Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Points of Departure

Volvo S40 sedan handles drivers outside their "zones"

By Marc Stengel

MARCH 29, 1999:  The tendency, of course, is to confuse driving on the right side of the road with driving on the correct side of the road--a point of view guaranteed to cause mayhem in the United Kingdom, even if you do manage to avoid a head-on collision. It does a body good, just the same, to travel out of one's comfort zone from time to time. A recent stint of motoring through England and Wales behind the wheel of Volvo's new S40 compact sedan yielded just such an opportunity for me to reflect upon certain relative truths, automotive and otherwise.

For someone like me, whose British visits are biennial at best, it is distinctly humbling to accelerate into the throbbing motorway outside London's Gatwick International Airport while my internal clock lags six hours and one continent behind. Suddenly, I am once again the rank tyro behind the wheel, stripped of the fulsome self-confidence that translates into careening corners and surgical lane changes on roads back home. For one thing, when it comes to shifting gears with my left hand while groping for the clutch with my left foot, I am forced to accomplish the automotive equivalent of rubbing tummy while patting head.

Reaching fifth gear on the bustling motorway invites a false, albeit brief, familiarity with what is in effect a mirror-image world in motion. Because we're all headed the same way on the same side of the freeway, I'm lulled into a North American disregard for the directional diversity of British traffic patterns. The robin's-egg-blue Rolls-Royce barreling by my right shoulder--at 100 mph, easy--jerks me back onto the pins and needles of proto-terror: pass on the right, cruise on the left.

At the end of some 60 miles of ring roads circumscribing London, I manage to smooth off much of the mechanical edginess of my maneuvers. It helps, of course, that every driver I encounter spends the same currency: All of them signal their passes with turn signals over and back. All of them clear out of the faster right lanes, leaving a paved savanna of open space stretching off to the horizon. The pace is brisk but orderly. Superstructures spanning the road display road conditions ahead in telegraph prose. Intermediate, smaller structures click by my peripheral vision at regular intervals, as if marking the beat of some mysterious metronome.

When the Interstate-equivalent M40 dissolves into the rural highway A40, my only forewarning is the roundabout. The maelstrom of circulating traffic approaching on my right is an unbroken and unending coil of cars and trucks. The car just ahead of me suddenly disappears with seamless immersion into the vortex. My turn. I look right; notch the shifter into first; nose the Volvo into the stream while gnashing a toothy gear change into second. My exit is ahead, my rivals all about me. My angle of departure is as deliberate as sly until finally, with rip-cord relief, I'm floating through the English West Country on my way to mountains in Wales.

The Volvo is a patient and indulging companion for such a trip. Scheduled for a fall '99 debut in North America, the S40 is already a model year old in the U.K. and Europe. Mine wears a Euro-only 1.8-liter gas four-cylinder, featuring direct fuel injection technology traditionally associated with high-tech diesels. This ultra-precise fuel metering system simultaneously scrubs emissions, improves mileage, and raises power output. For comparison, Volvo's base-model, port-injected 1.8 makes 115 horsepower, with mileage rated 23 and 42 miles per gallon for "urban" and "extra urban" (i.e. highway) conditions, respectively. The direct-inject motor, on the other hand, delivers 125 horses and 31/49 mileage numbers for 9 percent better power, 26 percent better average mileage.

The inherent cleverness of the direct-inject motor, dubbed 1.8i SE, is a moot point, however, since we Yanks will see only a 160-horsepower light-turbo engine in our first wave of S40 sedans and V40 wagons. And while a more comprehensive review in this space of our S40 will follow in July, my experience with this Euro version prompts a few cross-cultural observations. For starters, if we North Americans spent the same $1.05 for a liter of U.K. premium fuel that we currently spend for a gallon of U.S. premium (remembering that 3.78 liters equal 1 gallon), we might upset Volvo's preconceptions about our blithe preoccupation with horsepower. Considering that it took $63 to fill the S40's 60-liter tank, I consumed over $120 worth of fuel in 1,100 miles of British travel--even at a rough average of 37 miles per gallon!

And whereas many U.S. auto scribes and nabobs will undoubtedly leer at the S40's trim, compact-car dimensions--so untypical of North American Volvos heretofore--it takes only a few miles of two-lane travel on one-lane roads in Wales' hill-and-valley country to appreciate economy of automotive space. There's no sense in foisting European market and geographical conditions upon U.S. auto buyers, of course. The Volvo S40 that is so stylishly appropriate to British travel will have to forge quite a different reputation in the wide-open spaces of an America irrigated by cheap fuel. Just the same, these transcontinental experiences can be instructive.

Hurrying back to London's Gatwick Airport, I allowed myself to bask a bit in my newfound prowess as right-brain/left-lane driver. Could the Bobbies see how pleased I finally was--with my driving and with the S40 Volvo--as they fished my photo out of the day's stack of speeder-cam pix? Maybe they'd seen that same expression before--of a smug Yank flouting the speed limit, convinced that the flash from one of those mysterious metronome piers lining the motorway was nothing more than a random spark of insight. An expensive spark at that.



Tech talk

The New American Manufacturing Conference returns to Nashville for the second consecutive year, May 24-26 at the Renaissance Nashville Hotel. With 15 auto assembly plants now located within a 350-mile radius of Nashville (including the local Nissan, Saturn, and Peterbilt facilities), this annual conference confirms Middle Tennessee's growing prestige as a focal point of automaking and engineering. The symposium is cosponsored by the trade weekly Automotive News, the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Dept. of Economic and Community Development, and Deloitte & Touche. Additional information about the conference is available, toll-free, by phone at 1-877-576-9933, or at the event's UT-sponsored Web site, www.ips.utk.edu/namc.

As the NAMC prepares for its Nashville arrival, Smyrna's NMMC (Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp.) bid farewell last week both to its independence and to its longtime ward, the Nissan Sentra. We'll leave others to ponder the JapanoGallic possibilities for Middle Tennessee resulting from Renault's purchase of a third of Nissan. Sentra, on the other hand, is clearing out for Mexico to make room for the Xterra mini-sport/ute and a new four-door Crew Cab pickup that are due in showrooms within the next eight weeks.


Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com, or by fax at (615) 385-2930.


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