Preview: 2005 Volvo S40

A newborn identity for Volvo's entry-level duo.

In the next year, Volvo's lineup will be vibrant with new models. The only profitable division of Ford plans to launch two new cars each year for the next five years. In 2004, we'll see the YCC ("Your Concept Car") at the Geneva show, and a small crossover vehicle also is expected to be shown in concept form.

And now, just three months after the debut of the new S40, the V50 sports wagon has been unveiled at the Bologna Auto Show in Italy. It's also been confirmed that there will be a C40 Convertible, although the topless version of the new S40 isn't expected until mid 2005. Volvo has established a joint venture with Pininfarina for the development of the Convertible and at the moment the Volvo development team is working at the prototype in Pininfarina's premises in Torino, Italy.

In the meantime, the rejuvenation process of the Volvo sedans is completed with the new S40, which is ready for shipment to the North American dealers, where the car will arrive in the spring.

The new S40 will be built in the factory in Gent, Belgium, where in 2004 around 70,000 cars will be produced. The new Volvo will be available with two new gasoline engines, the 2.4-liter five-cylinder with 168 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, and as the T5 with the 2.5-liter low-pressure turbo with 218 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. The five-cylinder engine is an evolution of the existing powerplants from the S60. The block is the same, but the external components have been designed and packaged to fit the smaller engine bay of the S40. The result is an engine that is 7.8 inches smaller and an inch shorter than the one in the larger Volvos.

Together with the transversal installation, the format benefits the space for deformation in the engine compartment. The 2.5-liter in the T5 is the motor we know from the larger Volvos. This engine is teamed with the six-speed manual that has been developed for the S60 R and the V70R. In mid-2004 the T5 will be available with Volvo's electronically controlled all-wheel drive. The normally aspirated 2.4-liter comes with a new five-speed gearbox, whereas the adaptive automatic transmission will also be available for the S40 2.4.

Challenge developing

For the development team of the S40 it was a real challenge to improve the already very successful driving characteristics of the existing S40/V40, of which 450,000 have been sold in the past eight years.

The new S40 is smaller, wider and slightly higher than it predecessor, but it has the unmistakable identity of its larger family members. Notable is that from different angles the S40 has different looks, but one thing it's definitely not: a baby Volvo. Its powerful nose and broad shoulders in the rear take care of that.

The new model has the safety equipment that you expect of the Volvo brand: dual stage airbags, side airbags, WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System), collapsible pedals, seatbelt pretensioners for the front and rear outer seats, and a force limiter for the front seatbelts. The S40 has anti-lock brakes and emergency brake assistance, while ESP and traction control are also available.

Hallered driving

I drove a prototype of the new S40 at Volvo's Hallered test track, where I could compare its handling with that of the main competitors in its class: the Audi A4, the BMW 318i, Honda Accord, and its mechanical cousin the Mazda3. I was impressed by the handling of the S40 that is built on the same platform as the Mazda3 and the upcoming Ford Focus. Then, during a drive in the south of Spain, my high expectations for the roadgoing behaviour of the S40 were confirmed. Positioned in the excellent leather seat of the T5, there is enough elbow and headroom for my 5'-6" body. Shifting with the six-speed gearbox goes fast and smooth and the acceleration of the T5 is excellent. The suspension of this version is stiff, but not uncomfortable and it can handle the curvy roads in the Spanish hills without any problem. Only when you are in a fast, long corner you feel a bit of understeer that is easily corrected with less pressure on the gas pedal.

The 2.4 is just as pleasing and stable. Of course, there is no way around the fact that there is less power on board, which you notice going uphill on a long slight climb. The suspension of the 2.4 is more comfortable than of the T5, but it is still pleasantly sure-footed. This version I drove with the optional automatic transmission that is probably less vivid than the stick-shift version.

The S40's interior is very light and it had a very nice innovative design of the center stack. It is super flat and houses the duplex wiring for the operation of the air conditioning and the audio system. Behind it there is a nook for small items. Too bad there is not enough space in the door bins - they are simply too small. Together with small bins in between the front seats and a small glove box in the dashboard, the lack of enough storage space is the only point for criticism on the S40.

But you buy a car for its looks, handling, power, and interior space - and on those points the S40 does not disappoint at all.

2004 Volvo S40

Base Price: $25,000 (est. U.S.)

Engine: 2.4-liter in-line five, 168 hp/170 lb-ft; turbocharged 2.5-liter in-line five (T5), 218 hp/236 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual, or five-speed automatic (2.4-liter); six-speed manual (T5); front-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 175.9 x 69.6 x 57.2 in

Wheelbase: 103.9 in

Curb weight: 3085-3304 lb

EPA City/Hwy: N/A

Safety equipment: Dual stage airbags, side airbags, WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System), seatbelt pretensioners for front and rear outer seats, force-limiter front seat belts, collapsible pedals, collapsible steering column, anti-lock brakes, emergency brake assistance. Options: ESP and traction control

Major standard equipment: A/C, power windows, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, ABS

Warranty:Four years/50,000 miles