All-new from the wheels up, the S40 is absolutely superb, with great good looks which are totally different from the competitors, a superb chassis which gives the handling of a sports car, and a new interior which brings Swedish elegance to the fore in a way never seen before.
In fact I'd go so far as to describe the S40's interior as cutting edge, its new super thin "free floating" aluminium "centre stack" console more reminiscent of an upmarket Bang and Olufsen sound system than a car fitting.
Add to that aluminium trim on the door pulls and openers, and it adds up to a very stylish package.
At the same time more conservative buyers can opt for an extra-cost wood trim finish.
Two models are currently available - the S40 2.4i with a 125 kW, 230 Nm 2.4-litre 5-cylinder engine mated to either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed Geartronic auto/sequential manual gearbox, and the S40 T5 with a 162 kW/320 Nm low pressure turbo 5-cylinder with either a 6-speed manual or the 5-speed Geartronic automatic/sequential manual.
And the cars are quick. The normally aspirated (non-turbo) 2.4i manual accelerates from zero to 100 km/h in just 8.2 seconds while the auto does it in 8.9 seconds; both have a top speed of 220 km/h.
And the low pressure turbo-charged T5 knocks off the 0-100 km/h increment in a stunning 6.8 seconds in the manual, 7.2 seconds in the auto, and goes on to a top speed of 240 km/h.
And don't forget, because it's a turbo just about all this power is available at the Reef, where its BMW 330i competitor is gasping for breath in the rarified high altitude which gives 17% power loss to non-turbo cars.
S40 2.5 T5 manual R265 000; automatic R275 000.
Volvo SA managing director Jacques Brent told me these prices could potentially stay unchanged for the rest of the year, and certainly for three to 6 months.
"We are going to try to hold on as long as possible at these prices, as long as the rand stays within a 10 to 15% swing," he said.
Initial supplies of the new car will be limited by importation restrictions, so sales are expected to stay around the 180 to 200 a month mark. However, when local manufacture starts later this year this is expected to increase, and from November sales are expected to jump to around 500 a month, on a par with the Audi A4.
The all-new Volvo S40 replaces the current S40 that was launched internationally in 1995 and made its South African debut in 1997. It will be the entry model in Volvo's S-range, which in addition consists of the larger Volvo S60 and S80 models.
From the outside, the S40 follows the "four-door" coupe styling of the S60 and S80 big brothers, including the strong nose treatment and the chopped-off tail with big and bold tail-lights.
Like the others the S40 has a strong swathe cut at the rear ¾ view, giving the S40 an unmistakable look unlike anything else on the market.
Although it's 48 mm shorter than the car it replaces, the new S40 has a longer wheelbase, is 54 mm wider, and has a transversely-mounted engine, allowing cabin space almost on a par with the S60 - itself a leader in its class.
But it's the interior, which thrills us the most.
"The centre console is a design icon for the new Volvo S40," says Henrik Otto, design director at Volvo Car.
The most distinctive new feature is the afore-mentioned centre stack that links the tunnel console with the instrument panel.?
This is an entirely new solution in the car industry, specially developed for the new S40 and previewed recently in the Volvo VCC (Versatility Concept Car).
The controls in the centre stack have an ergonomic and functional design. The top half of the control panel is used to operate the audio system and the integrated phone, while the lower half controls the climate system.
Behind the centre stack is a practical storage compartment for personal items, easily accessible from both sides, and out of sight of smash-and-grab thieves.
Another unique feature is IDIS - the Intelligent Driver Information System.
In effect a virtual secretary, the system helps the driver avoid being distracted while driving.
When the traffic situation requires the driver's full attention and concentration, for example when overtaking or braking, signals from the optional integrated GSM telephone and certain peripheral information are delayed until the situation is calmer.
IDIS is standard in all versions of the all-new Volvo S40, irrespective of whether or not the car is fitted with the optional integrated phone.
New textile seat materials are used on the 2.4i, with leather as an option, while the T5 gets leather as standard.
Features include climate control aircon, electric windows and mirrors, a powerful sound system with front-loader CD player and cassette/radio, and remote locking.
The steering column is adjustable for tilt and reach, while the driver's seat is adjustable for height as well as rake and reach; there's electric adjustment on the T5.
The dashboard is plain, emphasising the beauty of that centre stack, and instrumentation comprises speedo and revcounter plus water temperature and fuel gauges in a binnacle right in front of the driver.
The rear seats feature a fold and split option, and there's a big boot with easy access.
The T5 also gets a small boot spoiler and front foglights.
Under the bodywork a wider track than its predecessor and the longer wheelbase places the wheels closer to the corners. This - coupled with a torsionally more rigid body, redesigned components all-round and new suspension technology and geometry adds to outstanding stability and exemplary handling on the road.
The S40 is in fact built on the same floorpan as the next generation ford Focus - itself an acknowledged leader in handling dynamics - but modified and refined to suit Volvo's target characteristics.
The suspension is independent all round, with spring struts at the front and a multilink system at the rear. The rear suspension provides a certain degree of passive steering to counteract any tendency to skid.
The 2.4i comes standard with STC (Stability and Traction Control) anti-spin system and
DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control), which is standard on the T5 and corrects the car's progress and poise if there is any sign of it starting to skid.
The car has extremely powerful ABS brakes - with electronic brake-force distribution to the rear wheels and automatic panic-braking assistance, EBA (Emergency Brake Assistance).
In Volvo tradition the S40 has extremely high safety levels - both protective and preventive.
This includes WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System), SIPS (Side Impact Protection System), side-impact airbags and inflatable curtains.
On the road
We drove the new cars on the tight and twisty roads of Mpumalanga on a testing route between Nelspruit and Tzaneen, and came away panting for more!
The car is so absolutely neutral that I defy anyone to say it has "front-wheel drive" characteristics - in fact in one very tight corner (in the 2.4i) I managed to get the car deliciously sideways before correcting and powering on my way.
The T5, of course, would not have allowed that as the DSTC system would have done the correction by braking individual wheels to effect what I did manually.
What the car has done is to lift the ante as far as mid-sector luxury cars are concerned. It features a high degree of mechanical grip without having to resort to electronic aids to keep it on the island - in Volvo fashion, these can be regarded as more braces than belt.
Ride qualities are, as to be expected, extremely high, and I came away with a feeling that this is a comfortable, spacious and FUN car that's going to take the market by the scruff of the neck.
The all-new Volvo S40 is built at the Volvo Cars factory in Ghent, Belgium but production will switch to Ford's Silverton plant near Pretoria from around September onwards.
The S40 is the first in a range of new Volvo models sharing common technology. Next in line is the Volvo V50, a sports wagon that will reach the showrooms in the third quarter of 2004.