The new Volvo S40 is a smaller car with big aspirations. Will it make its German, French and Italian competitors look old hat?The new Volvo S40 enters the South African market amid a trend of people buying smaller cars and shrinking compact saloons. A smaller car with big aspirations, will the new kid on the block make its German, French and Italian competitors look old hat?

The BMW 3 Series, Alfa Romeo 156 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class have been pulled up the ramps for some surgery, the Audi A4 will soon have a nip and tuck (Peugeot 406 is due for replacement), but the all-new S40 might make those changes pale by comparison…

Another thing that will count in the S40's favour is that, while the initial cars will be fully imported, they will be manufactured in South Africa from October 2004.

Though shorter than its predecessor - by a full 48mm - the new S40 is wider and taller, creating more interior space. Almost boat-shaped with its broad shoulders but narrower front and rear, the overhangs are shorter too. The longer wheelbase lends the new S40 a sportier stance.

President and chief executive of Volvo Car Corporation, Hans-Olov Olsson said: "More people are considering smaller cars. But when it comes to premium car buyers, there is one important catch. They don't compromise. Meaning that they might go smaller, but they don't want less. The package must still include large-car properties; design, driving pleasure, comfort, technology and safety."

Design-wise, the S40's exterior of the car appears to be a natural progression from its previous form with the signature box shape being maintained with some pivotal changes. Convex curves help to reinforce the car's compact appearance though, while increasing the cabin's width.

Inside, the most notable and easily identifiable new feature is the slim, free-floating centre stack linking the tunnel console with the instrument panel. This innovation was specially designed for the new S40. Resembling a remote control, the new stack is divided so the top half is used to operate the audio system and integrated phone while the lower half controls the ambient temperature.

A storage compartment, within easy reach of both front occupants, is positioned behind the centre stack.

Though two models are available at introduction, a third is due in South Africa in the third quarter.

The S40 flagship, the turbocharged T5, offers a maximum power of 162 kW at 5 000 r/min and maximum torque of 320 N.m at between 1 500 and 4 800 r.min. The entry-level 2,4i gets a normally aspirated engine developing 125 kW and 230 N.m at 6 000 and 4 400 r/min respectively.

Most of the transverse five-cylinder in-line 2,4- and 2,5-litre engines' components have been redesigned so the engine's installation takes up less space. The compact engines, now 200 mm slimmer and 25 mm shorter, also ensure a lighter powerplant and increased safety in frontal collisions.

With the experience gained from the Volvo's S 60 R's advances, its specially developed six-speed manual transmission makes an appearance in the T5, while the 2,4i gets Volvo's updated five-speed gearbox.

The automatic transmission used in the S40s is the five-speed unit that adapts the gear-changing pattern based on the driving style and is the same as the one used in the bigger Volvo models. The Geartronic option allows driver the choice of manual or automatic shift action in both models.

Chassis technology was also taken from the larger Volvos. With its advanced body design, the new S40's rigidity has increased by 68 per cent over its predecessor. The wider track and longer wheelbase ensure added stability while the electro-hydraulic steering provides controlled steering feedback.

Independent suspension all round with spring struts at the front and a multilink system at the rear provide increased comfort levels to occupants. Stability and traction control (standard on the 2,4i) and Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (standard on the T5) can be specified on the new S40. The S40 also has ABS with EBD and EBA while the front wheels ventilated disks vary according to the engine power.

Another safety feature is the Intelligent Driver Information System (IDIS) - influenced by fighter aircraft technology - that helps to avoid the driver being distracted while driving.

While overtaking or braking, when a driver's full attention is warranted, certain peripheral information will be delayed until the situation is calmer. IDIS is standard on all S40 versions.

With Volvo's high standard of safety, the new S40 is no exception. The frontal body structure is divided into several zones with four different grades of steel used to optimise impact absorption. The outer zones are responsible for most of the deformation and the closer the collision forces get to the passenger compartment, the less the structure deforms.

Further safety features also include a whiplash protection system, side impact protection and with airbags and inflatable curtains.

With its high specification levels, a wide range of add-ons and Volvo's sterling reputation for producing among the safest cars, the new S40 should really give its rivals a sprint for their money.

Volvo's existing five-year/100 000 km warranty and full maintenance plan is included in the price. Service intervals are 20 000 km for the petrol models.

Original article from Car