Monday, September 12, 2011

Volvo S40 interesting, yet odd car

A few months ago, Volvo announced that the S40 sedan and V50 wagon will soon be discontinued. After I had a chance to flog a Zipcar S40 this weekend, I understand why...sort of. The S40 has a number of lovable quirks, but I don't think it ever found its place amongst the sea of other entry luxury sedans. Click through to see my impressions.

The S40 never competed with the serious contenders -- the C-Class, 3-Series, A4, IS, G, TL, and CTS -- but it never intended to. It is priced in the mid-to-high $20ks, well below the aforementioned competitors, and in part due to its smaller size, the S40 finds itself competing with entry-entry-luxury sedans, like the Saab 9-3, Acura TSX, and Audi A3. Buyers in this range want a sporty European sedan without the high price point. The Chrysler 300, Buick Regal, Dodge Charger are larger yet attractive, luxurious American alternatives, but don't likely raise the pulse of a prospective S40 buyer. A top-of-the-line Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, or Chevy Malibu may have some of the creature comforts the S40 buyer is looking for, but are probably way too boring. Volvo is a respectable name associated with safety, and the S40 has an intelligent, attractive Swedish-looking design, inside and out. The S40 is largely unchanged since its redesign in 2004, but it still looks fantastic on the road. When you tell your co-workers that you drive a Volvo, you will appear to have good taste in a humble manner.

So, I get the competitive positioning, but how is the car to drive? Unfortunately, it's a mixed bag. The biggest disappointment was the car's acceleration. The only engine available is a 227hp 5-cylinder turbocharged engine, but I felt like the S40 only had 2 speeds: low and low/medium. If I wanted to go fast, mashing the gas pedal to the ground would produce the same predetermined-feeling acceleration trajectory as if I was to step on the pedal halfway. I don't think my lack of excitement is caused by general turbo lag. In comparison, I felt like the turbocharged Audi A3 was ready for blast-off at my beck and call. The various turbo Saabs I've driven (yes, including my '92 9000!) were peppier than the S40. One positive aspect of the engine: its sound. The 5-cylinder has a pleasing purring sound, quite similar to the VW Golf's 5-cylinder engine.

The S40 has a decidedly Swedish-looking interior. Some people don't love it, but I think the thin center console is really attractive and practical, since you can store things behind it. The Zipcar model I drove had fake plastic looking metallic trim, and would look much better with the optional wood grain pattern. Compared to the A3, the radio and dashboard gauges look ancient...a reminder that the car hasn't had a meaningful update since 2004. However, all of the basic ingredients of an entry-luxury sedan interior are there: leather seats, in-dash phone, premium audio, sunroof, power and heated seats, automatic climate control, etc. The seats are very ergonomic and great for long trips.

Don't mind my leg in the picture :)
This weekend I had to buy a coffee table and area rug at Ikea. The Ford Escape or Toyota Tacoma may have been more practical, but I really wanted to drive a Swedish car to Ikea (now I can cross that off my bucket list). The coffee table was packaged (unassembled, of course) in a thin but wide box (55" x 31" x 3") and the store clerk worried that it may not fit in a standard sized sedan. However, the rear seats folded down easily and the large box and long rug surprisingly fit in the trunk quite nicely. Major +1 in my book.

Plenty o' room for cargo!

To summarize, would I buy this car if I was in the market? Probably not - the Audi A3 would win without question. However, the S40 would probably win my money over the Saab 9-3. While Volvo strategically sends the S40 to its grave, the entire Saab brand is on the brink of extinction.

Here are the pros and cons of the S40:

  • Looks fantastic inside and out
  • Ample room for large objects
  • Decent brand prestige
  • Good value for the money - premium features for an entry-entry luxury price
  • Sluggish engine
  • "Aluminum" trim looks and feels cheap
  • Outdated audio / entertainment interface


  1. Volvo still says safe family car to me. This one just won't embarrass dad to drive alone.

  2. @ Warren: Definitely not embarrassing, but not the most exciting car in the world.