by Jeff Mullins 24/12/12
The small Volvo has a lineage that can be traced right back to the 66 model of 1975; itself a rebadged edition of the DAF 66 that came into being following the Swedish manufacturer’s acquisition of the small Dutch car division during the fuel crisis ridden era. A stillborn replacement for this car was also in the pipeline by the time of the purchase, which the Swedish manufacturer put its own stamp on and launched as the Volvo 343 in 1976. Initially only a small rear drive hatchback featuring a rear mounted Variomatic gearbox and a Renault powerplant; four and five door versions would soon follow, along with upmarket 360 models powered by Volvo’s own famous B series engine.
In 1986, the first ever front wheel drive Volvo was revealed in the form of the wedge shaped 480. A distinctive coupe with pop-up headlamps at the front and a P1800ES inspired glass tailgate at the rear; its platform and mechanics previewed the 440/460 which would come on stream between 1988 and 1990. This was the next generation of Dutch Volvo that lasted until 1997, when the S40/V40 was in full production. Adding a great deal more style to the proven formula of its predecessors, the S40/V40 shared a production line with the Mitsubishi Carisma at a time when Volvo Cars was depending on joint ventures to stay afloat and maximising the production capacity of its inefficient Dutch production facility was the name of the game. By 2004, a million examples of the S40/V40 had been produced over two model phases and naturally it was time for a replacement. By late 2003, images of the S40/V50 had been released by the motoring press and of what was not just a totally new car, but a totally new era in the history of Volvo Cars; for this was the first new from the ground up model to be released since the group joined the Ford empire in 1999. While products such as the S60, generation II V70 as well as the XC90 had been launched in intervening years, these were all based on the P2 platform that was a legacy of the brand’s final hours as an independent car maker. The S40/V50 meanwhile was based on Ford’s new global C1 platform that was to be shared with the European Focus, Mazda 3 and many cars stretching as far up as the C70 of 2006. The S40/V50 also would finally see the end of Volvo car production in the Netherlands, as an expansion was added to Volvo’s Ghent plant in Belgium to facilitate the new vehicles.
At launch of the S40/V50, a combination of Ford, PSA and Volvo engines were on offer. By 2004, diesel in no way held the dominance in the car market that it does today and on the petrol front, the staple units were the 1.6 litre ( Ford Sigma) and 1.8 litre (Mazda MZR) Duratec engines with both 99bhp and 123bhp respectively. The 1.6 litre is a rather gutless unit and in the example I drove had a very unpleasant gear shift, with a very stiff action. The 1.8 litre on the other hand is adequate but requires high revving to get the most from it. Further up the range are the long running Volvo five cylinders in the guise of the 2.4 litre 170bhp and the 2.5 litre 220bhp T5 units. These were the only options to go for at the time if one required automatic transmission and are hence the reason why for example people purchased any of the 2.4 litre models in this country at all. The T5 on the other hand was what would become the makings of the Focus ST; a car that would overshadow its relative thanks to its superior chassis settings and finely tuned exhaust burble. Both five cylinder engines were derived from larger Volvo units and repackaged into a smaller block for the narrower engine bay in the Focus derived platform.
Diesel power was in the form of the all new PSA 2.0 litre 16 valve with six speeds, 136bhp and 251 lb ft of torque (badged 2.0D). In 2005, a smaller stablemate to the 2.0D engine arrived in the form of the 1.6 litre 5 speed with 109bhp and 177 lb ft of torque. A year later the impressive 2.4 litre D5 engine was modified to slot under the bonnet of the S40/V50, providing 180bhp and 258lb ft of torque. It rounded off the line-up on the engine side for the next few years and remains a rare sight on the used market today.
Trim lines in Ireland included the S, SE and SE Premium. ‘S’ was basic, featuring bog standard ‘Boden’ cloth upholstery and no multi function steering wheel controls, while SE and above included leather as well as 17 inch alloys, which made the S40/V50 very popular as a company car due to these comprehensive equipment levels. ‘SE Premium’ meanwhile was the top level, featuring higher quality leather, electrically adjustable seats with memory function and a high level stereo with increased speaker count.
