If you're building a new mid-size sedan, one concern should dominate all others. The diesel version needs to be up to scratch. This is a decade in which company car drivers, who form the bulk of buyers, get clobbered by the taxman if their car is excessively pollutant. Since diesels are favoured for their low emissions, for some they are the only realistic choice.
Volvo's swish S40 saloon has already won us over with its ice-cool Scandinavian looks and competitive driving characteristics. It's a subtle design, unmistakably a Volvo but with a Germanic purpose and economy to the lines. The sense that Volvo is gunning for BMW and Audi persists with the interior; the 'floating' dashboard is framed by a precise gutter, and the centre console is detached. Ultra modern and expertly crafted, the S40's cabin is the equal of anything in the class.
Special mention should go to the S40's seats and overall comfort; over long distances I felt no physical fatigue and felt generally cared for by the user-friendly Volvo. This comfort is in part attributable to the excellent ride quality. Sufficiently firm to be informative, the S40 nevertheless absords tarmac imperfections with fluency.
This sense of a sorted suspension is confirmed when the roads get interesting. The chassis is an agile mover, encouraging you to chuck the car into turns and defy the understeer. This manner of attack, however, made me long for some feedback from the over-light steering. The gearchange has a short throw, but the lever on our test car was oddly resistant to movement, requiring a firm hand to select the next ratio. It seemed like a crude way to imbue the car with a sense of soliity.
In such an accomplished setting, the two-litre diesel engine is a relatively weak link. It isn't a bad unit, but it lacks the S40's general air of sophistication. Related to the Ford TDCi lump, the Volvo's 100kW engine dishes up adequate performance, with a 9.5 second 0-100kmh time a prelude to a 210km/h top speed. But the engine is raucous and intrudes on the car's otherwise impressive refinement. It's not an engine with any surprises, it's a predictably diesly diesel.
Not to worry though. The S40 is still a desirable package especially in D5 trim, which includes the leather seats the interior design begs for. At $44,950 the D5 2.4DT is slightly dearer than left-field diesel rivals such as the Honda Accord, Alfa Romeo 156 and Saab 9-3, but if you want to undercut them choose the S spec for a $5000 saving.
The S40 D5 doesn't have a brillient diesel engine. But it's good enough, and it's working in a superbly designed car. You might prefer a petrol, but even if the tax man rules that out, you'll still be looking at a very good repmobile.