Volvo is one of those brands that require little to no introduction. It’s not a luxury brand, at least not by most standards. Volvos, including the Volvo S40 we’re talking about today, aren’t particularly sporty cars either. There’s no racing legacy to speak of, no “cuore sportivo” that Alfisti likes to call upon every chance they get. No German precision that consistently wins races.
Yet, Volvo is a brand that just about any car enthusiast will make a proverbial ‘stand to attention’ for. It’s a brand of its own. The S40 is a perfect representation of what Volvo is all about. Today we’ll try to bring this car’s story closer to you and help you understand what many Volvo owners already do – why once you go Volvo, you don’t go back.
Building the Cars of the Future Again and Again
As you’ve probably noticed by now, most car brands have some sort of popular reputation that follows them around. Alfas are fun but require impeccable maintenance, BMWs are precision engineered performance machines, etc. The reputation that follows Volvo is that of innovation. This brand is known for always adding and experimenting with new technologies, especially in the realm of passenger safety.
That 3-point seatbelt that keeps you safe every day during your daily commute is Volvo’s creation. They invented the technology back in the ’50s. Instead of patenting it and capitalizing on the patent, Volvo’s leadership at the time decided to do the right thing and make the patent-free for everyone to use.
That simple gesture has saved countless lives since then, solidifying Volvo as the leader in automotive safety. As years went by, Volvo kept adding to the list of industry’s firsts. Their next big contribution came in the form of the rear-facing child seat in 1972.
Then in 1991, Volvo was the first to introduce side impact protection in their cars, again adding to the overall safety of passengers across the entire industry. Some seven years later, they added whiplash and inflatable curtains. The list goes on and on.
The S4 That was Never Meant to Be
In a perfect world, the S4 name wouldn’t be an Audi thing. Instead, it would be the name of the S40. However, Volvo was slow on the trigger for that one. They snoozed, and Audi took the badge. Volvo then did the next best thing and simply added a zero at the end giving birth to the S40 in 1995.
Of course, the real story behind this car is far more complex.
Back in the early ’90s, Volvo had found itself at the crossroads. Aside from the safety aspect, their cars were known for their boxy shape. It’s as if Volvo only cared to produce cars that don’t break down, leaving the aesthetics department for other brands to dominate.
Truth be told, this has worked out for them quite well up until the 1990s. It was becoming more and more apparent that Volvo’s traditional boxy design simply wasn’t cutting it anymore.
Not only was it no longer attractive to drive boxes on wheels, but the absolute lack of aerodynamics wasn’t compatible with the emerging trend of “efficiency above all.” It was time for a change, and Volvo knew it.
The S40 was designed to be the bridge that would launch this car brand into the future once again. It was the Trojan horse meant to attack the compact sedan segment of the market where Volvo wasn’t doing too great at the time.
The Evil Twin
With that said, the S40 wasn’t a strictly Volvo design. Much like most brands at the time, Volvo has decided to share the platform with another brand – in the case the Mitsubishi. S40’s cousin from the land of the rising sun was the Carisma – a car that ended up being not so charismatic after all.
Volvo’s S40 was nearly twice as expensive and generally outclassed the Carisma in just about every way. With both cars manufactured in the NedCar factory in the Netherlands, Volvo and Mitsubishi were able to hit the ground running in Europe.
First Generation Volvo S40
The first S40 came out in 1996. Two models of the car were available – the sedan S40 and the estate V40. The latter would end up becoming one of the best looking estates of all times – a title Volvo wasn’t really expecting.
In all honesty, V40’s aesthetics aren’t as outdated even today in 2020. This is particularly true for the V50, which many consider being the second-gen V40.
What made the S40 stand out from the rest of Volvo’s offer was the fusion of two very different segments. With the S40, Volvo merged the compact size of the C segment with the luxury of an 850 class of vehicles. If you owned a fully tricked out 850, sitting in an S40 didn’t feel like a downgrade at all.
Popular Features as Standard
The interior was comfortable, stylish, and overall good in terms of durability. Volvo offered the S40 with plenty of cool features, even in more basic trims. You would get four airbags, electric windows, and advanced driver’s seat controls as standard, while this list would end up being expanded in 2002 after the facelift.
As far as the engines go, Volvo initially offered the car with a 1.9 liter and 2.0-liter engines. It wasn’t long before more engines were added to the list to include the economical 1.9 turbo diesel.
At the very top of the range was Volvo’s legendary B4194T T4 engine that was produced in two versions – the 1.9-liter model installed in cars from 1998 to 1999 and the 2.0-liter model that was used from 2001 to 2003.
Both engines delivered 200 horsepower of boosted fun with 300 lb-ft of torque at 2500 RPM. Truth be told, the newer motor was a bit more elastic with its torque band, but both T4 variants were solid, to say the least.
The Second Gen S40
The second generation of Volvo S40 was produced from 2004 to 2012. If the first generation got rid of the boxy look, the second generation took it a step further. This time around, Volvo was under different management – Ford.
If there’s one thing Ford loves to do, it’s to share platforms across as many brands as it can. That was the case with the S40 II. It was based on Ford’s C1 platform. However, Volvo wasn’t pushed into this decision blindly.
On the contrary, Ford took 30 engineers each from Mazda, Ford, and Volvo and put them to work on designing the C1 platform in Cologne. It took them two years to come up with the finished product.
The idea was to incorporate technologies from all three sides to create a foundation that would outperform whatever the competition has to throw at it. And in a way, it did.
Car of the Year
Volvo S40 II was voted for the Canadian Car of the Year while it was also nominated as the World Car of the Year in 2005. The design was modern both on the inside and out. The S40 II had retained that classy feel to it, all while bringing more than a respectable selection of features.
As far as engines go, Volvo had used their latest and greatest Modular Engines – a family of motors developed in the early 1990s and improved over the following decades. This time around, Volvo added several more economical options on both sides of the engine family
Prospective buyers could find the basic 1.6-liter gas or diesel engines, the 2.5 inline-five brutes, and everything in-between. The decision to expand the gamut of engines has allowed for much more flexibility, which the market responded well to. Despite their small size, the 1.6-liter engines weren’t too sluggish for this chassis. They weren’t built for speed, but they could certainly hold their own.
The End of an Era
The last S40 rolled off the production line in 2011. That last model year was special in the sense that Volvo prepared a whole new line of engines that completely refreshed the S40. Interestingly enough, 2011 was the year when Volvo ditched the manual gearbox altogether.
By the time that last S40 was produced, Volvo has changed hands once again. Ford had sold its stake in Volvo to Zhejiang Geely Holding Group – the parent company of Geely Automobiles from China. With new ownership came a complete shift in company policy and long term strategy.
The company parted ways with large displacement motors, turning more and more towards economic alternatives.
Needless to say, that means the end of the S40 line. In a way, both first and second generation of this car was Volvo’s way of saying goodbye to the conservative Swedish know-how that had built the brand from the ground up. Now it was time for new owners to build a new Volvo – one whose future lies elsewhere.