In almost every regard, Volvo is about respect. The company’s pioneering dedication to vehicle safety is legendary. New emphasis on prestige, exemplified by the S80 flagship sedan, has vaulted Volvo into the ranks of “status” automobiles. Performance, particularly in the guise of the thrilling S60R all-wheel-drive sports sedanwhich debuts, moreover, as a formidable factory racer in 2004is earning the respect of even the most demanding motorsports enthusiasts.
Why then can’t Volvo successfully market a small, affordable, safe, prestigious, sporty small car? In the last two years, Volvo has cringed as sales of its S40 sedan have fallen almost 40 percenteven as sales of Audi’s arch rival A4 have increased by 42 percent. For every S40 that Volvo sells, Volkswagen sells almost five Passats. Upon its 2003 debut, Acura’s own newcomer into the compact category, the TSX, outsold the S40 by 20 percent. It’s not as if Volvo stumbled badly in 2003; sales rose almost 22 percent overall.
It’s not surprising, then, to discover that Volvo has been beavering away at the drawing board lately, determined to resurrect the S40’s slumping fortunes. When the completely redesigned Volvo S40 debuts in March as a “2004.5” model, a gauntlet will have been cast that is meant to challenge autobuyers’ preconceptions about what they should expect from a compact sport sedan.
In the midst of a raging SUV epidemic, it turns out, there is a reawakening of interest in maneuverable, economical, sophisticated cars. Volvo has groomed its new S40 specifically to exploit this growing appetite, but the company is mindful as well that less must somehow deliver more. Or, as Volvo’s Paul Gustavsson put it at the S40’s recent media introduction in Los Angeles, “Premium car customers might be wanting smaller cars, but they don’t want less car.”
Volvo’s new compact is a testament to small ambitions. From surface aesthetics to inherent engineering, the S40 makes a near total break with its predecessor. Blunt, snub-nosed styling suggests sporty muscularity that is, in fact, redeemed by a pair of new inline-five cylinder powerplants. There’s a twin-cam 2.4-liter with variable valve timing that delivers 168 horsepower and 166 ft.-lbs. of torque. Base price for this “entry level” 2.4i is $24,190. For $26,990, on the other hand, the S40 “T5” boasts a turbocharged 2.5-liter making 218 hp and 236 ft.-lbs.
Both models feature front-wheel-drive and a five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift Geartronic. A five-speed manual for the 2.4i and a six-speed manual for the T5 are promised by summer; and by 2005, an all-wheel-drive version of the T5 will appear, again with either auto or manual transmission. All told, Volvo will have six different S40 powertrains to choose from.
I’m partial to normally aspirated (i.e., non-turbo) engines, and the modest power of the 2.4i doesn’t disappointin most circumstances at least. Double-overhead cams and variable valve timing produce quick-revving performance, and an “adaptive” transmission matches engine power to most road conditions very nicely. Only when challenged by dramatic altitude changes does the 2.4i run out of breath. In other words, for every 3,000 feet of increased elevation during spirited mountain driving through California’s Angeles and Los Padres National Forests, the non-turbo five-cylinder surrendered about 10 percent of its power. With maximum torque appearing at a relatively high 4,400 rpm, the mountain stretches exacerbated a peaky powerband and taxed the transmission’s ability to find and hold a proper gear.
For flatlanders, the S40 2.4i’s powertrain will certainly suffice; but for mountaineers and hot-shoes, paying the $2,800 premium for a turbo T5 is by far the better choice. For one thing, turbos adapt automatically and transparently to changes in altitude. For another, the T5’s long, broad powerband produces its maximum 236 ft.-lbs. of torque all the way from 1,500 rpm to 4,800 rpm. With two bumps of the Geartronic shifter down into third, the T5’s strafes through the mountains were as thrilling as a ground-hugging helicopter ride.
This kind of handling, in fact, is an S40 forte, thanks to well-tuned four-wheel independent suspension. Ride quality is taut enough to flatten severe cornering but it remains compliant enough to enhance a freeway cruise. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are simply fantastic.
One of Volvo’s peculiar ironies is the invisibility of its most significant achievementsthat is, its safety engineering. The new S40 is a case in point with its new Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture (VIVA) devoted to exceptional crash protection. Front, side and head-curtain airbags will earn the headlines, but more impressive by far are “programmed” crush rates and deflection zones predicated entirely upon occupant survivability.
The stark considerations of safety engineering, however, are expertly camouflaged by a gleaming, high-tech interior. With seating for five, the S40 is generously roomy up front, a bit leg-constraining at rear. The trunk is marvelous at 14.3 cu. ft. What’s more, with the rear seats folded, the 38-in. cargo length almost doubles to 68 in.; flatten the front passenger seat, and stowage extends further to almost 10 ft.
The interior’s signature element is a tour de force of Scandinavian design: a thin-panel central console for climate and entertainment controls. It’s elegant and showy and particularly easy to use. It looks like a waterfall frozen in place. Could it be, on the other hand, a subconscious emblem of Volvo’s resurgent ambitions for the S40? A symbol that previous disappointments in the compact-car category are now but water under the bridge?
The Nashville Auto & Truck Show returns this weekend, Jan. 29-Feb. 1, to the Convention Center. The floor will be full of new 2004s and concept models straight from their international debuts. Details and e-ticket purchases are available at www.nashville-autoshow.com.