With such global homogenization of car design, it is remarkable that thesedetermined Swedes can still get some of their way at parent company Ford. And that Ford values the influence.Volvo's smallest car in the United States, the S40 sedan (partner to the V50 wagon) is small and efficient with high-quality components that define "durable" luxury.
The S40/V50 has about 40 percent shared components with the Mazda3 and European Ford Focus - without looking or driving like an economy-class Ford or Mazda. The sedan competes with the Acura TSX, Audi A4 and VW Passat, with trade-ups from midsize sedans such as Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and the previous-generation VW Jetta.
Sold in three trim levels, the S40 2.4i has a starting price of $24,450 and comes with a 168-horsepower, five-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission or optional five-speed Geartronic automatic transmission.
The sportier T5, today's test car, starts at $27,310 and turbocharges the five-cylinder for 218 hp, which has a six-speed manual behind it.
The topline all-wheel-drive S40 T5 is $29,085. Prices for each are up by about $500 from 2005.
The S40 and the V50 wagon came out new in early 2004 and changes for '06 are minimal, including redesigned wheels, improved cup holders and a pushdown function to engage reverse gear on the six-speed manual transmission.
Critics consider the base model underpowered, but it is an overachiever for air quality.
The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide ( www.epa.gov/greenvehicles) gives it a rating of 9.5 out of 10 for air pollution score and 6 for greenhouse gas. The turbocharged engine drops to a combined score of 6/6.
Stepping up to the turbocharged model satisfies the performance demands and gives better fuel economy than the non-turbo engine. The T5 automatic is rated 22 mpg city and 30 highway, using 91 premium, versus 22/29 for the base car with five-speed manual shifter.
"We've never made fuel-efficient engines," says Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston. "Our goal has been to make the cleanest possible engine with maximum horsepower. Basically, safety equals weight and weight needs horsepower."
The car's suspension, steering and brake response are European refined and balanced, but balky automatic transmission electronics kept me from having too much fun.
Performance was most responsive when I was aggressive on the throttle. But for around-town driving, the driver-adaptive computer response lags when the gas is hit for a quick maneuver.
Volvo says the throttle response intentionally lags slightly to reduce engine torquing when the throttle is mashed. However, I must not be the only impatient driver to notice, because there is a change coming to "remap" that lag, Johnston says.
I think Volvo can trust the Americans to know what to do with the power. They've given this market most everything else it likes in its cars.
The cabin is quiet on the highway up to 65 mph. Above that threshold, wind noise beats at the outside mirrors.
The interior has a distinctive Swedish influence, a no-frills but iconic styling that many Americans have become familiar with from shopping trips to Ikea, not Sweden.
The center dashboard console is a graceful flat panel that sweeps down to the gearshift console. The unique design uses a thin panel with open space behind and a small storage area.
Instead of the typical solid fascia for air conditioning and audio controls, the trim panel, with satin silver surround, helps create open space in the small cabin, with a particularly snug back seat. Sightlines for the driver are good, despite the fast slope of the roof line. There are numerous useful storage areas.
The S40 takes a hard-nosed approach to safety - literally. It has four grades of steel for frontal impacts, and there are side air bags, dual-stage front air bags, a side-impact head curtain and whiplash protection.
Then there are electronic driver aids, such as stability traction control and anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and electronic brake assistance.
Unlike larger midsize sedans, the S40 is more of a lifestyle choice. The average buyer will value its style and safety.
So what if the back seat's small? It's what's up front that counts.
2006 Volvo S40 T5 A
Body style: Compact five-passenger, front-wheel-drive sedan
Engine: 2.5 Liter, DOHC, inline turbocharged five-cylinder
Horsepower: 218 hp at 5,000 rpm
Torque: 236 foot-pounds at 1,500-4,800 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual; optional five-speed Geartronic automatic with autostick
EPA fuel economy estimates: 22 mpg city, 30 highway; premium recommended
Trunk space: 12.6 cubic feet
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.9/41.6/55.2 inches
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.2/34.4/54.1 inches
Length/wheelbase: 175.9/103.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,278 pounds
Standard equipment: Remote locking, fog lights, electronic climate control, power windows-locks-mirrors, turn-signal indicators in outside mirrors, power driver's seat, 60/40 split folding back seat, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, floor mats, six-speaker CD audio system
Safety equipment: Side-impact head curtain, dual-stage front air bags, side-impact bags
Brakes: four-wheel discs with ABS, electronic brake force distribution and electronic brake assistance
Steering: Power-assisted variable-speed rack and pinion; turning circle, 34.9 feet
Suspension: four-wheel independent
Tires and wheels: 205/55 16-inch on alloy wheels; optional, 205/50 17-inch
Base: $27,310, including $695 destination charge; price as tested, $33,275
Options on test car: metallic paint ($475); climate package ($675) includes headlamp washers and rain-sensing wipers; dynamic trim package ($2,025) includes front and trunk spoilers, lower rear valance, side sill moldings and lower door edge moldings; audio package ($895) six-CD player; automatic transmission ($1,200); dynamic stability and traction control ($695)
The competition: Acura TSX, Audi A4, VW Passat
Where assembled: Ghent, Belgium
PLUSES: Swedish values and American practicality.
MINUSES: Balky shift calibration for the Geartronic automatic.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at [email protected]