New Car Review
SEE ALSO: Volvo Buyer's Guide
Highland Fling in New Volvo S40 & V40
by Nicholas Frankl
Do you remember the Volvos of old? That's right, the ones your great Grandparents drove so proudly on Sunday afternoons. Well so do the Swedish makers, and it's precisely those customers that Volvo don't want driving the new mid-range saloon and estate. Two days in the Scottish Highlands was all it took to convince me that the sleeping giant ( the makers, not the owners) have awoken to a new desire - to make themselves the number one niche ie. BMW, SAAB etc manufacturer by 2001. This is a tall order by any standards, particularly when you take into account their previous staid image. But no, I am assured that there will never again be a Volvo designed for people wearing little round grey hats and buns on their heads.
Skibo castle is the sort of place to which you could invite anyone to stay. Situated in 7500 acres and surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever seen, it's certainly not the sort of place you refuse an opportunity to visit, especially when new cars and fine, driving roads are promised, all washed down by splendid local brew (Whiskey). My room, called Dovecote and situated high in the balustrades, was actually three rooms. The study, looking out over the moor lands and distant hills providing an ideal resting area to gather one's thoughts; the bathroom/dressing room, as big as the bedroom and centred around a beautiful cast iron 6 foot bath, and the master stateroom with all the trimmings. I must admit that in these surroundings it's difficult not to believe almost anything the press release says. Luckily relief was at hand the next morning when I discovered that the S40 is actually not a bad car at all. ( It always amuses me to find motoring hacks up bright and early the morning after such lavish feasts of lamb, haggis, wine and the rest. They seem to develop a certain resilience that for the life of me I cannot fathom, or match).
My initial impressions, from Inverness airport to Skibo, were soon confirmed. The roads in northern Scotland are surely the best in Europe. Having experienced most of what the other 13 countries have to offer, I can safely say that the scenery is as breathtaking in real life as in the recent string of "Scot" movies, Braveheart, Rob Roy etc. Our route was to take us north, towards John O'Groats, then left before the end of the UK through a sleepy little fishing village with an unpronounceable name, Ullapool, and back for tea at the Carnegie Club before departure back to London.
Built in Holland at the new NedCar facility, the S40 shares a common platform and assembly line with the Mitsubishi Carisma. The idea being to build two similar cars on the same line at the same time, but keep their individual design and engineering components separate. It took some time for us to get to grips with the fact that this is a totally different car from the Carisma, not least because it actually has some of afore mentioned quality which one finds so sadly absent from the Mitsubishi. The plan is to build 200,000 units a year once the plant is up to full capacity, split equally between the two manufacturers, the Dutch government taking a third of the 1.3 Billion ($2 Billion) cost.
When given the choice, always take the one with the big engine a fellow writer used to say and this wholesome advise has never let me down. So a 2 litre S40 CD it was. Volvos, like any other "cheap" mid-range manufacturer have a certain smell to them and interior feel and you have to acclimatise yourself with what the norm is al la Ford Mondeo, Audi A4, BMW 318. The dash is well laid out, with all the instruments clearly visible, though the trip computer is a very weird invention using a clock format with block identifying the various elements. It works ok, but I found it difficult to read and not the clearest in the business. You will have guessed, that if I'm whinging about these details it's because the fundamentals are all sound. No, it's not going to make you think it's a sports car, but along the sweeping hills and down the little b-roads it kept a quick enough pace, the straight 4 pulling with surprising vigour above four thousand and keeping it's head right up to melting point. The CD option pack adds 3,650 ($5,800) to the list price of 14,300 ($22,500) and comes with lots of goodies like stereo up-grade, alarm, Cruise control. My car also had the much more useful handling pack which is another 750 ($1200). It all adds up to serious money and personally I would stick with how the thing handles than if you can read the map in the back. Shod on six spoke wheels and 205/50 VR tyres the car is surprisingly chuckable, the steering, though not as precise as the A4, nevertheless sends all the right messages, the suspension - McPherson struts, lower wish bones front, multilink with trailing support arms rear both with anti-roll bars - soaking up the rough stuff happily and riding with uncanny assurance. And with standard ABS, the brakes, once you've got used to their softish feel, stop quite effectively. The seats provide good, firm support and theres more room in the back than in the A4. The rest of the bits are all compliant if not startling in either design or execution, the one real annoyance reserved, the facia plastic which looks, and is, very cheap.
I don't know if it's the best car in the class, who am I to judge? But certainly it's right up there, especially when you take into account the old Volvo trump card. Yes, the image may be changing but safety is still on the menu. SIPS, plus driver, passenger and side air bags are all standard, as are side marker bumper reflectors as seen on trucks and, of course, enough crumple zones for a demilitarised zone. The package is good and fairly broad. Saloon, Estate, 1.8 or 2 litre both 16v. What they need is a hot version to compliment the T5R examples and a convertible, why not? Everyone else seems to have one these days.
Specification: Volvo S40/V40 1.8 16v 2.0 16v Top speed 121 mph 130mph 0-62 10.5 sec 9.3 sec bhp 115 140 Urban Cycle 27.4 26.4 75mph 39.2 37.2 Prices: S40 1.8: 13,800 - 17,450 V40 2.0: 14,800 - 18,450 V40 1.8: 14,300 - 18,450 S40 2.0: 14,300 - 17,950