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.