Ann Arbor - The 240, which anchored Volvo's lineup for nearly two decades, was the quintessential Volvo: affordable, safe, sturdy, sensible, and anything but sexy. That was the way its owners, who tended to hang on to their cars like favorite old sweaters, liked it. You know the type: college professors, librarians, former hippies, and vegetarians of all occupations. In 1993, Volvo Cars of North America abandoned them one and all by introducing the front-wheel-drive 850, which was clearly the shape of Vol-vos to come.
Problem was, the 1993 240, the last of the breed, cost about $23,000, whereas the new 850 started at more than $25,000. By 1999, the cheapest S70 (the renamed 850) cost nearly twenty-eight grand, and most cars on dealer lots stickered for well into the $30,000s. Volvo was trying to shake its stodgy image with sleek new models and high-pressure turbo-chargers. However, it needed an affordable car to bring Gen-Xers along for the ride, and if it could get any of those disenfranchised 240 owners to hop on, too, so much the better. Enter the S40 and the V40, which made their U.S. debut as 2000 models with base prices of $22,900 and $23,900, respectively.
In Volvo's S40/V40 nomenclature, the S is for "sedan," and the V is for "versatile." Latecomers to our market, they've been sold since 1996 in Europe, where they're built in the Netherlands on the Mitsubishi Carisma platform as the product of a Mitsubishi-Volvo joint venture. The U.S. powertrain is manufactured by Volvo in Sweden. We decided to spend a year with a V40 to see if it was really a Volvo or just some sort of Swedish-Dutch-Japanese hybrid.
We foolishly chose every option and ended up with a $30,125 wagon, thus negating the relative affordability of the 40-series and inviting comparisons with the similarly priced and decidedly more alluring Audi A4 1.8T Avant. If we had left off a couple of the high-priced packages, we'd still have had a well-equipped wagon for about $25,000, albeit without leather and a sunroof.
It's a testament to the V40's styling that it still looks fresh five years after production commenced. In addition to being pleasing to the eyes, the car is well packaged and user-friendly. The doors open easily and widely, and the step-over height is low, making egress and ingress a breeze; and the seatbelts have just the right amount of slack, a Volvo trademark. There are safety features in spades, of course: side air bags, head restraints for all five passengers with whiplash protection for the front two, seatbelt pretensioners, and ABS.
The cargo area is well designed and reasonably roomy, with a removable hat shelf, retractable cover, and net, but, as motor gopher Mike Austin pointed out, "the lip over the rear bumper makes it difficult to lift heavy or big objects in and out." More annoying, copy editor Matt Phenix discovered, was that "in order to make a flat load floor, you must lift the rear-seat bottoms and then drop the rear seatbacks, forcing the driver and passenger to travel with the front seatbacks bolt upright."
There were no complaints, however, about the accommodations for driver and passenger, because the V40's front seats are its most compelling feature. With wide and flat bottoms, large and well-shaped headrests, and support in all the right places, they are welcome places for weary bodies and true to Volvo's heritage. (One nit to pick: The recliner knob on the manually operated passenger's seat is difficult to reach.) It's no surprise, then, that our V40, which arrived in mid-October 1999, made lots of long-distance trips. Over Thanksgiving, Phenix, with his wife, Emily, and their dog, Rudy, drove to North Carolina, negotiating a three-hour traffic tie-up around Washington, D.C., which led to this assessment: "After fifteen hours, it's a lot to expect that our backs and butts would still be on good terms with the front seats, but Emily and I agreed: The V40's are top-notch. Even the rear seats are comfy, and the nifty built-in child's booster seats (a $300 option) almost made us wish we had a young'un to strap in."
The V40 hit the road again for nearly every holiday weekend thereafter: Christmas in Connecticut, northern Michigan for President's Day, upstate New York to collect Easter eggs, and Indianapolis for the Indy 500 during Memorial Day. In March, a family of three made a 2000-mile round trip to Texas, averaging an impressive 30 mpg, and their biggest complaint was the existence of only one twelve-volt plug. A kid's gotta listen to his own CD player, dontcha know.
Whenever there was more than one person in the V40, the car was taken to task for its lack of cup holders. When the one front-seat holder that did exist was in use, it covered the climate controls as well as the in-dash CD slot. Strangely, the V40 has two controls for the driver's power window: one on the door and one on the center console with the other three. We couldn't help but wonder if there might be room for a second cup holder down there if the redundancy were eliminated. During a midsummer trip to Death Valley, a photographer solved the problem with an 89-cent cup holder that hung from the window ledge.
The V40 was fairly reliable and didn't cost much to maintain, but by its last quarter, we all agreed that it was feeling every one of its 32,000 miles. Still, there were only two significant mechanical problems. At 10,000 miles, the steering wheel clunked during sharp right-hand turns. The dealer found that the steering column was too short, causing a steeper angle on the steering shafts and putting too much pressure on the steering knuckle, making the knuckle bind. The service writer seemed quite familiar with the problem; it was fixed under warranty by loosening the knuckle, adjusting the countershaft, and torquing it back down. Then, starting at about 22,000 miles, it was impossible to shift the V40 out of park without depressing the "shift-lock override" button, not the usual procedure. The service folks found that the shift-lock switch, which locks the transmission until the brake pedal is pushed, had fallen out of its mounting bracket. They snapped it back into place but not without improperly replacing the gear-selector trim surround, which necessitated another trip to the dealer.
The front-wheel-drive V40 and S40 have a standard 160-bhp, 1.9-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. A manual gearbox is annoyingly unavailable. In general, we were happy, but hardly thrilled, with the powertrain performance. Turbo response was progressive, with little lag, and there was sufficient low-down torque. The standard four-speed automatic, according to Mark Gillies, was "responsive to part-throttle kickdown," and Michael Jordan said it provided "soft, well-managed shifts." "The power delivery is quite linear for a turbo four," chimed in Matt Phenix. Our Texas travelers were "impressed by the engine, which made it easy to merge into traffic and pass." But contributor Kirk Seaman dissented: "The drivetrain is less than enthusiastic, and the transmission is reluctant to downshift." At 19,604 miles, another tester noted: "There's little exhilaration in driving this car, but the grip is good when you push it, and the steering is nicely weighted." And yet another had this to say: "This is not my father's milk-chocolate brown '81 240. That was a tank, whereas the V40 feels smooth and sleek to drive, and the turbo is great for passing on the freeway."
Although the V40 is a perfectly competent car--a very good car, even--nothing about its dynamic performance stood out, grabbed us, and said, "Drive me!" The V40 isn't an enthusiast's car, and it's not a Volvo enthusiast's car. Its interior looked like a Volvo, and the seats were definitely Volvo, but, overall, the car didn't have the quirky character one expects of a Volvo. It felt like a Mitsubishi masquerading as a Volvo, which is what it is.