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.