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Volvo S40 T5

What a great engine! What a terrible interior design!

by Julian Edgar, photos by Volvo and Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Poor design abounds inside:
  • Lousy packaging, tiny boot, cramped rear
  • Competent handling
  • Firm ride
  • Absolutely fantastic engine
  • Superb driveability
  • Excellent economy
  • Strong performance
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These days, you pretty well take good interior packaging for granted. Cars as small as the Honda Jazz and Mazda 3 have excellent interior space – space in front, space in the back and space for luggage. So it comes as a shock when you step into the new Volvo S40. Despite its larger-than-compact exterior dimensions, inside it’s squeeezy.

Accept the idea that adults will be rapidly uncomfortable in the back and the boot is a one-suitcase event, and you can start appreciating the huge positives that this car has.

But for many people, inadvertently hitting the climate control buttons with their fist as they change gear, getting a sore left knee from resting against the sharp-edged console, or going through the contorting process of reaching in through the back door to fold the heavy rear seat will be enough: they’ll be heading off to buy something that has the interior room and practicality you’d expect with this size of car.

Which is a pity – because those farewelling the S40T after a quick interior inspection will be missing out on a car which in many respects is awesomely competent.

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Take the engine.

A turbocharged, intercooled 2.5-litre five-cylinder, it has an on-road performance which is breathtaking. Happy to rev to its 6500 rpm redline, the engine is, however, designed to be short-changed at the 5000 rpm at which it develops 162kW. Sound a bit disappointing? Don’t you believe it – the impressive peak torque of 320Nm is available from just 1500 rpm and stretches flat as a board at this value to 4800 rpm.

That’s a stunning torque curve, one that gives instant and strong response in any of the six forward gears. When driving around town it’s natural to change at about 2000 rpm, effortlessly keeping up with the traffic without ever feeling that the car is trying. And of course, when you really do put your foot down, the Volvo-claimed 6.8 second 0-100 is within reach. Those characteristics alone would be enough for us to award very high marks to the driveline, but bolt it to a sweet, light six-speed and you have a match made in heaven. (The gearbox is the same as found in the larger S60 R but we found it a far better box in the S40 – different gear linkages, perhaps?)

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And the absolute cream on the cake is the stunning fuel economy. We drove the car just under 2000km in the week we had it, with a lot of the kays on the highway cruising at 100 – 110 km/h. However, there were plenty of hills (even the steepest was able to be negotiated in sixth gear at 110 km/h... this engine has simply phenomenal torque!) and yet we recorded an overall fuel economy of 7.7 litres/100 km. On a dead flat freeway at 110 km/h it’s easily possible to average in the mid Sixes, and the official government combined figure is 8.7 litres/100. In city conditions we doubt the car would do worse than 10-11 litres/100 – and remember, this is a performance car!

The brilliant performance/economy/driveability combination hasn’t come about by chance. The engine uses variable camshaft timing on both inlets and exhausts, a long stroke design (B&S are 83 and 93.2mm respectively), and temperature-resistant combined exhaust manifold/turbo housing that allows leaner mixtures to be run at high loads. The management mapping is also particularly well done: the shape of the turbo boost curve feels as if it remains the same even with great variations in ambient temperature.

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Rest assured that there’s plenty of technology in the driveline...

In fact there are really only two criticisms that we can make of the engine: there’s a little delay in throttle closure when lifting off from wide-open, and the engine has a slightly uneven idle.

All the Newton-metres are channelled through the front wheels. The outcome isn’t a torque-steering monster, but by the same token, the front-end never feels as if it’s effortlessly coping, either. A four-wheel drive version of the T5 is to be released in Australia in 2005, and based on our experience with the scintillating all-wheel-drive S60 R, if you intend to drive the T5 hard, it’d be best to wait for the all-paw version.

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That said, in normal driving – and even slightly spirited manoeuvres – the T5’s suspension is generally fine. However, the steering can change in weight a little with torque variations and the standard fitment Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DSTC) works for its living. When driven moderately hard, the relatively small Continental Sport Contact 205/50 tyres track truly; when given more berries, the traction control system limits power seamlessly; and when cornered at full throttle, the stability control forcefully comes into action, pulling the front of the car into line with strong braking of the inside rear wheel.

The ride is firm – in fact, having driven the lower-spec V50 2.4 in the week after having the T5, we’d say that the ride firmness is increased more over the cooking model than is commensurate with the T5’s improved handling prowess. Oddly, the ride also doesn’t smooth out at speed, as is the case in many sporting sedans.

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The equipment level in this AUD$59,990 car is very good. The CD player is only a single design but the 8-speaker system packs plenty of power and bass; it misses out a little on some of the sound subtleties you’ll get in more expensive cars (and in the Lexus IS300) but is still outstanding in this price range. Leather can be found on the seats, steering wheel and gear knob; the trip computer is Volvo’s excellent stalk-scroll design; and very good HID headlights are fitted. However, while the driver’s seat is electric with three memories, the passenger gets only a manual seat.

The interior design – in addition to its cramped dimensions – also has a few oddities. Many of the interior plastic panels are of a weird, smoked semi-clear plastic. This allows you to see through the panels at the ugly mouldings and underlying structure – no, we don’t know why either. The centre console controls are placed on a ‘floating’ panel which gives room for a hard-to-access storage space directly behind the sound system/HVAC controls. This approach has no practical advantages – and in fact it’s the very same panel that’s so close to the gear level that the driver’s knuckles can contact it... The numerous buttons housed on the panel are also very small – basically, this area of the car needs a total redesign.

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On the other hand, the steering wheel buttons (for cruise control and sound system) are superbly clear, as are the instruments and two control stalks. The electronic ignition key fits into a slot positioned high on the left side of the steering wheel – a system for which we could see no practical advantages. Storage spaces around the cabin are small or non-existent – there’s no sunglasses holder and the shallow door pockets are in the front doors only. The glovebox is large, but it is shaped so unless you crane your head down to your knees, the far end disappears completely from view ... The armrests also substantially subtract from elbow room – more of that godawful interior design at work...

Finally, we found the ventilation system poor. Even on a sunny 20-degree C day, the air conditioner needed to be running, and the flow-through of air was always limited. This seems to be related to insufficient air exits: closing a window at 100 km/h causes ears to ‘pop’ as the pressure in the cabin rises.

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Both passive and active safety are well up to Volvo’s exemplary reputation: in addition to standard DSTC, there are also large ABS and EBD-controlled brakes, lots of airbags including side curtain designs, whiplash protection head restraints and excellent structural crashworthiness.

The S40 T5 will be some people’s dream... and other people’s nightmares.

If you don’t have a family and couldn’t care less about practicality, storage spaces or ventilation, you’ll likely become fast infatuated with the car. In coming four-wheel drive form it’s sure to be absolutely bloody ballistic and in its current guise it still has a mightily impressive driveline and competent handling. But if you look at the outside dimensions and figure it’ll be great for you, your partner and the teenage kids – what with its safety, sleeper status and four doors - think again.

Which category do you fit?

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The Volvo S40 T5 was supplied for this test by Volvo Australia.

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