Whether talk turns to furniture, architecture or even top-end audio equipment, Scandinavian design carries strong premium connotations. The failure of Swedish car makers to make inroads into the luxury sedan segments dominated by the German brands is therefore somewhat perplexing.
Then again, the Swedish brands have had a torrid few decades, stumbling from one owner to the next, each one of them trying to enforce its own vision of what Scandinavian design is supposed to entail, but without grasping its subtleties. With the new Volvo S40 2.4i one senses that this is about to change. New owner Ford has big ambitions for this brand, and an important part of the plan is to give Volvo a design identity that is true to its roots.
Inspiration from the VikingsDesigner Peter Horbury has spent a lot of time studying Swedish design and the result is a car that boasts the elegance and simplicity of line that characterises most items coming from this country.
Look at the car from the top, and you'll notice the Volvo S40 2.4i gaining width in its centre, and tapering front to rear. This is said to be inspired by the shape of a Viking long boat. Another visual trademark is the strongly defined "shoulders" of the car, which create the perception of extra width and strength.
Riding on smart 16-inch alloy wheels and boasting comprehensive colour coding, the S40 is a very attractive car and also one that should date well. But by far its most attractive feature is to be found inside. Here Volvo's design team was clearly influenced by high-end audio-visual equipment, with the car's "centre stack" being quite an ingenious piece of design.
A very slim brushed aluminium panel stands proud of the facia and curves into the centre console. It houses a control panel (for the audio and ventilation systems) that looks like a remote control for a piece of home entertainment. The buttons are rather small, and it takes a while to get used to it, but it certainly looks the part. The unique design has also freed up space behind the panel for extra storage.
The rest of the facia is similarly minimalistic, and of high quality. The only real let-down is the awkward position of the ignition slot to the left of the steering wheel. Volvo says it's there for safety reasons, but that's likely to be of little consolation to most right-handed drivers who will find it awkward to use. Otherwise, there's nothing much amiss. The driving position is superb, with generous rake/reach-adjustment from the steering wheel in addition to a height-adjustable driver's seat.
As is to be expected from Volvo, the seats are very comfortable, and although the wheelbase is not the longest in this class, rear legroom is acceptable. The boot, however, is very small, but its size can be increased by specifying an optional space-saver spare. The rear seats also fold down but the through-loading aperture is quite narrow.
Volvo knows that the S40 will have to offer for the same money as its German rivals, especially considering the fact that it's a bit smaller overall. As such, it has specified the S40 with a very comprehensive features list that includes cruise control, climate control, auto lights and wipers and a powerful audio system with remote audio controls. Cloth upholstery is standard, but leather can be specified as an option.
Excellent refinementRiding on the Ford group's new compact car platform that will also underpin the next Focus, the S40 is an impressively rigid feeling sedan. It uses a sub-frame mounted multi-link suspension set-up at the rear, which plays a big part in the car's superb ride refinement. In fact, the S40's overall NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) control is possibly class-leading, with very little wind, road and mechanical noise reaching the cabin. The engine, a 2.4-litre five-cylinder has a characteristic snarl under hard acceleration, but is otherwise muted.
It delivers the goodsWith 125 kW and 230 Nm of torque, its outputs are better than its immediate German rivals, and this shows against the stopwatch, where the Swede manages to sprint to 100 km/h in less than 10 seconds.
Overtaking acceleration is also strong, with the S40 proving responsive to throttle inputs even at high cruising speeds. With its beautifully controlled suspension, nicely balanced steering and eager performance, the S40 is a delight to drive. There is a price to pay, though...
The 2.4-litre engine is quite thirsty - expect to average between 10.5 and 11 litres/100 km. And what would a Volvo be without high levels of safety. With a complex frontal crash structure, six airbags, anti-whiplash front seats, side-impact protection and STC (stability, traction control), the S40 ranks as one of the safest cars in its segment.
VerdictIt's not often that a brand can so successfully reinvent itself with a single new model, but that is exactly what Volvo has done with the S40. Horbury's design team has aced the exterior and cabin aesthetics, lending the S40 not only a very individualistic persona, but also one that is rich with relevance.
The minimalism comes as a breath of fresh air in this segment. But the S40's appeal stretches beyond something as subjective as design. The mechanical package is superbly refined, with the S40's 2.4-litre proving to be beautifully smooth and responsive, which also pretty much sums up the ride/handling balance. Watch out BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz... Volvo is knocking on the door, hard!
Minimalistic facia design
We don't like:
Position of ignition slot
Engine: 2.4-litre, five-cylinder, petrol
Power: 125 kW @ 6 000 rpm
Torque: 230 Nm @ 4 400 rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual
Wheels: 16-inch alloy
Top speed: 218 km/h
0-100 km/h: 9.8 seconds
Fuel economy: 11 litres/100 km
Slightly larger of course, and can't match the Volvo's power, performance and also its standard specification. On the plus side, it still offers class-leading driving enjoyment and a bigger boot. Resale is going to go the German's way.
Down on power and therefore lacking the verve of the Volvo, but the Audi is justifiably popular. Counting in its favour is cabin and boot space, the latter being particularly well shaped. Build quality is impressive
You pay a fair bit more for the status of a three-pointed star, but the C180K is a very convincing product, feeling every bit the proper Mercedes. Slightly down on spec but certainly a comfortable, classy all-rounder that is likely to have enduring appeal and solid resale value.