Back in the ‘80s, when Volvo was famous for making safe cars, the brand’s vanguard was an ugly, slow, heavy machine called the 240. Admirers affectionately dubbed it “the Brick.” The 240 was indefatigable. When Volvo tried to replace the car with a more “modern” boxy model in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, 240 loyalists– vegan university professors hauling cans of paint and their dog in a 240 wagon on the way to the farmer’s market– revolted. Finally, in 1992, Volvo execs terminated the 240. Some say that Volvo gained style and lost its soul. But hey, brand loyalists always say that kind of thing. Truth to tell, the old Swede’s spirit lives on in the S40.
Put the S40 alongside its stablemates and you can see sausage-car-design at work. Mercedes pioneered this aesthetic at the turn of the last century, when all their models looked like the same car on a slightly different scale. Park the entry-level S40 next to big brother S60 and the top ‘o the line S80 and the lack of visual differentiation is shocking. Still, all three cars boast a clean, simple design that maintains the brand’s traditional styling cues without undue fustiness or futurism. In fact, the S40’s sharper hood creases and truncated trunk make it the most distinctive of the group.
The S40’s cabin features the much-ballyhooed “floating” center dash panel: a handsome bit of theater with [oxymoronic] minimalist flair. Beyond that, the S40’s interior is utterly sterile. Our tests car was black-on-black-on-black-on-black-on-black-on-black: dash, seats, floor, ceiling, steering wheel and plastic. A handful of brushed aluminum touches spruced up the place– in the sense that tossing a handful of coins on the floor of the DMV can be considered decorating the space with presidential portraits.
On the positive side, the S40’s interior is a paragon of ergonomic excellence, containing no more switchgear than absolutely necessary. The seats are supremely comfortable; the T-Tec cloth offers enough tactile satisfaction to tempt a Texan from cow skins. Audi won’t need any Ambien, but the S40 offers the kind of solid build quality and high quality fit and finish you expect in an entry-level luxury car. Equally importantly, the S40’s cabin gives you the feeling that when it’s on its fourth owner, plastered in bumper stickers and packed with cheap beer and vegetarian burritos (the car, not the owner), it will still be in good shape, plugging away, doing its job and putting up with abuse.
The S40 2.4i “features” Volvo’s naturally aspirated inline-five. I swear the Swedish engineers keep this powerplant around as a memento of an simpler, kookier time. As I’m not a speed freak, I don’t ask much from an automobile engine. Still, I’d prefer it didn’t sound like a lawnmower engine and, worse, spend the night out drinking until dawn.
Slam on the gas, and the S40’s five-speed automatic gearbox immediately hits the snooze button. When the motor finally rousts itself and struggles out of bed, the powertrain is groggy, incoherent, confused and weak. The non-turbocharged five growls and buzzes and finally works its way up into the modest powerband, where a lucky driver may [just] be able to coax 168 horses into action.
Unfortunately, by that point, you’ve already missed the highway merge. The guy in the Mercedes next to you, who you inadvertently cut off, is showing you an insulting appendage, sticking up through his sunroof. And your fair trade latte has fallen into your lap. True story.
Still, driving the S40 is not without its charms. The handling is brand-faithfully safe, secure and predictable; and the steering surprisingly sharp and rewarding. Best of all, the suspension dismisses Northeastern potholes like a Marine drill instructor contemplating his charges at Miller Time.
This is no insignificant accomplishment. Back before modern necessities like rear-view backup cameras and dynamic adaptive cruise control, a compliant and isolating ride was considered the definition of automotive luxury. As the computer age has invaded our “whips,” as gadget worship has replaced hushed and comfortable progress as the litmus of automotive lavishness, it’s nice to find a car that embodies the traditional (if bygone) upmarket virtues.
In fact, the S40’s stately driving dynamics are the primary reason I'd recommend this car. The S40’s not particularly quick, or cheap (even lightly equipped models walk along the $30-large barrier), or more than merely adequate in the fuel efficiency department (22/31) or even, dare I say it, vastly safer than comparable cars.
But it you’re a driver who likes to fly just above the radar feeling coddled– rather than entertained or invigorated– the S40 2.4i is ideal. Even without a slightly more powerful and willing engine (please Mr. Mahindra), it’s as much of a “real” Volvo as the 240. For some, praise simply doesn’t come any higher.