so known for, Volvos aren't the obvious choice anymore for safety-minded people. But if you simply look at the sum of features, quality, and safety for the money, the T5 looks like a smart and sensible performance-sedan buy.
On that same note, though, if you look at the equation just a bit differently, what might keep more people from giving this little sport sedan a first look is its sticker price. Although it comes well equipped, the bottom-line figure for our modestly optioned T5 AWD topped the $30k mark, which is about the same as a base BMW 325i, a sedan that, in terms of exclusivity and sporty feel for the money, many shoppers would rather be in.
But we really like the sophisticated little S40 and think that especially if you're considering a four-cylinder Audi A4, a Mercedes-Benz C230, or an Acura TL or TSX, it's worth a drive. The S40 carries on with tradition just enough to not betray Volvo loyalists, and the T5 in particular brings a serious new edge to the brand's small-car line.
GET Kelley Blue Book Pricing for this vehicle
2005 Volvo S40 T5 AWD
Base price: $27,710; as tested, $30,440
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged in-line five, 218 hp/236 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Length by width x height: 175.9 x 69.7 x 57.2 in
Wheelbase: 103.9 in
Curb weight: 3447 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 19/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Stability control system, electronic brake distribution, Emergency Brake Assistance, front-occupant side-impact and supplemental airbags, inflatable-curtain side airbags, Whiplash Control System (WHIPS)
Major standard equipment: Automatic climate control, power windows/locks/mirrors, power driver's seat, tilt/telescope steering wheel, aluminum interior trim, leather shift knob and steering wheel, cruise control, AM/FM/CD sound system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles