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New engines add 'wow' to small Volvos

June 04, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN

The new Volvo S40 sedan and V50 wagon are just begging to be driven. And with added power, style, roominess and all-wheel-drive availability, prospective buyers will need little convincing to check out this pair of sharp looking Swedes.

In one fell swoop, Volvo's entry-luxury cars have gone from "ho-hum" to "wow!"

Up to now, the Ford-owned company's success in this category has been partly limited by less-than-sizzling appearance and performance, two must-haves if you want lineups in your showroom.

You'd best be packing more than four cylinders and 160 horsepower, regardless of how well made your product is, or how much standard equipment it contains.

Although Volvo's original Dutch-built 40-series sedan and wagon models were attractively priced, they were up against stiff competition from a first-tier group that counted the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Acura TL among its elite members.

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It's a whole new ball game today. The 2004 S40 and companion 2005 V50, now assembled in Belgium, are clean-sheet designs that look as refined and desirable as anything in their class. Both cars feature their larger siblings' unmistakable protruding snouts and, with neatly creased lines and flab-absent sheetmetal, easily match their German and Japanese competitors in the appearance department

Employing a global platform shared by the Ford Focus as well as the new-for-'04 Mazda3 (Ford owns a chunk of Mazda), the S40/V50 Volvos have been made considerably stiffer than their predecessors, which used a Mitsubishi-supplied structure. The result is, according to Volvo, an overall safer unitized (frameless) architecture that also improves handling and ride comfort.

On the inside, the S40/V50's creators employed some silvery bits and completely avoided using wood inserts, faux or otherwise. What you get is an environment with large, driver-friendly gauges and appointments that don't appear too ostentatious.

Volvo has also dropped the old 1.9-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor (another Mitsubishi loaner) that was standard in the '03 S40 sedan and V40 wagon. In its place is one of two Volvo-designed powerplants. On base 2.4i models, a 168-horsepower 2.4-liter five cylinder gets the job done, while a sportier 218-horse 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder powers the T5. Both inline engines are transversely (east/west) mounted and provide significant crumple space between the block and the passenger compartment for improved crash protection, something that Volvo engineers seem to constantly obsess over.

Ordering a sedan or wagon with the 2.4 gives you a choice of a five-speed manual transmission, or optional five-speed automatic. T5 buyers, on the other hand, begin with a six-speed manual, with a five-speed automatic available for substitution.

According to Volvo, the manually equipped T5 will hit 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds, close to a second-and-a-half quicker than the normally aspirated 2.4i

Making all-wheel drive available on these cars for the first time not only improves their all-weather versatility, but puts them in a competitive league with most entry-luxury imports.

Along with an impressive list of standard comfort and safety features, the S40 and V50 can be equipped with a keyless locking system that can be programmed to open specific doors on command as well as turn on the engine from a distance or from inside without using the key.

Factoring in all of the changes in style, security and performance, this new crop of junior-sized Volvos is better by several notches than the outgoing models. And, with base prices remaining similar to those of last season, the company is finally poised to make a serious assault on the top runners in the quasi-luxury bracket.

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