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2004 Sedan Buyer's Guide
by Martha Hindes

Volvo S40
Volvo S40 sedan

You wouldn't consider Volvo a fair weather car, as one might a sports car in the six digit price range. Volvos' robust Scandinavian genes make them shrug off the worst weather, as they churn out solid performance.

But how does such heritage play in a smaller size? As Volvo launches its redesigned S40, it's appealing to enthusiasts who have yearned for a fresh, new small sedan to outperform a lot of plain yogurt substitutes, but keeps the expected safety credentials Volvo's known for.

Volvo bumped up its already sterling safety rep with something called Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture (VIVA), mating structural and technical properties with an emphasis on how to use them. Among them: A sandwich of four different steels for a more resilient side "skin," improved front crumple zones and more stability controls.

The Belgium-built S40 looks strong and bold, with a "less is more" attitude both inside and out. Exterior lines sweep up and back to a high rear deck. The uncluttered interior, like Scandinavian furniture, is clean and inviting without being bare bones.

U.S. drivers get two five-cylinder engines, a normally aspirated, 168 horsepower, 2.4i-liter, or 218 horsepower 2.5-liter turbo. With either, it bites into hairpin curves at speed on mountain roads north of Los Angeles with solid control. All wheel drive and manual shift are added by summer.

The S40 goes sale by early March as an '04-and-a-half for a short run before being badged as an '05. It's priced just under $24,900 including destination charges, with a manual trans trimming that by $1,200.

Volvo decides soon whether to include new S40 owners, gratis, at its Skip Barber accident avoidance Safe Driving Program, that initially is free for XC90 crossover buyers. Even without it, officials stress all their vehicles' superior performance in protecting occupants.

Company officials recall one woman owner who emerged unscathed from an accident in her Volvo, who drove 200 miles to a Volvo safe driving event to meet executives and thank them for saving her life.