First Drive: 2001 Volvo V40
Versatile, safe, and even fun to drive
Volvo is luring a whole new generation of more youthful buyers into its Swedish fold with the compact, more affordable 40 Series cars, positioned beneath its popular midsized 60 Series. As we've reported in the past, the 40 Series sedan and wagon are tempting bait, with an approachable low $23,500 base price, zippy turbocharged engine, abundant safety features, and Ikea-chic. For 2001, Volvo made refinements throughout to ensure buyers are drawn away from increasing competition in this price sector.
Most notable, the exterior styling has been scultped to more closely resemble the muscular flanks on the 60 and 80 Series cars. Volvo has clearly broken out of its unibody box, granting the sharp 40 sedan and wagon new front fenders, bumpers, tail lights, and even wheels. Beneath the sheetmetal, ride and handling were also targeted with a slightly wider track and recalibrated front suspension.
Underhood, the 1.9-liter/160 horsepower turbocharged engine carries over with refinements for 2001, and last year's four-speed automatic transmission has given way to a five-speed unit. We wish the transmission programming was more aggressive to squeeze more performance out of the force-fed four-cylinder. Acceleration from standstill remains modest at best, until the revs rise to about 2800 when the satisfying turbo rush kicks in. Power is adequate around town, but not invigorating, leaving the V40's preferred turf as the open highway. Driven briskly over mixed roadways, we averaged better than 29.3 mpg -- a good figure. (We still hunger for the higher performance, 2.0-liter/200-horsepower T4 model available in Europe.)
Ride comfort is quite good from a suspension tuned to favor luxurious compliance over sporty agility. Approaching its handling limits, the V40 understeers predictably and exhibits more body roll than some other competitors. Steering is well matched to the suspension character, with notable isolation.
Safety, not performance, is the leading inspiration for shopping Volvo, and here the V40 over delivers. Standard four-channel antilock brakes, ISO-Fix child safety seat anchors, and daylight running lights are just the beginning. Standard "smart" dual-stage front airbags, SIPS side impact protection airbags, inflatable curtain, and WHIPS whiplash protection seats enshroud occupants in a safety cocoon in case disaster, or a cell-phone-jabbering motorist, strikes. This safety chamber is a pleasant place to spend a few hundred miles, with a tasteful Swedish design aesthetic, and comfortable, highly adjustable front seats. Some oversimplification of controls requires a little retraining, such as the single dial to set and retrieve all radio station presets. Buyers will likely find charm in this. We wish the center controls had been ordered differently, placing the audio at the top and cupholder at the bottom, making it easier to fiddle with the common controls and keep our to-go cup out of the way.
With an average-height driver, the rear seat is comfortable for two. A family with a large driver seeking three-across rear seating should consider stepping up to the larger V60. (Loaded with goodies, the V40 approaches V60 entry price.) The rear seat does flip and fold to open up a generous rear storage area. Access is very good, as the hatch swings well out of the way. Small things like the little cargo net behind the rear wheelwell add appreciated touches.
Competition is moving quickly, with several import wagons crowding this entry-level lux market. Continued refinement, abundant safety features, approachable price, and Swedish charm should keep this versatile wagon on a shopper's short list.