Introduced for 2004, the S40 sedan and V50 wagon moved the Volvo brand from the square look toward something much less frumpy. Easy to identify as Volvos, they are distinctive among near-luxury cars. A subtle restyling for 2008 brought the smaller Volvos more into line with the look of the flagship S80 sedan.
The S40 remains subtle and original, but mostly very clean: sophisticated in its simplicity, but certainly not simple. Form follows function in this sedan. Its short overall length aids crisp handling and easy parking.
Rounded front corners (as well as a compact engine package) enable this shortness, and the rear corners are pushed in as well, giving the S40 a tight but still stylish shape. Sparse application of chrome creates a classy look. Lower door, sill and side moldings are color coordinated to match the paint. The doors are slightly convex, with high shoulders that add a sense of security for those sitting inside.
The S40 and V50 are Volvos from any angle, but it's most obvious head on, looking into the dark egg-crate grille with the diagonal Volvo slash through the center. The Volvo badge in the center is large and bold, and the headlights turn down subtly at their inner edges, suggesting teardrops. The air intake under the bumper runs full width on the sedan, but is divided into three segments on the wagon. Wagons also feature prominent silver roof rails.
Viewed in profile, a sharp rear end and softer front end give the S40 direction. The rocker panels are slightly wider in the rear, creating the illusion of forward rake and more motion. More dramatically, the sloping roofline quickly meets an abrupt rear deck. The distance between the bottom of the glass and the back edge of the deck is not much more than a foot. Yet all the lines, including the rear hips, cascade smoothly together. The standard 17-inch Spartacus rims, with their seven pair of elegantly thin spokes, fill the wheel wells nicely and enhance the S40's presence.
Viewed from the rear, the huge red taillights are trademark Volvo. They light with long-lasting LED elements rather than bulbs.
T5 models are distinguished by a unique grille with the R-Design logo offset to the lower left. Aero extensions surround the bottom edge of the car, but they are small, body color, and tastefully subtle. More noticeable than any of these features are the T5's bold, five-spoke Serapis alloy wheels. Optional 18-inch Midir wheels are similarly five-spoked, but with rounder spokes that seem to stand out closer to the wheel's surface. (And they are available only on the front-drive sedan.)
In side view, the V50 wagon is created by extending the roof line and belt line back to the tail, with a slight diagonal angle from the roof down to the beltline. It's all very graceful, though from the rear the wagon's huge taillights add some gawkiness. They extend up the sides all the way to the roof, and we aren't necessarily consoled by the fact that they are nearly impossible for other drivers to miss.
With its smallest sedan and wagon, Volvo tried to provide the same sort of impact protection buyers seek in its larger vehicles. To that end, both the S40 and V50 apply what the company calls the Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture, or VIVA. That means extra-sturdy anti-intrusion beams in the doors, and multiple crumple or deformations zones front and rear, built with different strengths of steel depending on that zone's location and function: conventional, high strength, extra high strength and ultra high strength. The idea is to dissipate or absorb the energy of a collision before it finally reaches the car's cabin, or the people inside it.
The S40 sedan and V50 wagon share essentially that same interior, and it looks great. It's also intuitive, everything works the way you'd expect, and it's easy to get comfortable. When Volvo updated these cars back in 2008, it addressed the few niggling shortcomings in what was otherwise a first-rate cabin. Re-designed dash vents move more air, and storage for small items was improved.
The S40 and V50 are surprisingly roomy given their exterior dimensions, which are very close to a Honda Civic or Ford Focus. Volvo should be credited for creating efficient, intelligent ways to use space. Everything in the S40/V50 cabin is carefully compact, including the strong stubby door handles. They're easy to grab and pull.
The materials and finish are very good. The expanses of plastic and vinyl have a soft, leathery look. The standard trim in base 2.4i models, as well as T5s, is brushed aluminum, not too much and in all the right places, including the whole center stack. Genuine Nordic Light Oak is optional in the 2.4i, and it looks like the finish on fine furniture. T5s come standard with Volvo's R-Design motif, meaning light (Crème) leather seating surfaces strikingly bracketed by black Flextech fabric. Full, monotone leather is optional in all models, in black or off-white (Volvo calls it Quartz) in the 2.4i, but in black only in T5s. In either color the leather is smooth and thick, stretched taut over the seats rather than draped.
