Life for this wee Swede hasn't been easy. Low man on the totem pole, bastard half-Asian stepchild to the rest of the family, Volvo's S40 sat idly by in darkened showroom corners while siblings bulked up courtesy the brand's design NordicTrack. Unable to do little but watch its brethren emerge with quickened reflexes, broadened shoulders and finely tailored threads, the colorless S40 must've felt like Billy to the rest of the Baldwins.
But no more. That's because Volvo's finally replaced the (ironically-named) Mitsubishi Carisma doppelganger with something more befitting the brand. As here in T5 guise, that means 'out' with the 1.9-liter light-pressure turbo (a tepid lump that'd barely get out of its own way, let alone stand up at stoplights), and 'in' with a properly force-fed 2.5-liter five-cylinder and six-speed manual. 'Out' with the uninspired oriental NedCar chassis, 'in' with a more robust platform spun from the same cloth as the Mazda3 and Euro-market Ford Focus.
Good thing, too. With the family sedan arms race spawning improbably vast Toyota Camrys brandishing serious horsepower at Wal-Mart money, 'tweeners' like Volvo's S40 have their work cut out for them. Part of a growing genre counting on the propensity of DINKS and Yuppies-In-Training to trade up, the S40 joins Acura's TSX and Audi's A3 as upmarket alternatives for those willing to sacrifice surplus dinero (and some space and outright pace) for heightened athleticism and a shinier badge.
Aesthetically, S40 isn't a clean-sheet proposition, but that's hardly tragic. Though the S60 remains the best-balanced modern-era Volvo, the design language inaugurated with the S80 has molded handsomely to the entire lineup regardless of scale. General proportions have been messed about with somewhat (the S40's a bit thick-of-middle, a side-effect of its stubby overhangs), but Volvo's now-trademark shoulders, lyrical c-pillar and aggressive prow all look fantastic. Of course, our T5's 'License and REDgistration' paint curried eyeballs, too – a few of them unwanted (Thanks, officer).
Inside, stylists have had their say as well… and the word is: 'Minimalism.' If you're a fan of the sleek and spare as seen on Scandinavian furnishings and obnoxiously pricy stereo equipment, your ride's here. Highlighting the interior is a free-floating aluminum ribbon center console, bisecting driver from passenger. Topped by a display for the dual-zone climate control and Dolby Pro-Logic changer, S40's control layout appears daunting, but troubles little. Seats proffering ample support and articulation are clad in Volvo's unique 'T-Tec' fabric, which lurks somewhere between cloth and neoprene. A fine alternative to the usual cow/cloth conundrum, it's stylish and grips better than leather. Unfortunately, S40's minimalism also extends to its lack of space. There's an appalling lack of storage, trick console nook or no. Visibility is generally good, though the rear headrests and stylish c-pillar create a blind spot compounded by S40's too-dainty side mirrors.
Of course, in true Swedish fashion, underneath its mod garb, S40 secrets sensible shoes. Fashioned in high-tensile steel, Volvo hasn't ashcanned its passion for safety with its t-squares. The company's VIVA ('Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture') melds four different metals in a network of supports that improve energy dissipation during accidents. Naturally, S40 also packs more nannies than a Congressional daycare parking lot: Stability Traction Control, ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, etc. Should things go pear-shaped, innumerable airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, and Volvo's SIPS (Side-Impact Protection System) stand ready to commit hari-kari for those within.
The T5's sports-sedan dampening rides a skosh firmly over pockmarked roads. However, its ride penalty pays it forward during enthusiast sorties, as all 872 hooves stay on point when the tarmac meanders– no easy task with 218 ponies charging through the front wheels (AWD is available). Torque steer is credibly non-invasive. Pushed hard, understeer is the predictable outcome, but the cornering threshold afforded by S40's 17" Michelin Pilots is certainly high enough to make for entertaining driving.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that a naturally unbalanced motor like Volvo's five-banger might make an unfortunate racket, but the 2.5-liter makes a convincing commotion, underpinned by a siren's turbocharger whistle. And though some have muttered about the S40's six-speed gearbox, this unit was reasonably slick. What does cause consternation, however, is the snatchy clutch's less-than-linear action. It makes fluid throttle modulation a tricky business, putting the lid on driver confidence. And while the electro-hydraulic steering's feel won't put Lotus on notice, at least it maneuvers with precision, and S40's binders deploy with credible conviction and stamina.
For feng shui fanatics, Volvo's S40 T5 offers the chance to travel sprightly while packing lightly, but it's ultimately conflicted. At $29k, it ain't cheap, and downers like the obstinate clutch and lack of storage ultimately put the kybosh on any chance for Zen-like serenity. A tweak or two away from starter Yuppie nirvana, another round on Volvo's NordicTrack might see it achieve its proper state. S40R, anyone?