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Monday, April 21, 2003

Review: 2003 Volvo S40 T4


Now, more than ever, the lines of automotive design and engineering are beginning to blur.  American sedans, once noted for their crudeness are gaining European sophistication; Korean reliability and durability is heading well into contention with the Japanese; the British, for all their pride on identity is starting to get a bit Teutonic.  Even the quiet Scandinavian nation of Sweden isn’t spared from this inevitable global trend, and the new Volvo S40 T4 can attest to this.

Once content with designing cars which can survive when slammed into a moose and be surefooted during freak hailstorms, Volvo has turned its sights into something that’s certainly more evident to anybody outside the fridged realm of the Artic: downright performance.  Without compromising the brand’s core values (safety, durability and build), the S40 T4 has been redesigned from the ground up to fix all of the original design’s flaws and then some.

Though the underpinnings are still based off the Mitsubishi Carisma, Volvo engineers heavily modified it.  The results are nothing short of extraordinary.  The MacPherson Strut / Independent Multi-Link set-up provide a good combination of twisty-bits excitement and long-distance touring comfort.  The suspension is firm, but supple providing good communication with the road.  In addition, there’s tremendous grip, especially through the tighter corners thanks to the T4’s relatively low-ratio 205/50 ZR 16 tires.



That said there are still some indications that lead to the car’s ancient origins.  First is the way the suspension absorbs sharp bumps such as humps.  The jolt is still very discontenting—similar to the previous generation Mitsubishi Lancer.  In addition, though the steering is properly weighed and balanced, the T4 doesn’t react as lightning quick as any from the BMW 3-series line-up.

The T4 does have one ace up its sleeve that puts it above anything: a high-pressure, high-output turbocharged 2.0-liter engine.  This beauty of a monster generates an even 200 bhp at 5,500 rpm and 300 Nm of torque from 2,500 rpm to 4,000 rpm.  Putting things into perspective, these figures are close to the US-version Subaru Impreza WRX (227bhp, 292 Nm)—and the T4 weighs 85 kilograms less!

Ultimately, this ‘wolf-in-sheep’s clothing’ design of the T4 generates the widest smiles and greatest levels of adrenaline rush.  Though the engine can only be mated to a five-speed automatic, which can give a fair share of shift shocks, it can sprint to 100 km/h in less than 8 seconds based on our chronograph-timed blasts.



The compactness of the S40’s exterior always leads to the temptation that other motorists may start belittling the car’s abilities, jinking left to overtake even if you’re running at a fairly fast pace.  Option A, is of course, to tolerate this behavior and be relegated to staring at the offending car’s taillights.  Option B is: flex right foot, boost arrives, tachometer spins and from being level with your side mirror, that pesky car will suddenly be in your side mirror, a tiny, distant speck disappearing from view: no waiting necessary.  In case the offending car catches up and wishes to confirm the experiment, repeat until desired results.  This car goes from 40 to 160 km/h on short stretches of highway with nonchalant ease.

The forced air-induction work not only works wonders for the Volvos’ straight-line performance, but it helps the power plant breathe easily in high altitude places such as Tagaytay City.  The T4 finds little difficultly in the climb, using small amounts of revs as compared to high-revving engines which require a good trashing.



The relaxed nature of the turbocharged inline-4 also works wonders for the T4’s fuel mileage figures.  Despite continuously engaging the highly addictive turbocharger, it still manages to return 8.6 km/L during the duration of the weekend drive.  However, it’s worth noting that mileage has a price: it  requires a diet of high-octane unleaded (at least 95 and up), and that can burn the pocket.

Such amazing power has been known to corrupt obedient front-wheel drive chassis.  Amazingly, the T40 does a good job of putting everything onto the pavement.  The car is equipped with Dynamic Stability Assistance (DSA)—that’s traction control to you and me.  Launch is drama-free, perhaps even underwhelming.  At low revs, the engine feels similar to the Ford Expedition’s Triton V8.  However, when the boost reaches generous levels, and the gearbox shifts to second, the tires scrabble for grip and the car comes alive.  With the DSA switched on, mild chirps are all that are heard.  There are no unwanted tugs of the wheels—directional stability is always present in the T4.

The T4’s great ability is concealed by its mundane street clothes, particularly in the test car’s mild Bamboo Green paint.  The 40-series is the plain Jane of the family, designed before Peter Horbury got his mitts on the line-up and started the svelte-Swede winning streak that Volvo’s been hitting lately.  The silhouette and the rear of the S40 and V40 are completely generic.  Remove the badges and the grille, and you can slap almost any Asian brand on this car.  The front though has been looking a bit meaner since 2002, thanks to quad-projector headlamps, and in the case of the T4, surrounded by black bezels.  This is the true Q-ship: no airdams, no spoiler or side skirts—just the oval tailpipe and the T4 badge.



Despite Volvo’s penchant to end up as family transports, the T4, like the rest of the S40 line, isn’t built for a large family.  A more appropriate description would be ‘personal transport’, since only small children cat fit in the rear bench.  In fact, slide the front seats all the way aft and the people at the rear will literally end up with no knee room.

However, the interior isn’t as claustrophobic as the BMW—thanks largely to the Volvo’s straight-edged interior design compared to the 3’s concave cockpit.  Headroom is understandably limited because of the standard moon roof, but the overall space is still quite generous for the front passengers.  Seat support, though not exactly sporty, is snug and provides excellent lateral support, perfect for long-distance travels or long waits in city traffic.  The driving position and ergonomics are excellent though, with all major controls within arm’s length.  Sitting position is quite low though—so low in fact, that T4 drivers will have to be content in not being able to stare a Mercedes-Benz C-class driver eye-to-eye.  This can be discontenting even more when placed beside a Chevrolet Suburban.


The interior is as cold and stoic as a winter in Iceland.  Though there are some wood planks here and there, it looks incongruous and out of place beside the matte black plastics and leather seats.  However, the fittings feel indestructible and crisp to the touch, while the leather certainly exudes class—something that this car generally as.

Given its abilities and its badge, you’d be expecting that the T4 would fetch quite a sum of money.  Not so, compared to its direct 2.2 million-peso rival, the T4 solidly undercuts the 318i Executive at 1.845 million.  It even manages to end up as a better value than its performance rival, the Subaru Impreza WRX, which is priced at 2.1 million.

For those who want a bit of animosity but maintain some class and some head-snapping performance, the 200-bhp T4 is definitely the best choice.  However, for the soon to be parents out there, Volvo is offering a more practical solution: the V40 T4.  At just fifty grand more, this baby offers the same level of performance in an estate shell.

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