Volvo is a leader in safety engineering and it's clear the company put a lot of effort into building a structure designed to protect its occupants. The S40 and V50 models come loaded with active and passive safety features to help drivers avoid accidents, then protect them if there is a crash. This may be the safest car in this size class. Smaller than most luxury sedans, the S40 is much easier to park in tight spaces and it's easier to maneuver on narrow roads.
On the open road, the S40 and V50 are stable and relaxed. They can easily run with the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, even at high speeds.
The S40 T5 comes with a turbocharged engine that's wonderfully smooth, offering quick but linear acceleration performance. The entry-level 2.4i engine feels nearly as quick and is just as smooth. The five-speed automatic is smooth and responsive. The suspension is firm but not jarring, offering an ideal balance of ride and handling, and the brakes are excellent.
The design is clean and elegant, Scandinavian simplicity. Inside, the S40 represents a sharp departure from previous Volvo designs, but above all is comfortable and full of convenience features.
New for 2007: Dynamic Stability Traction Control comes standard on all models. All 2007 models get a new overhead console. Volvo V50 and S40 T5 models come standard with the five-speed automatic Geartronic engine. Options packages have been revised.
Volvo S40 2.4i ($23,755); T5 ($26,615), T5 AWD ($28,390); V50 2.4i ($26,205); T5 ($27,840); T5 AWD ($29,615)
Rounded front corners (but mostly the engine package) enable this shortness, and the rear corners are pushed in as well, giving the S40 an overall stylish shape. The lack of chrome adds class, with the normal bits, from window trim to ding guards, all being black or body colored. The doors are slightly convex, as opposed to the previous concave shape, and high shoulders make occupants feel protected.
The S40 is a Volvo from any angle, but head-on it's unmistakable with its dark eggcrate grille with the diagonal Volvo slash in center. The headlamps bend horizontally from the sweetly flared fenders toward the grille, with three visible lamps: one rectangular, one round and one trapezoidal. The front air dam is divided by two splitters into three neat sections.
Viewed in profile, the sharp rear end and soft front end gives the car direction. The rocker panels are slightly wider in the rear, giving the illusion of forward rake and more motion. More dramatically, the sloping roofline quickly meets an abrupt and lipless rear deck; the distance between the bottom of the glass and the 90-degree edge of the deck is not much more than a foot. Yet all the lines, including the rear hips, cascade smoothly together. The optional alloy wheels look really good and add to the S40's presence.
Viewed from the rear, the license plate indent is clean, unlike many others. The smooth rear bumper rides over two stainless exhaust tips, pointing conspicuously and curiously down toward the ground; if they point down just to look cool, it works. The huge red taillights are trademark Volvo, each with a clear plastic band containing its backup light.
The V50 Sportwagon shares the attractive front styling of the S40 sedan. From the side, the wagon body style is achieved by simply extending the roof line and belt line back to the tail, with a slight diagonal angle from the roof down to the beltline. It's only from the rear that the V50 differs from the S40. Volvo has taken the same style of tail light, but then extended it up the side of the wagon all the way to the roof, giving the wagon a slightly awkward look from the rear. The only consolation is that the tall tail lights may help warn drivers behind you when stopping quickly.
Volvo's primary goal for the S40 was to stuff the levels of safety found in the flagship S80 luxury sedan into the S40's small package. To that end it was designed using something called VIVA, for Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture. What appears to be an unprecedented amount of time, research, testing and detail went into the construction of the chassis and body in the interest of crash protection. There are several zones of deformation upon impact, built with different strengths of steel depending on that zone's function: conventional, high strength, extra high strength and ultra high strength steel.
The seats are comfortable. The instrument panel is clean and simple and workmanlike, with a big speedometer and tachometer, white numbers on a black background with red needles.
The center stack is only an inch thick, like a computer monitor with a flat screen. Behind it is a storage bin. Simple, clever, practical, handsome, Swedish. You have to reach around the back of the stack to gain access to that shallow storage space, but it's better to have it than to waste it because there is a distinct lack of cubby storage in this car. The center stack curves gracefully upward behind the beautifully minimalist shift lever to link the console with the instrument panel. One problem we had with the thin stack, however, is that during hard cornering, of which the S40 is eminently capable, our right knee rode hard against the edge, and it hurt.
Audio, climate and other control buttons are arranged vertically. There are four round knobs at the corners. One of those knobs is a menu control that easily accesses more detailed information and controls. Above the buttons is an information screen.
The T5 comes with brushed aluminum interior trim, which is perfect from a style standpoint. Not too much and in all the right places, including the whole center stack. The 2.4i comes with dark wood trim, which isn't nearly as good-looking.
