05/18/04 — Volvo S40 has the right stuff

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Volvo S40 has the right stuff

Manufacturers of luxury products have found it necessary to produce so-called entry-level vehicles to attract younger customers, and keep older customers in the fold.

Volvo S40, 2004

They want to put 30 somethings, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet with young families, into their products knowing that one day they will become older and more affluent with the ability to purchase more expensive products. And if they are already in a Mercedes or an Infiniti, they are likely to stay loyal to the brand, so the thinking goes.

They also want these products to appeal to an older generation of empty nesters who are on or approaching a fixed income and are familiar with the brand but don’t want to tie up 50 large in a new vehicle.

To get these buyers — or keep them — in a Mercedes, Infiniti, BMW, Volvo or Lexus, those companies must have entry-level products that are affordable for the head of a young family or a retired couple.

Here’s the tricky part.

These products must carry an affordable price tag while retaining the qualities embodied in the luxury brands. The companies don’t want to water down their lower-priced products too much, but there’s only so much content that can be put into a $25,000 to $35,000 vehicle.

And to make matters more tricky, these vehicles have to be appealing enough to compete with the upscale Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys of the world.

Volvo entered this market in 2000 with limited success with its S40 sedan and V40 wagon, compact vehicles that gave buyers the opportunity to own a Volvo and the corresponding Volvo safety features and brand heritage for under 30 grand.

Volvo sold around 30,000 S40s in 2000, but sales have tapered off since then. Volvo wants to get back to that figure with an all-new 2004.5 S40, which is just reaching showrooms and for a few months will be sold alongside the “old” 2004 model.

The new sedan is an improvement in almost every way from the original version, including luxury refinement, a remarkable feat for a vehicle starting at about $25,000.

Torsional rigidity has been increased 68 percent in the new S40, which is built on Ford’s worldwide C1 platform and shares architecture with the new Mazda 3. Width is up 2.1 inches and the wheelbase has been stretched 3.1 inches.

The increased wheelbase has opened up the interior, particularly in the rear where leg room has increased 1.7 inches and shoulder room has grown proportionally.

The new car looks more athletic with short overhangs and bulging fenders. And looks are not deceiving in this case.

The new dimensions, including a wider track, give the S40 a more athletic stance on the highway. The styling has been reworked to include the familiar Volvo grille and taillights. And, in fact, the S40 looks like a shorter version of the mid-sized S60.

The new S40 is motivated by a choice of two engines. The standard engine found in the 2.4i trim line is a 2.4-liter 5-cylinder generating 168 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque.

Optional is a hot-running turbocharged 2.5-liter 5-cylinder making 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. It comes as the T5 model.

The 2.4-liter engine comes mated to either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. The turbocharged engine can be purchased with a 6-speed manual or 5-speed auto.

Our test car was the 2.4i with a 5-speed manual transmission. The combination proved lively and fun to drive. The shifter has light action with short, accurate throws.

Most people prefer the automatic, but if you decide this may be the time to take a chance with a do-it-yourself shifter, you may find a new joy in driving with the S40 2.4i.

The smaller engine is adequate for all situations and moved us through and around heavy traffic without a hiccup.

For comparison purposes, figure about 7.7 seconds 0 to 60 with the manual and 8.5 with the automatic. This decent performance comes with 30 miles per gallon fuel economy, something that has become more important as gas prices move toward $2 a gallon.

But if you want performance, it’s available in the S40 T5 with the 6-speed/218-horsepower combination to the tune of 0 to 60 in just over 6 seconds.

Note that the T5 will be available with all-wheel drive this summer.

The interior is, indeed, that of a luxury car. Material is expensive looking. Fit and finish is excellent.

The first thing that strikes the eye once behind the wheel is the slim aluminum-surrounded center stack that could pass for a work of art.

Four large knobs — two stereo and two climate control — flank the center controls which look like a large, thin television remote control. The whole design is clean, uncluttered and handsome.

At first glance, it looks rather complicated to operate. But, after a short acclamation, it becomes fairly intuitive.

The seats are comfortable and should provide for pain-free long-distance driving. The back seats, likewise, have a nice balance between firm and soft in the right places.

Volvo and safety have become synonymous over the years. And Volvo has not short-changed the new S40.

Standard features include side impact airbags, side curtain airbags, Whiplash Injury Protection on the front seats, collapsible steering wheel and pedals, traction control and four-wheel antilock disc brakes with emergency brake assist.

Volvo says it is using four grades of steel for the frontal structure to create optimal crumple zones.

One noteworthy feature we have never seen before as factory equipment is a driver’s side rearview mirror with the outer portion shaped to eliminate the blind spot allowing the driver to see cars in the rear bumper area.

Prices for the 2.4i start at $23,675. A few desirable options will take the price up a few thousand dollars, but the S40 is still a bargain.

Our test car came with the premium package including power driver’s seat, power moonroof, wood inlays, audio controls on the steering wheel and electronic climate control for $1,095; sport package including dynamic suspension, sport alloy 16-inch wheels, fog lights and spoiler for $650; climate package including rain senor wipers, heated front seats and headlamp washer for $625; audio package including premium sound system and 6-CD in-dash changer, $895; and B-Xenon headlamps and Dynamic Stability Control, $1,395. That brought the bottom line to $28,445

The new S40 is certainly worthy of the Volvo name and should provide viable competition for such makes as the Audi A4, Acura TSX, BMW 325i and Saab 9-3.

Customers who want an entry-level sporty sedan of European origin need look no further.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on May 18, 2004 10:52 AM