The Volvo S40 is a real driver's car: a quick, compact four-door sedan you can get with both all-wheel drive and a stick shift. It's a genuine rival to all-wheel-drive versions of German sedans much prized by driving enthusiasts, such as the Audi A4 Quattro and the BMW 325xi, as well as the all-wheel-drive Subaru Legacy.
You can even make a case that you're supporting a beleaguered domestic auto maker by buying one, since Volvo is owned by Ford (F) -- though the S40 is assembled in Belgium and only has 0.4% U.S. and Canadian parts. The turbocharged 2.5-liter, five-cylinder all-aluminum engine in my test car (the all-wheel-drive version of the S40 T5), was made in Sweden, and the six-speed manual transmission in Germany.
That's a good thing, though, because it helps give the S40 a sporty, European feel. The car seems solid and well-made from the moment you start driving it. The shift throws are short and the steering tight. The turbo-charged engine in the T5 -- which I would recommend if you like to drive and can afford it -- delivers 218 horsepower, making the car very quick. According to Consumer Reports, the S40 goes from 60 miles per hour to a dead stop in just 135 feet. The car is loaded with features such as speed-dependent power steering and power brakes. But I never felt that the technology impaired the driving experience.
SNOW MOBILE. There's also a hint of cool Scandinavian design in the interior: the heater and radio controls are on a curvy, thin-panel center stack with an open space behind it that can be used for storage. And even with the turbo-charged engine, the S40 is rated to get 20 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, though Volvo recommends using pricey premium gasoline. U.S. sales of the S40 hit 24,407 last year, a 25% increase over 2004, the year the redesigned version of the model first hit the market.
So far, so good. But how does the S40 do in snow and on ice? This is a key question for the many SUV owners (including me) who are considering a shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The morning of Jan. 23 I awoke to discover that six inches of snow had fallen overnight. So, at 7 a.m. I headed out in the S40 to buy some eggs -- not something you'd normally do in a snow alert when the nearest supermarket is eight miles away and the rural road you live on hasn't been plowed yet.
Newly fallen snow isn't a severe test for an all-wheel-drive vehicle, but getting from my house to the main road is tricky because it involves going down a steep, 1.2-mile road with drainage ditches on either side. It's easy to slide off the road, as I did a few weeks ago in a four-wheel drive Explorer. Traversing the private road was no problem, even though the snow was so deep that the S40's undercarriage made tracks between the tire tracks. I also got down the hill without incident, driving in second gear. I felt confident enough to hit 25 mph in places.
The main roads were plowed, but still very snowy. The only other vehicles out were SUVs and four-wheel-drive pickups. I drove about 25 miles and only saw one other sedan the whole time. Yet the S40 handled the conditions with aplomb. I found that I really had to push the car to make it slide in curves. There was some sliding if I punched the brakes, but I felt confident going between 35 mph and 40 mph in a 45-mph zone.
ADDING ON. One reason my test car handled the snow so well is that it was equipped with dynamic stability and traction control, a $695 option that seems well worth the money. Among the other major available options are a $2,195 "Premium" package that includes power front seats, leather seat trim, and a power moonroof. A navigation system ($2,120), an 11-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer ($895), and a five-speed automatic transmission ($1,200) are also available separately.
Personally, I'd skip the $1,895 "Dynamic Trim" package my test car came with, which includes trunk-lid and front spoilers, side sill moldings, and 17-inch alloy wheels. The wheels are a nice touch (and cost $550 as a separate add-on), but I don't think the spoilers and molding do much for the car's looks, and the trunk spoiler obstructs the rear view, which can cause a problem when backing up.
Standard convenience features include leather trim, a six-speaker sound system, tilting and telescoping steering wheel, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, a driver information center and trip computer, power windows, and power and heated outside mirrors.
SAFE AND SOUND. Like other high-end compact sedans in its class, the S40 comes laden with standard safety features, including seatbelt pretensioners (which tighten the belts in the event of an accident), side airbags, and an inflatable side curtain system to protect the driver and passengers from head injuries in a side-impact collision. There's also a whiplash protection system, which moves the front seats and headrests backward slightly in a rear-end collision to reduce the risk of injuries.
All this comes at a fairly reasonable price if you don't load up on options. An all-wheel-drive S40 like my test car starts out at $29,085 (with a less-powerful 2.4-liter engine, prices start at $24,925, but you can't get it with all-wheel drive). The price of the all-wheel-drive S40 is comparable to that of a turbo-charged Subaru Legacy GT Ltd. (though considerably more than a basic Legacy).
It's several grand less than an Audi A4 Quattro, which starts at $31,060 with a two-liter, four-cylinder engine, and $36,110 with a three-liter, six-cylinder engine, or an all-wheel drive BMWxi, which starts at $$33,495 with a stick shift.
SUV REPLACEMENT.. Still, that's a big chunk of change for a compact sedan with a small trunk and a very cramped rear seat. It's also a lot for a model that only merits a two-star overall quality rating from J.D. Power (though it gets three stars for interior quality and four stars for performance and overall appeal).
The S40 demonstrates -- yet again -- that all-wheel-drive cars can replace gas-guzzling SUVs as far as winter driving goes. It's just a shame that car companies other than Subaru aren't making more similar models at lower prices.