The seats are excellent. It's hard to find a better mix of comfort and support for typical driving. The optional sport seats in some luxury brands might ultimately be better, but they are much harder to settle into not to mention they are usually expensive. The fabric that comes standard in the 2.4i resists stains. Dog owners may be better served by the leather, however, because dog hair can get imbedded in the fabric upholstery.
The fold-flat front passenger seat is a valuable feature. Standard on the wagons, the front seatback can fold forward to roughly the same level as the folded rear seat and cargo floor. This adds three feet to the length of items that can be carried within the car. And as far as we could tell, this feature does nothing to diminish the seat's comfort.
Volvo's WHIPS whiplash-limiting seat is designed to reduce the chance of a neck injury in a rear-end collision: During a rear-end impact, the seatbacks move rearward to reduce acceleration forces on the occupant's back and neck, while the headrest pushes forward and upward slightly to meet the neck and head as they are thrust backward. For 2010, the headrests now adjust vertically as well.
The S40/V50 instrument panel is clean, simple and workmanlike, with a big speedometer and tachometer featuring white numbers on a black background with red needles or, keeping with the R-Design theme in the T5, white numbers on blue faces with red needles. Both replicate the look a fine watch. The overall effect of the dashboard is very Scandinavian, yet the coolest part may be the thin-panel center stack.
The S40 and V50 were the first Volvos to use the thin panel in front of the center console. The center stack is barely more than an inch thick, like a flat-screen computer monitor, with open space behind it. It curves gracefully upward from the minimalist shift lever to link the center console with the rest of the instrument panel.
Most controls are located in the thin panel, with audio above climate and a text display at the top, arranged in a neat, symmetrical pattern. The four primary knobs are placed at the corners, big and raised substantially from the surface so they're easy to find. One of those knobs is a menu control that easily accesses more detailed functions displayed on the information screen. The airflow buttons are fashioned in an icon shaped like a seated person, so there's absolutely no confusion about directing air toward the face, feet or windshield.
It's all quite clean, effective and pleasing. Most significantly, measured by function and ease of operation, various controls in the S40 and V50 are simpler, better, than most other luxury brands. Particularly German brands, which still insist on layering more menus (and buttons) in their interfaces. One problem we had with the thin panel, however, is that during hard cornering, of which these cars are eminently capable, our right knee rode hard against the panel edge, and it hurt. But we'll deal with the rubbing and take the thin-panel center stack. Behind the thin panel is a small storage bin, though you have to reach around the back to gain access.
Our biggest complaint about these cars is their lack of interior cubby storage for small items. It was expanded slightly for 2008, but there's still little room for stuff. The latest versions offer some room in the center console, perhaps enough for a small handbag, and have a rack that holds 10 CDs.
Trunk space in the sedan is good. The chopped-off rear end makes the trunk opening smaller than that on some comparably sized cars, but it leads into a deep forward well, with 12.6 cubic feet of luggage space. That's average in this size class, but it's only the beginning, The rear seat splits 60/40, and the seatbacks open up to the trunk when dropped. Fold both sides of the rear seat and the S40 offers an impressively large open floor, with 38.4 cubic feet of space to carry cargo inside the car. That's a lot for a small sedan, and it can be reached through the side doors as well as the trunk lid.
Cargo space in the V50 wagon expands storage further. We think it's a great choice for people who routinely transport their dogs. It offers 27.4 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats upright, and a substantial 62.6 cubic feet with the rear seats and the front passenger seat folded down. That compares favorably to the cargo space in compact SUVs.
The premium audio system in the T5 Dynaudio Package delivers superb sound and it costs less than the high-end upgrades offered by many luxury brands, with dual amplifiers, subwoofers and advanced Dolby processing. The standard stereo is a 160-watt system that includes an in-dash CD/MP3 player, HD radio technology, and a USB port.
The navigation system is easy to operate and we liked it. The screen pops up vertically from the center of the dash, though it's canted forward at an angle that can make it harder to see from some driving positions. The driver surfs through menus and makes choices with buttons on the back of the right steering wheel spoke, almost where you'd expect paddle shifters for an automatic transmission. The menus are no more difficult to learn than those on other navigation systems, and they're managed without taking hands from the steering wheel and fishing for the controls. Passengers can control the system with a remote. It was upgraded for 2009.