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."