In the summer of 2006 for the 2007 model year, a number of changes were made. In response to EU legislation, larger wing mirrors were fitted to provide better vision at the cost of some aesthetic appeal. A number of wheel designs were also discontinued, such as the 17” 5 spoke ‘Sculptor’ wheels and were replaced with new designs that looked of cheaper aluminium and were available in some questionable chrome finishes. Issues with these wheels soon followed in the line of corrosion and many had to be either refurbished or replaced. On the colour side, out went Cedar and Safari Green, Ruby Red and in came Electric Silver, Maple Red, among other colour shades. Months later a Flexifuel version of the 1.8 litre 125bhp petrol engine became available, that could run on either petrol, Bio-ethanol (E85), or a combination of the two. They proved popular in this country, due to a VRT reduction of a few thousand euro as well as the advantage of cheaper fuel. The disadvantages were service intervals of 10,000 km instead of 20,000 and many claims of heavier fuel consumption than the standard 1.8 litre unit. In 2007/2008 they seemed a good buy, but with the discontinuation of E85 fuel at Maxol stations and the additional troubles associated with this model mean a standard petrol model is the more sensible purchase today if it can be found.
In 2007 Model Year, the top level ‘SE Premium’ was renamed ‘SE Lux’ and in the following 2008 model year, the S40/V50 received a mid-life facelift. New bumpers, lights and interior trims were part of the package, as well as improved in-cabin storage with bigger door pockets and a redesigned centre console. One year later, an ‘R-Design’ trim line was announced in tribute to the ‘R’ Volvo performance models of the 90’s and 00’s. In a similar manner to BMW’s M Sport and Audi’s S-Line, it brought lowered and stiffened suspension, a sports bodykit and aluminium trim. The seats were upholstered in cream ‘R-Design’ embossed leather in the centre with surf wear material around the edging.
In 2009, an eco DRIVe model was introduced as part of a new range to get in on the act of maximising efficiency and lowering emissions. This took the 1.6 litre diesel and added stop-start engine technology, regenerative braking and the option of some very distinctive aerodynamic wheels. It was highly successful and its philosophy is applied to the whole range today.
2010 saw a few significant changes while the car was heading towards the final quarter of its life. The whole diesel engine range was upgraded and renamed under a new system. The 1.6 litre was now the D2, gained a power increase to 115bhp and the addition of a sixth gear, while the D3 150bhp was a detuned versions of the 5 cylinder to replace the 2.0 litre 136bhp Ford/PSA unit. At the top was the 177bhp D4 which not unusually, didn’t sell in this country where entry level engines are always favoured.
On the subject of reliability, the S40/V50 can be quite hit and miss and has a couple of issues that are common knowledge within the trade. Alternators and brake control modules are the most infamous and well known, with the latter resulting in an ‘Anti-Skid Service’ warning message appearing on the dashboard. In some cases where there is a full service history to prove, goodwill gestures from Volvo Car Ireland are possible where they will pay a significant cost towards replacement. Many owners who have been either uninformed or unsuccessful in doing this have been known to attempt to minimise the cost by purchasing a used module, but fitting is not possible due to the impossibility of reprogramming to other cars. 1.6 litre and 2.0 litre diesel models also do not take too kindly to poor adherence of the maintenance schedule, as many turbo failures as well as other issues will attest to. Regular and proper servicing is detrimental to these engines’ survival. Even at that, the possibility of DPF and EGR valve failure is unavoidable to the many low mileage drivers who own these cars and are faced with large bills for the sake of saving a couple of hundred euro in motor tax annually.
The Volvo S40/V50 was a car that boosted Volvo’s fortunes somewhat, particularly in this country, where they set sales records for the brand, helping towards numbers in excess of 3000 cars between 2005 and 2007. At present, the petrol models represent excellent value for the low mileage motorist, with the 1.8 litre Duratec being a very reliable unit in isolation. A 2005 1.8 SE will set you back between 4-5k and for that you are getting a car with a comfortable and stylish Scandinavian interior in addition to top equipment levels. As always, a service history and proof of maintenance are essential and whatever does not seem legitimate – walk away.