2004 Volvo S40 Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bill Sharfman Bill Sharfman Editor
February 1, 2004



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LOS ANGELES —  When the gen-one S40 (and V40, the equivalent wagon) first appeared in the U.S. market in 1999, as 2000 models, one thought of the two vehicles as pretty good, and identifiably Volvo. Meaning to say, they were very acceptable vehicles that created an economical entry point to the Volvo brand, for a younger or more economy-minded segment of car buyers. As such, since the gen one S40 is currently sold for a base price $500 more than that of this new gen two S40, and since it has sold approximately 150,000 copies to now, one would say the S-for-sedan 40 could be regarded as really pretty good value.

Comes now in these United States a brand new, gen-two 2004.5 S40. This one is something else again, a very good car indeed — so when they bring it in at $500 less than the original S40 — $24,190 for what now becomes a five-cylinder, normally aspirated 2.4i (2.4 liters) with Geartronic, and $26,990 for the 2.5-liter, 218-horsepower turbocharged T5 (also Geartronic), it’s really a very appealing package, a lot more than simply a good value. Besides, Volvo appears to have been working overtime on adding fun-to-drive along with safety in the aggregate brand identity and brand associations. Nothing like brand reality to make brand identity follow along in due course.

Volvo genes

First, the physical car. The new S40 is two inches shorter overall than its predecessor, but around two inches wider and taller, with both increased track (more than two inches) and wheelbase (another three inches). All of this adds to increased interior space, on-road stability, and dynamic appearance, due in part to the car’s shortened hood and front. The styling is, to my eye, without flaw, and it looks more like an aggressive driver’s car than it does like a small or compact one. The genetic Volvo “cat walk” shoulder lines have been beefed up, while continuous curves have been subtly but strategically added, so the new S40 has a lot more in common with S60 and S80 than the old one did, and looks like a really professional car. In short, it gives nothing away to lower end compromises in styling.

2004 Volvo S40

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This shortening of hood and length has, however, brought with it noteworthy challenges, hence innovations, in safety engineering. If you slenderize the transverse five-cylinder engine while bringing the ends in, especially the front one with its small hood, and decrease front and rear overhang, for styling and handling reasons, you increase challenges for keeping crashing things out of the passenger compartment. In other words, you are always seeking ways to give crush impulses somewhere to disperse and go, but not too far (that is, absorb impact in a planned and managed way). 

For instance, making the crosswise engine thinner actually allows more space between engine and firewall. Then, the S40 steering column collapses, but does it sideways. Four distinct grades of steel are used in distinct zones in front of the firewall, with most collapsible farthest forward, getting progressively more resistant to crush on the way toward the passenger compartment. Two robust side members terminate in a central crush box, so they have someplace to transmit side impact but with controlled crush and intrusion. This is all very clever stuff.

Arresting center

2004 Volvo S40

2004 Volvo S40

Enlarge Photo
Inside, cabin space is ample in front, manageable in the rear (depending on the size of the people in the front and the ones in the rear), with two-way fold-down seat backs. Materials from which Volvo chooses for S40 interiors are imaginative, meaning not expensive, but not at all cheap, as are some of the imitation plastic bits one sees in so many programs these days. Storage space is skimpy, with door pockets big enough to hold a folded map and maybe a steno pad, no more, and a glove box that is wonderfully shaft-like, narrow and deep, but not big. The trunk is huge, however. There is a tiny bit of storage in one other remarkable place, behind the center-stack of the instrument panel.

The novel and arresting floating center stack sweeps down from top of dash to top of console with the curvature and proportions of a birch Scandinavian chairback. There is a small rubber tray behind it, for an odd or an end, maybe both, out of sight. This is a stunning and original piece of design, not because of the minor storage, but because it is so surprising, and so clean-looking.

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2004 Volvo S40

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The seats in the new S40 remind one that good seating really is part of the overall suspension of the car. These are fatigue-free and comfortable (with a power driver’s seat option with the premium option package on the 2.4i, and power passenger seat in the premium package on the T5 — heated front seats are available on both with the climate package). 

