THERE’S an old road-tester’s adage that says the smallest-engined model in a range is usually the sweetest. Late last year, Volvo went small with its classy S40. Or was it Ford? We ask the question because the S40 is based on the C1 platform, the same as that which underpins the Ford Focus. And now, with the 1,8i, it also has a powerplant and transmission from Henry’s parts bin.
That’s no bad thing, as the latest Focus is a superb car. And the cross-pollination has gone both ways, the Focus ST, for example, getting a five-cylinder engine courtesy of its Swedish cousins.
But, with even more Ford componentry than its larger siblings, can the S40 1,8 really be the pick of the range? We’d say the smallest-engined model in the South African S40 line-up is most certainly a sweet proposition. Particularly at the R205 000 asking price…
And despite what we’ve said about the parts bin, the S40 1,8i is a real Volvo in its character. Take the styling. The lines, penned under Peter Horbury (who has now moved on to head Ford’s North American design team), echo the style of bigger offerings from the Swedish marque. In fact, its long wheelbase, short overhangs and tied-down stance make it the most purposefullooking Volvo of all.
The new engine, installed transversely in the engine bay, is a 16-valve twin-cam four displacing 1 798 cm³. It features a variable intake system with direct ignition coils, and has peak outputs of 92 kW at 6 000 r/min and 165 N.m at 4 000. The block and head are in aluminium alloy, and the pistons are also lightweight alloy units. Camshafts are chain-driven from the crankshaft. Drive is taken to the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox.
Underpinnings are the same as those of the bigger-engined models. MacPherson struts are employed in front, with Volvo’s multi-link system doing duty at the rear. The rear set-up provides a certain degree of passive steering to help stability.
Brakes are ventilated discs all round, and electronic aids such as ABS, EBD and BAS are standard. Wheels are 16-inch alloy units fitted with 205/55 tyres.
As is usual with Volvo, the body’s crash structure is stateof- the-art, with carefullydesigned crumple zones front and rear. There are dual front airbags, side-impact airbags, and inflatable curtains at headlevel, the latter positioned to protect front and rear seat passengers in side impacts.
Inside, the S40 1,8i has the same clean styling and quality materials as its larger stablemates. Its most distinctive feature is the slim “free-floating” centre stack linking the centre console with the facia.
The facia, moulded in a lightcoloured soft-touch material, has a quality look, and the doorcappings and steering wheel are of a style and standard you’d expect in a top-quality vehicle. The same can’t be said for the column stalks controlling lights, wipers and indicators, which are cheap-looking and hard to the touch. The slot for the plasticky remote-cum-ignition key is awkwardly placed on the facia, to the left of the steering wheel. And, apart from the “channel” behind the floating stack, there are surprisingly few spaces to stash small objects.
Instrumentation consists of analogue dials in a binnacle ahead of the wheel. The wheel is adjustable for reach and rake, and the front seats are comfy and supportive. As with the 2,4, our tallest tester took a while to adjust the wheel-seat relationship to his lanky frame, but even he was comfy after some careful tweaking.
Rear legroom is also good, and the folding rear seatbacks are split 60:40, allowing the luggage volume to be extended in stages. Interestingly, the boot’s floor was lower than that of our 2,4 test car, which had a full-size spare (the 1,8 had a space-saver), allowing it to accommodate 64 extra dm³ of our ISO-block luggage.
As one pulls away, one realises that the pedals are positioned close together, great for heel and- toe-ing, but not so comfy for those with clumpy shoes. The action of the gearbox is slick, and the engine pulls smoothly though it works hard to move the comparatively large body, and can be quite vocal when revved, which one has to do quite often, changing down to maintain momentum.
Out on the test strip, the S40 1,8i surged from zero to 100 km/h in a fairly leisurely 11,24 seconds, and wafted on to a top speed of 200 km/h. Not dramatically quick figures, but similar to those delivered by bottom-of-the-range BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class models. Braking was good, but not quite as good as the 2,4, the four-wheel discs pulling the 1,8- litre version up in an average time of 2,96 seconds in our 10-stop 100-to-zero emergency braking test.
Fuel economy is excellent for a compact luxury saloon powered by a comparatively small engine: the 1,8i’s fuel index works out at 8,86 litres/100 km. Driven fairly hard, it should manage 620 km on a 55-litre tank of unleaded.
Out on our favourite twisty road, the 1,8i proved as agile and effortless as its larger-engined siblings. The steering is near-perfect, the suspension absorbent yet well-damped, road holding is impeccable, and handling is responsive and adjustable.
At the price, the S40 1,8i is hard to beat. In fact, it is one of the best value for money buys on the market, in any segment. Does that make it the sweetest in the range? The 2,4i is undoubtedly a better car. But in terms of rands and cents, we’d say the littlest S40 is the pick of the bunch.