We re piloting the 2006 Volvo S40 T5 AWD test car through a mid-October rainstorm, both hands to the wheel, right foot goading the accelerator, eyes scanning for semis in the mist. We're swathed in a billion bucks worth of safety technology - a kind of structural beneficence granted by a kind country where 1,600-pound mammals tend to meander haphazardly into traffic. We show our appreciation for Volvo's thoughtfulness by dropping down a gear, shooting across two lanes, carving past a garbage truck and maddogging it toward a particularly vicious off-ramp. Yes, kids, safety can be fun.
And the S40 could be the mug shot on Safety's driver's license. According to Volvo, its 4-5 star crash test ratings largely stem from something the company calls Intelligent Vehicle Architecture. That means in the event of a frontal crash, different grades of high-tensile steel conspire to absorb energy; on the side, cross-members triangulate with the car s A and B pillars to prevent plummeting pickups from penetrating the portals. Add to that all wheel drive, ABS and traction control and rock-solid road manners, and we re feeling as safe as a tee ball game on the White House lawn. But still...
The speedo reaches an affluently high number as we continue hurtling toward the ramp, and the rain has intensified into a deluge that would make Gene Kelly take five and run for cover. But a beat later, we re safely deposited at a stoplight, snug as a basket of kittens, our adrenergic system firing off subtle aftershocks of adrenaline, if any at all. Downshift, brake, turn, brake stop. Piece o' cake.
Back at zero, we're more conscious of what's mellowing under the hood. The 218 hp, 2.4-liter turbocharged inline five is one smooth operator, humming its Lalo Schifrin theme in soothing sotto voce, then responding like Isaac Hayes' horn section when cued. Off the line, it's as luscious as butterscotch pudding, with a guttural undertone and power delivery so linear, we d swear it had three extra cans tucked inside. The six-speed transmission has a silky feel and ratios for days, squeezing every drop of torque from the wide band (236 ft-lbs. @ 1500 - 4800).
Once around and back to the highway. Uh oh, merge time. Blinded! Owing to those big, safe, pickup-busting B pillars, the S40 has more blind spots than Stevie Wonder s Synclavier. The main one is right where we need to be looking so we don't inadvertently test out that Intelligent Vehicle Architecture we keep hearing about. Sorry, points off.
More bad news. The T-Tec upholstery may be cheap and easy to care for, but its texture feels slippery and cold, like we re sitting on someone s used wetsuit. Either that, or like we re sneaking into the country via a Tumi briefcase. Leather would have been nice. But, hey, from behind the wheel of the S40, we can pretty much handle anything that's thrown our way.
Or so we feel. [by Mike Spinelli]