VOLVO S40: All of the Volvo Virtues in a Smaller Package

Article From: 4/30/2004 Automotive Design & Production, , Senior Associate Editor

For proponents of the "bigger is safer" school of automotive thought the description "safe, small car" is an oxymoron.

To lure younger buyers away from target competitors like the Audi A4 1.8T, the Acura TSX and the Volkswagen Passat, Volvo offers the S40 in two trim levels. The 2.4i has a five-cylinder normally-aspirated 2.4-liter engine rated at 168 hp and 170 lb-ft. of torque; while the T5 adds a turbocharger and ups displacement to 2.5-liters to make 218 hp and 236 lb-ft. of torque. Disc brakes on all four wheels come standard with both ABS and electronic brake distribution. Volvo chose a multilink independent suspension for the rear and went with MacPherson struts and asymmetrically mounted coil springs in the front. Of interest to environmentally-minded customers is the fact that the factory in Ghent, Belgium that builds the S40 (see "Flemish [Car-Making] Masters,") uses chromium-free pretreatment and water-borne exterior paints. Further, 85% of the car's plastic parts are marked for easy recycling. If that's not green enough, Volvo equips all S40s with the PremAir system developed with Engelhard Corp., which uses a catalytic coating on the radiator to convert up to 75% of the ozone passing through into oxygen. America is the primary market for the S40: Volvo hopes to sell 28,000 of its 70,000 projected production units in 2004 in the U.S., vs. only 5,000 in Sweden, its largest single market in Europe.

For proponents of the "bigger is safer" school of automotive thought the description "safe, small car" is an oxymoron. But the engineers at Volvo don't see it that way and the 2004.5 S40 proves it. Though the S40 is a compact car, (it's built off of Ford's C1 platform which also underpins the Mazda 3, Ford C-Max and the European Focus), Paul Gustavsson, director, New Car Projects, Volvo Car Corp., says it is designed to meet the same safety levels as its larger sibling, the S60. To do that Volvo used VIVA–Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture–a holistic approach to designing safety features into every part of a car.

On the front end Volvo designed tiered crumple zones that absorb energy at different rates based on the type of steel used. Mild steel bears the brunt of the impact at the front of the car and deforms significantly, while the subsequent zones of high-strength, extra-high-strength, and ultra-high-strength steel allow increasingly less deformation until the rigidly protected passenger cabin is reached. To reduce the chances of the engine breaching the cabin during collision, computer crash test simulations were run on S40 prototypes minus their virtual powerplants. Engineers then measured the space left intact in the engine compartment and designed the engine to fit it. That meant making the S40's transverse-mounted 5-cylinder engines 7.8 in. slimmer and 1 in. shorter than the "RN" engines that power larger Volvos; which required angling the exhaust manifold downward, re-routing the fiber-reinforced plastic inlet manifold up over the engine, and tucking away the compact alternator, water pump and a/c compressor. As a result of this downsizing, the engine can move up to 5.9 in. to the rear during a collision before the crankshaft hits a cross-member near the bulkhead. It also leaves 2.8 in. of space between the cylinder head and the hood to absorb impacts with pedestrians or cyclists.

Styling wise, the S40 hardly seems related to the dowdy Volvo boxes of the past. Volvo designers got the most out of the 175.9 in. they had to work with by pushing the wheels out to the extreme corners of the vehicle , greatly reducing the front and rear overhangs. Exterior designer Alsid Briscoe compares the car's exterior to a comet, with soft, rounded shapes in the front that flow around the sides of the car and end in the familiar Volvo "shoulder."

On the interior, Volvo emphasizes its Scandanavian heritage with an innovative center stack that resembles a small Swedish bent plywood chair that has been leaned against the dashboard. Briscoe says the idea is to create a sense that the stack is floating above its foundation; and to further that floating feeling the stack has nothing behind it but air. Volvo managed to pack all of the console's control electronics (HVAC, audio, built-in phone) in a space about the depth of a laptop computer.