From £17,325
Volvo’s best effort in this sector by a mile. Retains essential Volvo character despite being closely related to the Ford Focus
21 October 2003

Among Volvo lovers and car enthusiasts generally, the wait for this latest S40 has been a matter of rising impatience. Because the Swedes have always produced such crummy cars in the Focus-Golf category – alongside some better ones further up the range – we were all desperate to know if, at last, they could make a decent small family car.

Why should it be different now? Because Volvo has been lifting its game. When Ford acquired the company at the end of the ’90s, the parent group was already on course to improve the spirit, road ability and enthusiast appeal of every one of its cars, and it made no bones that future Volvos would follow the same path. When it became known a year ago that the new S40, while retaining a Volvo persona, would benefit from components developed for, and lessons learned from, the class-leading Ford Focus, enthusiasts began to have hopes. And Volvo did nothing to dampen them.

It’s an interesting fact about the new S40 that while its dynamics are much improved, this is not the most striking thing. What impressed me was that while the entire dynamic package – steering, ride, balance, handling and roadholding – was miles better than any predecessor, the car still manages to feel like a typical Volvo. It has that refined, secure, long-legged, slightly cosseting ‘big-car’ feel of, say, a V70. While feeling nothing like a Ford Focus anywhere. The big-car thing is important to Volvo and indeed, the new S40 is a big car. It just comes in a compact package.

In fact, the S40 is about two inches (48mm) shorter than its predecessor, although you wouldn’t perceive it immediately. The cab-forward design, the long wheelbase and the typical Volvo rear shoulders give the S40 a tougher, more impressive shape than its slightly doughy predecessor. This latest car is also about two inches higher, as well as being two inches wider in the body and tracks.

Although this is the first true Volvo rival to the established premium hatches such as Audi’s A3 and BMW’s 3-series Compact, it may even encroach into lower-level A4 and 3-series territory – Volvo’s natural rival, the S60, has always felt too large to be a direct competitor. Such is Volvo’s confidence on this score, that prices are likely to be hiked further into premium territory (UK prices won’t be available for another two months), taking good care to boost basic equipment at the same time.

Though shorter overall than before, the S40’s cabin is bigger in every practical sense. The extra wheelbase, cabin height and width all contribute, making this the first small Volvo in which a decent-sized adult can sit comfortably in the rear seat behind a tall driver. The short-nosed cab-forward design is made possible by two particular technical innovations: improved crash structures and ultra-compact five-cylinder transversely mounted engines, allowing extra crumple space in crashes.

At launch, the S40 comes with a choice of four engines: three five-cylinder petrols (2.4-litre/140bhp, 2.4/170bhp and 2.5-litre turbo T5/220bhp) and a four-cylinder common-rail turbodiesel (2.0-litre/136bhp); the latter a product of the increasingly fruitful Ford-Peugeot engine co-operation. A 1.8-litre petrol four with 120bhp is coming in the spring, and a pair of 1.6-litre fours (the Focus’s ubiquitous 100bhp petrol unit and a 110bhp turbodiesel) will follow in the autumn.

The launch models will be front-wheel drive, although the T5 will be available later with a four-wheel-drive system similar to that offered in the S60 in some markets. As standard, the T5 petrol turbo and the turbodiesel engines get six-speed gearboxes; the rest are five-speeders. There is also an optional five-speed automatic.

Volvo has worked hard to give the S40’s interior a revolutionary feel, and it works. The concentration has been on giving this compact car a big-car interior by adding value through material quality. Along with elegance, the S40 cabin has extreme practicality: its rear backrest splits and folds down, there’s an optional folding front passenger seat, and the whole lot can be configured to give the car a flat load deck.

We tried two S40s on test, a 140bhp five-cylinder version and the T5, both with manual gearboxes. They share several key characteristics – a feeling that this vehicle really wasn’t much smaller than the middleweight S60, and a relaxed quality from the long-stroke five-cylinder engines which lift them entirely out of four-cylinder territory.

The 2.5-litre T5 is the best, not least because its highly impressive torque peak of 236lb ft is maintained between 1500 and 4800rpm. Small wonder that the car can gobble up the 0-62mph sprint in 6.8sec (automatic 7.2) and get close to 150mph flat out. But the performance is brisk, long-legged rather than explosive: even this ultimate version has a veneer of suppleness and polish that discourages you from seeing it as a fully fledged sporting saloon.

The suspension may be struts in front and multi-link behind, but this car feels exactly like a Volvo. It shares its electro-hydraulic steering with Ford’s C-Max MPV and the new Mazda 3, but when you begin to drive you think more of an unusually faithful, extremely agile S60. The 2.4 rolled a bit in corners, and its suspension was a little too soft to suit harder drivers, but the T5 (wearing 215/45 tyres on the sportiest 18in wheels) gripped implacably on the perfect Scandinavian bitumen of our test course, and kept its neutrality until a little understeer set in at higher speeds. It showed impressive stability mid-corner, throttle-steered a little, and kept its line even when treated to some senseless braking. This Volvo is a dynamic sophisticate, in a way no previous Volvo has been.

Volvo has at least proved that it can build a decent small family saloon. The S40 has been a long time coming, but this excellent new model is none the worse for that.

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