Renting cars is always a bit of a chancey proposition, because you never know what you’re going to get. Take my previous article about the Ford Expedition, for instance — you just show up at the agency, they give you the keys, and it’s a bit of a surprise every time. Sometimes you end up being stuck driving a horrible piece of dreck, and sometimes you get lucky and drive off in something that ends up being at the top of your list of cars you’d like to buy. And that’s what happened when I drove off the lot in a Volvo S40.
Yes, I know… it’s really a Ford, or more accurately a Mazda 3 in drag. Yes, it’s small. No, it didn’t have leather seats. Yes, you don’t so much get a key as a big mucky piece of plastic that’s filled with electronics. But damn, that’s one good car — right-sized, comfortable, stylish, and overall just large and powerful enough.
I don’t normally rent premium vehicles, and I hadn’t done so that day either; the Volvo was an upgrade I had been granted because the rental office was out of those dreadfully dull Ford Tauruses that Ford hadn’t managed to sell to a 90-year-old. Also I suspect that the lady at that particular agency fancies me a little. Anyway, I ended up driving that very nice car for a very long distance over a 4-day weekend and paying an exceedingly cheap rate for the priviledge.
Now the fact that I liked this car so much puts me in a bit of a bind. When I hate something I can go on and on about it like there’s no tomorrow. But when something is just right, it’s a quandary to think of a myriad of ways to point that out without using the words “good” or “well” to excess.
So, let’s be a bit more clinical about it. This was a Volvo S40 2.4i. Mechanics-wise it’s mostly a Mazda 3 frame and body with a Volvo grille and taillights. The difference comes with the powertrain; the 2.4i has a 2.4 liter 5-cylinder engine and the T5 has a turbocharged 2.5 liter version of the same engine (I think?) while the Mazda 3 only offers 4-cylinder engines.
Incidentally 5-cylinder powerplants have been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance this past couple of years, having been chosen to power the Hummer H3, entry-level Volvos and VW’s new Rabbit. Overall I think it’s a good thing. I’d always liked the Acura Vigor, which was initially offered with a straight 5, but which was also the very first model that Acura dropped altogether.
The advantage of the 5-cylinder engine is pretty clear — you get better performance than a 4-cylinder, and fuel consumption remains much below that of a 6-cylinder engine. This doesn’t work in all cars of course; sometimes you need the extra oomph that the extra piston affords you, but in the case of this small, nimble vehicle the engine is ideally suited to the vehicle. When you put your foot down you feel the acceleration, while the fuel economy is enough to make a miser proud. I still can’t believe how little it cost me in gas for a trip which was almost 2000km long.
I’m also a big fan of the Volvo’s transmission, a 5-speed automatic with ‘driver-adaptive Geartronic’ — I don’t know about driver-adaptive since I only had the car for 4 days, but I love those shiftable automatics, especially in this case where the transmission lever is actually located in a spot that makes it easy for the driver to shift gears. I’ve recently rented a Hyundai Tucson SUV which also had a shiftable automatic, but where the lever was placed much too far forward for to be practical — a very silly error in terms of ergonomics.
Mostly I liked the extent to which the interior had been designed to accomodate the driver. In too many cars today it seems that the driver is more of an afterthought than a serious consideration. The car had electronically-adjustable seats, and a tiltable and telescopic steering wheel, which is a huge plus for those of us whose arms are a little shorter than average. The seats, though not leather, were made of a very comfortable material; Dynamic T-Tec Upholstery, as Volvo calls it. I’m not sure what it is, but I like it! It’s a huge leap forward from the usual horror story of cloth surfaces that you get in most American cars. And the seats were actually designed to hold you in place when you take a corner a little too quickly. Imagine that!
That center dash console is also quite clever. From dead-on it appears much like any other dash console, but when you look at it from the side you realize that it is in fact about 2cm thick and has extra storage space behind it. Also it’s just a very nicely-designed visual feature. I also really appreciated the ergonomics of the cruise-control buttons — on the S40 they are located at the front left of the steering wheel. This means that if you’re a bit of a lazy driver like me and you have to spend a day on the road, you can control your entire trip with only your left hand on the wheel. This leaves your right hand to fiddle with the temperature settings or the excellent stereo — although this latter left me a little puzzled as to what the telephone-like keypad was used for, since you couldn’t use it to select a particular track on the CD currently in the player. Still, it produced great sound and kept my attention during a couple of long trips.
So, the car is damn near perfect as far as I’m concerned… there are very few things I’d change on it, but there are a couple. The storage space in the center console and the seat armrest could be half-an-inch higher, which I would have found more comfortable; as it were they’re just a tiny bit too low and I ended up with a muscle cramp at the end of a weekend in which I drove nearly 2000 km. This would also allow you to easily store many CDs in that storage space, which is a bit tricky now. Also there doesn’t appear to be an MP3-compatible stereo option for the S40, which is a bit silly in this day and age.
And then there were a couple of issues which I found out about only because of my peculiar itinerary — going from Canada into the US. One of them is a bit of a silly oversight: there are no mph indicators on the speedometer, so you have to approximate how fast you’re going when you venture south of the border. But the second issue is, well, quite annoying for the US-bound passenger. You see, you can’t pop the trunk open using the key fob. You can only unlock the trunk (as far as I figured), and then a touch on a special “handle” above the license plate actually causes the trunk to open. The reason this is a problem is that American border guards love to have you open your trunk every time you enter the US, and when you can’t get it open quickly enough they tend to “randomly select” you for a secondary check, which involves them detaining you for about a half-hour and treating you to a game of twenty questions. Not that this is that big a deal, but it will delay you slightly, as does the lack of clear mph indications, so you might end up at your destination a little later than you thought… I did.
Still, the car was so pleasant to drive that in the end it didn’t matter so much. Ultimately if I were in the market to buy a car the Volvo S40 would be in my top 3 — with the Audi A4 and the Mazdaspeed 6 — so in my view there’s not much greater praise. The 2.4i is already excellent, and I can only assume that the T5 AWD must be as close to the perfect car as is made today.