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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

Herr Doktor, your ride is here

Sometimes a car is just a car, but it's hard not to ponder the deeper meanings in the S40 T5, a stylish and, yes, vital new entry pointing in a new direction for Volvo.

March 03, 2004|DAN NEIL

The corporate emblem that graces the grille of the 2004.5 Volvo S40 -- a circle against a diagonal stroke -- is taken from the old Swedish symbol for iron. The word "Volvo" in the circle derives from the Latin word revolvo, which roughly translates as "I rotate."

I rotate?

Excuse me? Six months of frozen darkness every year, and the best the company's founding fathers could come up with was "I rotate"?

Sometime in the 1950s, Volvo sexed up its corporate logo, adding to the circle an arrow pointing at a provocative angle -- the universal symbol for maleness -- that was intended to denote strength and vitality.

Decades passed, yet despite Volvo's iconic affinity with vital rotating males everywhere, the brand is not exactly the extra Y chromosome of transportation. Quite the contrary. Volvo's gender politics are distinctly distaff, with safety and familial obligation easily trumping the sorts of values cherished by the aroused arrows of the world.

Little known and less appreciated are the company's performance variants, the T5s, which infuse the company's safe-and-sane offerings with not-insignificant amounts of testosterone.

For example: The standard-issue engine in the newly redesigned S40 compact sedan is a 2.4-liter, 168-horsepower, inline-4 -- adequate but, let's face it, somewhat short in the arrow department.

The latest S40 T5, on the other hand, is powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-5 engine producing 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, a quite respectable bit of rotating vitality capable of pulling our battleship-gray test car to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. With its six-speed manual transmission, grippy 205/50 17-inch Pirellis, pleasantly hefted and quick steering, firm-yet-compliant ride and well-damped body motions, the S40 T5 is a hugely likable sports sedan, well balanced, well sorted and $30,000 well spent.

I encourage you to sit in one. And rotate.

The S40 models are creations of global cross-ownership: Volvo is owned by Ford Motor Co., and the S40 is the Swedish company's version of Ford's C1 global front-drive platform. Ford also owns a big stake in Mazda Motor Corp., so the S40 shares much of its dirty bits with the Mazda3 and the next-generation Ford Focus.

The C1 platform is palpably rigid, as solid as an aircraft carrier's deck plates, and so a kind of unexpected density inhabits the car, from the well-isolated steering column to the stiff ratcheting of the hand brake. The suspension -- front struts and rear multi-links -- is attached to the chassis with an assortment of cleverly designed couplings and bushings that successfully numb out lots of small-amplitude road static; the Volvo's progressive-rate springs provide good ride compliance and then tighten up for stable handling at higher cornering loads. Are we rotating yet?

I haven't driven the Mazda3, and I'll be keen to see whether all this essential goodness transfers to the S40's platform sibling, which sells for substantially less than the Scandinavian.

Whatever commonalities there might be, the S40 is a distinct car, or at least distinctly Volvo. It shares the same beveled shoulder line that appears on everything from the XC90 sport utility vehicle to the S60 mid-size sedan, as well as the mogul-shaped canopy and the bluff, upright rear end. The S40 is a fair bit wider and slightly taller than its predecessor and, though slightly shorter overall, has a longer wheelbase. So it has a very square stance.

The styling has a lot of tension in it, perhaps a little too much. From some angles the car appears knotted and stubby --

a function of where the roofline lands as it intersects with the rear deck. That said, the extra visibility provided by the small window in the roof rear pillar proved quite welcome in the desperate throes of wheel-to-wheel commuting; the car's split-view parabolic side mirrors supply superior views of the traffic barreling up your backside.

The S40 solidifies its base, as they say in politics, by offering a comprehensive list of safety systems, including "smart" air bags front and side, and side-curtain air bags that deploy in time-

delay fashion to increase protection in case of rollover. The S40's superstructure is constructed with metals of varying malleability for better crash-pulse management and cabin integrity.

Also included are the by- now-familiar Volvo SIPS side-impact structural reinforcement, and the WHIPS anti-whiplash seat system, which allows the seatback to collapse to absorb the energy of a rear-end collision. Volvo has a Pentagon-like penchant for acronyms.

On the active-safety side, traction control, anti-lock braking and emergency brake assist systems are all standard on the S40, and stability control a stand-alone option. All of these systems act on the car's hefty four-wheel disc brakes.

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