Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene V Ship

Volvo targets younger buyers with sporty 40s

By Marc Stengel

JULY 26, 1999:  No, your senses are not deceiving you. That glow over the horizon is from the warning fires on the coast. Steely-eyed Swedes, intent on conquest, are beaching their craft upon our shores. The Vikings want our youngsters. If you think I'm kidding, you can see for yourself on the Internet, at http://www.swedenrules.com.

In fact, it is with two special assault vessels that Volvo is determined to conquer North America's young car buyers. The S40 sedan (reviewed here as a U.K. version in March) and the V40 wagon represent Volvo's unabashed determination to capture the hearts and minds of the young and the restless. Heretofore, Volvos were for parents who could simultaneously afford a $35,000 boxy wagon and four years of college tuition for their clueless progeny. Now that these progeny are all graduated and settled into entry-level cubicles in the real world, it's time to say bye-bye to parental handouts, including the stolid old Volvo that looks and feels too square anyway.

Only problem is, there was something reassuring and refined about the trusty old Volvo; and that something is sadly lacking among many of Junior's compact-car options of the moment. What's more, now that Volvo has spruced up its bread-and-butter line of S70 and V70 family cars, followed by the stunning appearances of the C70 coupe/convertible and the S80 sport-touring sedan, Volvo's persona isn't so square anymore. Quite the contrary: Volvo's sales are up about 36 percent for '99 as more empty-nesters flock to Volvo's new blend of safety, luxurious style, and crisp driving feel. Lately, Volvo dealers have begun noticing that ex-GenXers are smudging their noses against the showroom windows, looking longingly at Volvos they can't yet afford. And thus does Volvo swoop to conquer for model-year 2000 with the spirited S40 sedan, starting at $22,900, and the striking V40 sport wagon, starting at $23,900.

Volvo expects that buyers of its 40-series cars will be some 15 years younger, on average, than its existing clientele of middle-agers in their mid- to late 40s. Judging by sales results in Europe, where the S/V40 models debuted in '96, Volvo may indeed have stumbled onto a fountain of youth. The S40 now challenges such Euro best-sellers as Honda's Accord, BMW's 3-Series, Renault's Laguna, and even the S40's new stepsister, Ford's Mondeo (a.k.a. Contour in the U.S.). Spurred by S40's domination of the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), Europe's widely followed NASCAR equivalent, hopped-up Volvos with trick exhausts and tweaked suspensions spangle the EU's cafe scene. (For a taste of some incomparable racing action, check out BTCC's Web site at http://www.btcc.co.uk/.)

In North America, the S40 and V40 arrive Labor Day weekend equipped with 1.9-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder motors. Both cars feature an impressive list of standard equipment: four-speed auto transmission, thermostatic climate control, power windows/locks, remote entry with security alarm, and six-speaker AM/FM/cassette sound system. So, yes, it is possible to buy these cars decently equipped for their published base prices. Moreover, it goes without saying that a full measure of Volvo's legendary safety technology is inherent in these 40-series models. Volvo's Nils Bohlin, after all, invented and patented the first three-point seat belt in 1958. Standard today are four-channel anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags, and an ingenious system of struts and cross-braces within the cars' internal skeletons.

It is perhaps significant that Volvo debuted these two important new models to journalists at Salish Lodge in Washington state, the setting for David Lynch's eerie TV serial Twin Peaks. With the bounding torrent of Snoqualmie Falls misting in the background, project boss Erling Pedersen remarked upon his company's calculated gamble in pitching atypical new Volvos to an atypical new generation of buyers. "When we conducted our focus groups in the States," he admits, "the stigma associated with station wagons in general really surprised us. It must be something to do with '60s kids' memories of their parents. But when we showed specifically the new V40, reactions were exceptionally positive--as if the wagon were being rediscovered after years of minivans and SUVs."

To drive the V40 wagon, in fact, is to create a minor sensation on the highway. It turns heads with trim, tailored lines that dispel any suggestion of the boxy wagons of yore, Volvo's or otherwise. For the driver, the larger enclosed cabin space yields slightly altered weight distribution of the car, front to rear, so that handling balance is very neutral, particularly for a front-wheel-drive powertrain.

As tested--with its $5,000 worth of extra sport-touring options, sunroof, and leather interior--this wagon felt luxurious beyond its station. Under way, its chief strength is precise road feel. The 160-horsepower twin-cam turbo is a willing and supple engine, delivering power smoothly even in challenging mountainous conditions. It is not, however, a pocket rocket, so in that regard some may feel the car's handling refinements are overqualified. The V40, in other words, satisfies a sporty appetite, but it will not necessarily bar the backroads against such worthy challengers as VW's Passat wagon or Audi's A4 Avant.

It will, however, encourage traveling in style. Cargo space doubles from 30 to 61 cubic feet when the rear seat is flattened. Or you can fit three adults comfortably in back with 33 inches of legroom. An ingenious option integrates fold-up booster seats for children at the two rear outboard positions. This feature raises seat height approximately 6 inches--for the sake of a child's comfort and visibility as well as for better positioning vis--vis the shoulder belt and rear side airbag. Volvo also offers a versatile optional roof rack and an easy-install steel cargo net for sequestering pets or bulky loads to the far rear.

With the new S40 and V40 models, Volvo is ironically veering away from its traditional reputation for rock-solid security. With this newest V Ship in particular, the Swede has set sail for a hip, edgy, alternative image that just happens to toss safety and sophistication into the bargain. As we're destined to tire of hearing in the forthcoming ad blitz, the 40-series Volvos are "somewhere between where you are and where you're going." But as a mature, enticing range of U.S. models for varying ages, tastes, and budgets, Volvo has finally arrived.

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