Premium blend

The new S40 is way fun to drive, with just plain excellent suspension and handling and a very stiff or rigid chassis. We were fortunate to drive the 2.4i with five-speed manual and regular suspension first, because while it is a reasonably peppy car, it is far from a match for the T5’s light-pressure turbo. The regular suspension is very precise and comfortable, with great compliance and no harshness over most any bumps, but it’s still very capable cornering hard, with minimal body roll, and really no sense of front-wheel-drive architecture or steering.

The T5 we drove had the adaptive five-speed automatic transmission, as well as the sport “dynamic suspension” option, along with the optional 17-inch wheels. The suspension, multi-link at the rear, is noticeably stiffer, but still compliant and comfortable enough (nothing like the stiffness of the suspension on the S60R, for example), so really enthusiastic cornering is almost encouraged by the S40 so equipped. There is much more direct connection with the road at any speed, but no sense of pressing a front-wheel-drive car through corners, nor any unpleasant harshness — and near perfect balance. The advanced suspension adjusts its own geometry very slightly on the way through corners, so the car really feels more rear-wheel drive than front. The new S40 also gives you the relaxed raspy purr of a long-stroke 5-cylinder engine, add a bit of “whee!” noise from the T5’s turbo when it gets on song. This would be the version of the S40 I’d want stuffed in my stocking, even in spring or summer. 

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2004 Volvo S40

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To put it in competitive terms, this car is a more-than-credible alternative to a Passat. Volvo claims it outperforms a BMW 330i, while also mentioning Audi A4 1.8T, and Acura TSX, as well as trade-up targets Camry, Accord, and Jetta.

Come July more versions and options will come, too, with model year 2005 designation. Included, for the T5, are the current Haldex AWD system, and the close-ratio six-speed gearbox from the R models, along with a less-expensive five-speed manual. At the same time, the new V50 sportwagon version of the S40 will also become available (henceforward sedans will be even, S 40-60-80, while wagons will be odd, V 50-70 and XC 90). Volvo says that in effect, any feature available on the S60 or S80 will also be available as options on the S40. They expect to sell 70,000 copies a year, 28,000 of them in these United States.

The T5 as we drove it, with sport suspension and 17-inch wheels, Geartronic, plus other standard and optional features, would have come to approximately $29,600.



The Bottom Line:

The new S40, along with Volvo’s R models and the just-announced racing program, ought to go a long way to associating a sense of sporty driving fun with the Volvo brand, along with their long-time staple of safety.2004.5 Volvo S40Base Price: 2.4i with Geartronic, $24,190; T5 with Geartronic, $26,990; $685 destinationEngine: 2.4 liter in-line five (2.4i), 168 hp/166 lb-ft; turbocharged 2.5 liter in-line five (T5), 218 hp/236 lb-ftTransmission: Five-speed automatic; front-wheel drive*Length x width x height: 175.9 x 69.7 x 57.2 inWheelbase: 103.9 inCurb weight: 3,084/3,304 lbs.EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 2.4i 25/30, T5 25/31 (est.)Safety equipment: Dual-stage airbags, side airbags, curtain airbags, WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System), SIPS (side impact protection system), seatbelt pretensioners for outer front and rear seats, force-limiter front seat belts, collapsible pedals, collapsible steering column, anti-lock brakes, emergency brake assist, intelligent vehicle architecture (VIVA), Stability Traction Control (STC), optional Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DSTC)Major standard equipment: A/C, power windows, tilt/telescope steering wheel, ABS, remote-controlled central locking, in-dash CD/audio system, two-way fold-down rear seats, electronic climate control, power driver’s seatWarranty: Four years/50,000 miles

*In July 2004 choices will include 5-speed manual (costing approximately $1200 less) or 5-speed Geartronic transmissions; and close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox and Haldex AWD options on the T5, for 2005 models.

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