Storage space in the S40 is severely lacking, however. The center console has a tiny bin. The door pockets are thin with most of the space taken up by speakers. Mesh pockets are located on the leading edge of the seat bottom, in front of the driver and passenger seats, but most people won't notice or use them, though they will hold a cell phone. Everything is carefully compact in the interior, including the strong stubby door handles, easy to grab and pull. Two good cup holders forward of the center console work well.
The S40 and V50 are surprisingly roomy given the exterior dimensions, highlighting Volvo's efficient use of space. And Volvo has created intelligent ways to use that space, benefiting from some of the ideas gleaned from designing the XC90 SUV. The rear seat is a 60/40 split and the seatbacks open up to the trunk when dropped. The front seat folds as flat as the rears, creating an unprecedented open floor space and 38.4 cubic feet of cargo space, a lot for a small sedan.
The chopped-off rear end makes the trunk opening small, but it leads into a deep forward well, with 12.6 cubic feet of luggage space, about average for most mainstream sedans. Below the floor of the trunk is a space-saver spare tire and a first aid kit. The trunk lid was cleverly designed to open and close smoothly and easily.
The V50 wagon offers 27.4 cubic feet of luggage space with all seats upright, and a substantial 62.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats and the front passenger seat folded down, which compares favorably to many mid-size wagons by other manufacturers.
Volvo leads the auto industry in environmental awareness, and there's an emphasis on environmentally compatible cabin materials and systems, such as trim materials with low PVC content.
We were impressed at how well the base 2.4i held its own against the T5. The 2.4i model offers a nice balance of ride and handling. It's smooth and delivers adequate power though not enough for some drivers. Mash the pedal all the way down, though, and it delivers decent acceleration performance. The 2.4i is a modern dual-overhead-cam engine with variable camshaft timing. This model responds well in corners yet soaks up bumps well.
The turbocharged engine in the T5 version is wonderfully smooth. Its acceleration is quick and linear, with a broad power curve allowing it to evenly gain speed throughout the rev range. At 80 miles per hour, with the five-speed automatic transmission, it's only loafing along at 2500 rpm, so there's a lot of power to spare. The T5 is comfortable at high speed, very stable and relaxed, something we found on some wide-open California desert roads. The T5 feels ready and eager for spirited driving. This is one small car that can be a great highway cruiser, able to run with BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. It was so stable at high speeds it didn't feel like a front-wheel-drive car.
We couldn't have been happier with the electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission. The upshift from fourth to fifth gear was so smooth that we only knew it was happening by observing the tachometer needle drop. The automatic features a manual shift mode called Geartronic, and in the manual mode, it actually let us control what gear we wanted to be in, without stepping in and overriding our wishes.
We drove for a stretch at 30-40 mph over a terrible surface with a lot of big rough patches, and the suspension felt firm but never jarring. We could feel the wheels moving, but it wasn't getting to our hands or the seat of or pants, or the body of the car. We drove up into the mountains over a fast, smooth and winding road, with lots of hard braking and abrupt changing of direction. In that situation the suspension approached its limit and stiffer would have been nice; but that situation was already faster than 95 percent of drivers will take even the T5. The S40 suspension wasn't made for that, as it shouldn't be; if it were, it would have been uncomfortable on the slower and rougher surface. Every suspension has a range, and the S40's range is right on the money.
The Dynamic Sport Suspension option has slightly stiffer springs and bushings for sharper handling. We found the ride to be punishing when we drove a V50 with the Dynamic Sport Suspension and 17-inch wheels. With a standard suspension that turns in and hugs the road as well as this one does, it doesn't seem to make sense to pay more for a stiffer, less comfortable ride.
The steering is electro-hydraulic with light, distinct and controlled feedback. It feels firm and tight, offering the right amount of resistance. The torque steer normally inherent in front-wheel-drive cars was minimal to the point of insignificance.
We used the brakes a lot, and they were strong, smooth and true. The ventilated discs are plenty big for the size of the car, at 11.8 inches front and 10.9 inches rear. We performed a panic stop at 75 mph, and the ABS dragged the car to a stop in a direct and confidence-inspiring manner.
The Volvo S40 is a superior small sedan. The body and chassis boasts excellent crashworthiness, and the size is both compact outside and spacious inside. Its smooth exterior lines are distinctive, even unique, and beautiful. There are many good new cars nowadays for $25,000, but if you went down the list comparing features, qualities and components, the Volvo S40 would be difficult to beat. Upgrading to the T5 with its turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine puts you into the same levels of performance as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. The V50 packages all this into a practical sport wagon.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from California; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Charlottesville, Virginia.