From £17,325
At last, a small Volvo that lives up to its billing. But smaller-engined, cheaper models might make more sense
4 November 2003

If you’re creating the perfect small car from scratch, something that drives like a Focus with the comfort of a Volvo might be on the cards. Which makes the new S40, built on the underpinnings of next year’s Focus, such an appealing prospect.

Indeed, two weeks ago (New Cars, 21 October) we found just that. The range-topping T5 was swift, refined, comfortable and well built. This time, though, we’re interested in the other petrol model joining it at February’s launch, the 170bhp 2.4-litre. Essentially it’s the familiar five-pot powering bigger members of the line-up and in manual form sends it to 60mph in 8.2sec.

Unfortunately, though, our test car was fitted with the £1350 auto option, so we’re left with the impression that we haven’t experienced it in its best light. The 2.4’s laid-back power and torque delivery mean that it needs fairly commited use of the throttle to make swift progress. Cruising on roads with changing gradients is punctuated by the ’box constantly slicing between the top three gears, attempting to optimise thrust.

It’s admirably refined though. At three-figure speeds a faint wind whistle is the only soundtrack, and it does a good job of dialling out road rumble.

Ride, handling and roadholding are miles better than on its lacklustre predecessor. But then so they should be. Volvo’s aim was to create a big-car feel and it’s achieved it. So, while it lacks the precision and nimbleness of a current Focus or BMW Compact, there’s lovely pliancy to the ride, plus plenty of grip and stability. It’s a very competent car, but without being genuinely engaging.

Despite the five-cylinder’s appeal and value, the real promise of the S40 is likely to be fulfilled with future models. At launch, we’re also due a 136bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel, followed by a 125bhp 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol in the summer, while a brace of 1.6-litres – petrol and diesel – will follow this time next year. We can’t help feeling that one of these will be the S40 that makes most sense.

Chas Hallett

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