You’ve heard it all before, European styling, performance-tuned suspension, unrivalled safety and fun to drive. But, when you’re actually shopping for a small, near luxury sedan, there are surprisingly few in North America that actually come close to delivering these qualities mentioned. Since it’s introduction midway through 2004, one car that has, is the second generation Volvo S40 T5 R-Design.
|1. S40 T5 models all come exclusively with a turbocharged five-cylinder engine with 227hp and 300 ft-lbs of torque.
2. Leather seating surfaces come standard on the T5.
3. A blind spot monitoring system was added to all S40s beginning in 2008
4. Besides exterior touches, the R-Design package includes a special steering wheel and interior trim inlays
Unbeknownst to some, the current S40 is actually related to the spunky Mazda3 as well as the second generation European Focus. But from looking at it, the car is unmistakably a Volvo, with the now trademark raised hood and rear decklid, sensible proportions and large doors. The R-Design exterior package adds a special front air dam; rear spoiler and rocker panel extensions that manage to give this car a genuine sporty appearance, but yet one that’s somehow tastefully restrained.
Built at a single assembly plant in Ghent, Belgium, the S40 is also well screwed together, with a level of workmanship and attention to exterior detail that a lot of cars today are still somewhat lacking.
When first introduced, the cabin was the talk of the town, especially that stainless center stack with all the HVAC controls housed in the middle. The fact that the console was also floating, with backlit glow, gave it a somewhat avant-garde touch, but it was (and remains) far more functional and less pretentious than those of some other cars in this price category.
The seats, quite typical of Volvo really, might look uncomfortable, but when you settle into them, are really rather nice with good bolstering and lateral support. They strike a good balance between firmness and support, so, even after more than a couple of hours driving you don’t feel like you want to stretch. Volvo also provides either leather surfaces or a combination of cowhide and clever Neoprene seating surface called Flex-tec, which makes cleaning up any messes fast and easy – no doubt welcomed for those who have younger children.
Considering the size of the car, head, shoulder and legroom isn’t bad either, though taller riders might find stretching their legs a little tricky in back. The trunk is also decently sized and the folding rear seat on this sedan makes loading things like skis easy. Being a Volvo, safety is naturally a high priority and this car, among other things, boasts front, side and roof curtain airbags and Volvo’s patented Side Impact and Whiplash Protection Systems. Feature level content is also high, with personal memory driver seat settings, standard steering wheel audio controls, USB connectivity, an iPod interface and a free Sirius/XM satellite radio subscription for six months.
SAME STUCTURE, DIFFERENT FEEL
While it may share it’s basic DNA with the Mazda 3, the S40 actually drives rather differently. Whereas the 3 (especially the Mazdaspeed version) is a bit scrappy, this one is more sophisticated, preferring velvet gloves to knuckledusters under the hood. The inline five-cylinder turbo motor, rated at 227 hp (up from 218 in 2007), is fairly quiet at idle, but thanks to its 300 ft-lbs of torque, when you stomp on the throttle it really wakes up. The S40 is offered in both front drive and AWD configurations and originally came with a choice of six-speed manual or five-speed Geartronic automatic with manual shift mode – though only the latter is currently offered.
On front drive versions, hitting the loud pedal with some decent force, causes the wheels to spin and then grab. T5 models come with standard 17-inch wheels and tires, though 18s are offered as an extra cost option. In terms of ride quality, the T5 is definitely towards the firm side (particularly with the bigger rims and rubber), but the trade off is great handling – the chassis and suspension setup is simply superb for this class of car. Although you can feel a bit of torque steer through the corners when you push it, the T5 is well controlled and extremely chuckable, with nice weight and direct steering. To get the most fun however, turn off the now standard stability and traction control and gun it through the corners – you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.
The same applies, but perhaps to an even greater extent, with the AWD version. This employs a Torsen differential to split the power between front and rear and once you enter the corner and start the turn with the ESP disengaged, the torque transfer to the back tires allows you to throttle steer the car, almost like a rear driver, which is tremendous fun, perhaps even more so than you’d expect in a car like this.
With the ESP engaged, the car seems to lurch and grab, particularly on twisty roads and is best reserved for when you need it – busy commuter runs or during bad weather.
With the old six-speed manual gearbox (despite its strange looking shifter), the T5’s real sporting nature was further accentuated, helped by slick and smooth gear swapping through every cog (it’s a real shame Volvo has chosen to discontinue it for ’09). The Geartronic automatic, despite a manual shift feature, makes the car not quite as engaging as the old manual did, but as slushboxes go, still manages to deliver a somewhat sporting sensation, whether in drive or sport mode. Fuel economy is not a strong suit in this class of car – expect around 18 mpg in town and around 23-24 miles per gallon on the open road.
All S40s come with four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel ABS. They’re decent enough, especially considering that the basic engineering of this car is now more than five-years old. Multiple panic stops from 60 mph can cause a bit of fade to set in, but you’d have to be hot lapping for this to really become a problem – under the vast majority of everyday driving situations, they provide more biting power than the average driver will likely ever need.
When push comes to shove, the Volvo S40 T5 must rank as one of the most underrated small sedans on sale. Currently in the U.S., Volvo pitches the front-drive T5 R-Design at $32,350, while the all-wheel version costs $1,350 more before options and taxes. That not only puts it smack dab against the Volkswagen Jetta, perhaps its only real competitor in North America, but also lands it in the middle of entry-level Lexus and Infiniti territory, at least in terms of price. And yet, despite the lack of a manual gearbox, we think the S40 still manages to deliver a level of driver involvement and fun factor that surpasses these larger cross-town rivals (even the VW). Plus it’s able to do it while tooting a chic sensibility in a way only Volvos can.