Quiet Revolution: A new S40 moves Volvo up a few rungs on the small-premium ladder
VOLVO HAS SEEN NORTH America gobble up the S60 pretty nicely while being more than tepid about the V70, but the real volume opportunity in the global sense is that broad segment below these cars, filled with everything from a Honda Civic to a Volkswagen Passat. How now to take that segment and make it work harder across all American states and territories? The best year for the previous S40 here was in 2000 when sales hit 29,863. Now Volvo wants this new S40 to maintain that 30,000-ish strength (in a segment averaging 700,000 units annually in the States) for a few years, say mid-2004 through mid-2007. Job Two is then to make the V40-replacing V50 a selling proposition for the United States.
- 2004.5 VOLVO S40
- ON SALE: January
- BASE PRICE: $23,500 (est.)
- POWERTRAIN: 2.4-liter, 168-hp, 166-lb-ft I5; fwd, five-speed automatic
- CURB WEIGHT: 3304 pounds
- 0-60 MPH: 8.4 seconds (mfr.)
We’ve driven the Mazda 3 and not-for-U.S. Ford C-Max mini MPV, both of which use the new global C1 architecture, and have been mightily impressed. The S40 is bound to be the most mature execution seen on C1—prices starting just below $23,000 for a naked five-speed manual with the 2.4 inline five-cylinder engine—so our expectations were sort of high.
Spain’s Costa del Sol will test any car that purports to be a driver’s car. Each road heading inland is an endless succession of perfect curves with ever less traffic and seemingly little police interest in enforcing any laws. Seeing as any driving experience in Sweden is about the exact opposite, it’s not surprising we’ve been summoned here instead of there.
After some 250 miles in these loopy conditions, we’re more than happy to say the upcoming S40 goes comfortably beyond the previous model. C1 is a revelation for Ford worldwide. The S40’s body structure increases torsional rigidity over the last model by some 68 percent, and length/ width/height dimensions not only make the package better-looking, but also contribute heavily to the much-improved handling traits and passenger room. It is a thoroughly different automobile.
Width is up 2.1 inches (to 69.6 inches), taking front and rear tracks with it, and height increases 1.5 inches (to 57.4 inches). Most impressive proportionately and for driving dynamics is the wheelbase increase of 3.1 inches (to 103.9 inches) while overall length decreases by two inches (to 175.8 inches). Inside, every cabin dimension is up a bit, rear leg- and shoulder-room in particular. This puts it right on par with an Acura TSX or Audi A4 1.8T, which is exactly what Volvo North America requested. It beats them on price.
The big deal on the inside is the ultra-thin center stack of the console first seen at the last Geneva show on the massive Versatility Concept Car. Very Scandinavian in its simply dealing with the conundrum of why empty unused spaces need to be blocked off by plastic modules. Now you can use that stow space, and the stack is very Bang & Olufsson. The Swedish elders are still debating whether to make the see-through iMac-inspired Iced Aqua version of the stack available. ’Twould be sure cool, youbetchya.
Now to the Spanish roads. We drove both the 168-hp, 2.4-liter, non-turbo inline five and the 218-hp, 2.5-liter turbo five, the former with the five-speed automatic-stick option (five-speed manual is standard), the latter with its standard six-speed manual. The T5 with six-speed manual is our favorite, though we know 85 percent of Americans will want the five-speed automatic stick if only for reasons of maintaining sanity in urban and commuter traffic. The 2.4 gets to 60 mph fastest using the five-speed manual—7.7 seconds vs. 8.4 with the automatic. Meantime the T5 with six-speed manual hits 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds, the auto taking 6.7 seconds. The current S40 with the 1.9-liter four and automatic makes it in a tick less than eight seconds. But the overall behavioral boost afforded by these two new engines and fresh dimensions makes then-and-now comparisons difficult at best.
In those hallowed Andalusian curves, the independent front and multilink rear suspension matched to the C1 chassis mostly shined. One really nice aspect is that though the S40 is still decidedly a front-wheel driver, you can work the tail out wide in controlled slides with traction control on or off. You have to bully it a bit to get the tiger to come out, but it is capable of handling anything you dish out.
At the same time, the assisted steering, aided and abetted by passive rear-wheel steering, is a little too soft and light under such circumstances and can make the car feel floaty during those pleasant slides. We drove the 2.4 with standard 15-inch alloys as well as with 16-inchers, and the T5 we sampled had 16s. Based on all this, we’d go with the 17-inch option.
Again, though, we face the truth that few will drive their S40 in the Andalusian way. Treated normally, the five-speed automatic stick with 16-inch wheels is a great setup, with overall comfort at an impressive level. Cabin noise at highway speeds may be the lowest we know in this class.
The No. 1 question when the car was shown at Frankfurt and here at the first drive? All together now: Will there be an R version? Volvo folks tiptoed a bit, but told us a few things through their sheepish grins. Everything in the chassis and powertrain of the car can handle up to 300 hp easily, there’s room under the hood for more turbo action, and the six-speed manual used is the same as that in the S60R and V70R. They also said, “Please, keep asking.”
Other good news making this new S40 even more of a player is the arrival of the Haldex all-wheel-drive version in mid-2004. If you don’t see yourself shelling out the dough for an S40R, get a T5 awd with the sport package and you’ll be feeling just as nifty. There was a normal T5 in red on display with this package applied and it looked better than any Volvo in recent memory.
And Pininfarina was just given the nod to create the convertible version before 2006.
Only automatic front-wheel-drive S40s will be available through the first six months of 2004, so that sub-$23K price will not apply. The sport package will cost around $1,900 and be offered right away.
Volvo is still awaiting North American certification for optional 18-inch wheels as well, but foresees them being available mid-2004.
Just get us that tricked-out R version ASAP, Hans-Olov.