Volvo S40 Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz
volvo s40 review

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.

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  • Stephan Wilkinson Stephan Wilkinson on Aug 24, 2007

    So today I met with a bunch of Volvo engineers and product managers and told them Cahibostep's story of 36 highway mpg from a T5 engine. They had one word for it: "Impossible." Well, one had a few more; he said, "Maybe downhill all the way with the cruise control on." Cahibo says he believes trip computers and that's all there is to it. Reminds me of the days not long ago when pilots joked about the possibility of computerized airline flights. The favorite was the day 350 passengers boarded a Boeing, which took off and climbed to altitude while the PA came to life and a mechanical voice said, "Welcome aboard the first totally computerized air-transport flight in history. There is absolutely no crew aboard this aircraft, only computers. However, there is nothing to be afraid of...raidofraidofraidofraidofraidofraidofraidof...

  • Cayman Cayman on Aug 28, 2007

    Thankfully I'm not one of those gullible gadget freaks who feel that rear-view backup cameras and dynamic adaptive cruise control are necessities. With all due respect to the many Volvo fans, styling is subjective, and they have never been attractive in my opinion. Decades of auto journalism prove that handling and powertrain are not Volvo strong points, and never have been, even with Ford's active involvement. Driving a Volvo back-to-back with an Audi, BMW, or Lexus will leave one with a very clear understanding of what a state-of-the-art sports sedan/wagon can do. Pay a little more, get a lot more. That said, if you just need solid comfortable transportation, and you aren't particular about handling and dynamic performance, then a Volvo is a decent choice -- or Buick, or Saab, or Acura, any of which might give you a better bargain depending on the sale this month. Picking one from amongst this crowd of "value/luxury" cars is like picking this week's ice cream flavor - you may have your preference, but they all work about the same, and none are offensive.

  • Sayahh Is it 1974 or 1794? The article is inconsistent.
  • Laura I just buy a Hyndai Elantra SEL, and My car started to have issues with the AC dont work the air sometimes is really hot and later cold and also I heard a noice in the engine so I went to the dealer for the first service and explain what was hapenning to the AC they told me that the car was getting hot because the vent is not working I didnt know that the car was getting hot because it doesnt show nothing no sign no beep nothing I was surprise and also I notice that it needed engine oil, I think that something is wrong with this car because is a model 23 and I just got it on April only 5 months use. is this normal ? Also my daughter bought the same model and she went for a trip and the car also got hot and it didnt show up in the system she called them and they said to take the car to the dealer for a check up I think that if the cars are new they shouldnt be having this problems.
  • JamesGarfield What charging network does the Polestar use?
  • JamesGarfield Re: Getting away from union plantsAbout a dozen years or so ago, Caterpillar built a huge new engine plant, just down the road here in Seguin TX. Story has it, Caterpillar came to Seguin City council in advance, and told them their plans. Then they asked for no advanced publicity from Seguin, until announcement day. This new plant was gonna be a non-union replacement for a couple of union plants in IL and SC, and Cat didn't want to stir up union problems until the plan was set. They told Seguin, If you about blab this in advance, we'll walk. Well, Seguin kept quiet as instructed, and the plan went through, with all the usual expected tax abatements given.Plant construction began, but the Caterpillar name was conspicuously absent from anywhere on the site. Instead, the plant was described as being a collective of various contractors and suppliers for Caterpillar. Which in fact, it was. Then comes the day, with the big new plant fully operationa!, that Caterpillar comes in and announces, Hey, Yeah it's our plant, and the Caterpillar name boldly goes up on the front. All you contractor folks, welcome aboard, you're now Caterpillar employees. Then, Cat turns and announces they are closing those two union plants immediately, and will be transporting all the heavy manufacturing equipment to Seguin. None of the union workers, just the equipment. And today, the Caterpillar plant sits out there, humming away happily, making engines for the industry and good paying jobs for us. I'd call that a winner.
  • Stuki Moi What Subaru taketh away in costs, dealers will no doubt add right back in adjustments.... Fat chance Subaru will offer a sufficient supply of them.