Volvos have been good-looking long enough to banish the sensible-shoes image that has dogged the Swedish brand for decades. We can thank Brit designer Peter Horbury for sculpting the once slab-sided boxes into sleek shapes while maintaining their uniquely Volvo design cues.
Horbury is now trying to slap Ford design into shape, while Volvo Cars design director Steve Mattin keeps the fires burning. The new Volvo S40 surely looks wonderful, even more so than its parts-bin cousin, the Mazda 3. But even though the S40 lit a spark in our collective campfire when we first drove it, we needed to live with one to be sure that Volvo truly had made the great leap from sturdy appliance to desirable, sporting sedan. So we slid a passion red S40 sedan into the Four Seasons fleet, right between our sporty Mazda RX-8 and a big Nissan Titan pickup. Twelve months, dozens of enthusiastic drivers, several children, and 30,839 miles in thirty states ranging from Maine to Florida to Washington gave us the answer.
The color was a brilliant move on our part. Red is such a cheery, welcoming shade, especially for a family car, setting a particularly upbeat tone even when the S40 just sat in the parking lot. But the starkly modern, fresh interior is what really got our attention and kept it for the entire year. Every single person who made a note in the logbook over the course of twelve months mentioned the S40’s interior. The art department used exclamation points every time they wrote in the book, in fact. We liked the interior’s refreshing simplicity and how easy it was to find every control and feature without needing a computer-science degree. And those controls were a snap to operate, although the bottommost buttons on the center console were a bit small for fat fingers-and hidden somewhat behind the shift lever-making them difficult to access easily when in first, third, or fifth gear.
We liked the thin sweep of aluminum housing the center console controls and main display, although it developed a couple of dents midyear that made us question its long-term durability. The central display on the console was a model of usefulness, automatically presenting a readout to fit whichever of the four main dials you twisted. Turn on the radio and the screen offered radio options. Rotate the temperature knob and the display showed a digital pointer sliding up and down a graduated, unnumbered thermometer. (That temp gauge wasn’t so hot. Or cool. But a digital temp readout comes only with the $2295 premium package, which includes leather, power seats, steering-wheel audio controls, and an automatic climate-control system.)
The S40’s seats are great, although there were a couple of testers who thought the nylon upholstery looked cheesy. After a year of hard labor and 30,000 miles, it looked brand-new and proved resistant to water, food, and dog hair. We saved money by not ordering the aforementioned premium package, so there was some prima donna whining about the manual seat-adjuster wheel being a pain to turn.
If you enjoy being the reclined front-seat passenger, you’ll not like Volvo’s whiplash-prevention seats. The headrests are canted forward at an angle that becomes more annoying the more you recline. Volvo wants you to sit up straight. And eat your peas. There are all the other usual Volvo safety things in the S40: air bags, air curtains, side bags for the front seats, a latching system for kid seats, and even a rear foglight to help prevent you from being rear-ended. We ponied up $300 for the two built-in outboard rear booster seats. Kids love the seats, which are a snap to flip into place. But senior editor Joe Lorio wants to know why there isn’t one in the safest, center position.
We also spent $625 on the climate package, because we can’t live without heated seats. The headlamp washers and rain-sensing wipers came with it. As you would, too, we ordered the sport package in order to get a beefier suspension, seventeen-inch wheels, foglights in the front spoiler, and that cute but fragile aluminum interior.
We hadn’t driven the S40 one month before a nasty clunking developed on full steering lock. After a couple hundred miles the steering response really began to diminish, so we took the car (under warranty) to the local dealer, where friendly technicians found a couple of loose bolts attaching the rack to the car. Tightening the steering rack didn’t make the S40 a BMW M3, but it handled a lot better.
We skipped the turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine in favor of the base 168-hp, 2.4-liter five, which was lauded several times in the logbook for its smoothness and throaty growl on initial acceleration. It never made the pulse race, but after a year, even the boy racers were saying how much of a pleasure the S40 was to drive. “It’s no BMW,” noted Lorio from the racetrack where we had been running hot laps. “But it’s willing and eager for a front-wheel-drive sedan. It’s on par with the Audi A4, a very good place for this new Volvo to be.”
A lot of the S40’s driving pleasure has to do with its manual transmission. Volvos are still the go-to cars for teaching your relatives how to drive a stick shift. Our S40 proved there is no gearshift more silken, no clutch more forgiving. And yes, we did teach someone to shift using our S40.
A wind leak at 15,000 miles was stopped with a new door seal, and the S40 behaved impeccably until its starter-control module crapped out at 26,000 miles. Not that we knew why the S40 refused to start, or why its SRS failure light lit up, or why the doors refused to lock for our stranded copy editor, Adrienne Newell. Volvo roadside assistance whisked the S40 to the dealership, and the faulty module was diagnosed and replaced under warranty.
The S40 arrived in a snowstorm, but we’d been smart enough to order it with a set of Michelin Pilot Alpin PA2 winter tires, reasonably priced at $125 each, plus mounting and balancing. The dorks who put the tires on, however, weren’t smart enough to install them in the right direction, which we discovered while investigating a slow leak. The leak was repaired, and all four tires were dismounted, remounted, and rebalanced. It cost $94.77 to put the stock Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires back on in the spring and another $94.05 to remount and rebalance the snows to finish off the car’s last month with us. We probably could have timed that better and saved that last remount charge. Oh, well.
Frankly, we didn’t spend another dime on the S40-aside from its fuel-thanks to a deal that won’t apply to 2006 models: All 2005 Volvo S40s came with complimentary scheduled maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles. For 2006, only the first scheduled 7500-mile service is free. That means we spent nothing for its four scheduled service calls. We spent nothing on the three warranty problems. Our fuel economy averaged 26 mpg, great for a car of this size. Given its 15.9-gallon fuel capacity, we could get about 400 miles on a fill-up.
So that’s it. In the course of 30,000 miles, we spent exactly $833.81 moving around and repairing tires. This might be a new record for a Four Seasons test car. But for the two service calls of note, the S40 was a rock of reliability, always a pleasure to drive (even at the track), and always a joy to see parked in the driveway. The S40 may, indeed, be sensible, but it has seriously upped its desirability quotient.