Volvo S40

Do premium badges and value for money really mix? Volvo argues that its S40 range delivers both. The family saloon has stylish design and a quality feel at a price in keeping with the likes of Ford and Volkswagen. At the same time, it promises the prestige of Audi or BMW.

As a refined, stylish and well built compact executive saloon that's good to drive, the 1.6-litre S40 is a wise choice. It also makes a refreshing and smart alternative to models from Audi and BMW. Although the 100bhp engine may appear to lack performance, it is capable and refined around town, and delivers an impressive 39mpg.

Do premium badges and value for money really mix? Volvo argues that its S40 range delivers both. The family saloon has stylish design and a quality feel at a price in keeping with the likes of Ford and Volkswagen. At the same time, it promises the prestige of Audi or BMW.

So does it live up to the hype? It's a tall order - especially for the new entry-level 1.6 model. The car's design is unmistakably Volvo, with the gentle slope of the front and rear windscreens giving the saloon a handsome shape. Even this base S model comes with 16-inch alloy wheels as standard, which complete the classy looks.

Settle into the driver's seat, and the smart design continues. All the instruments are clearly laid out, with the trademark 'floating' centre console housing the major controls.

As well as being practical, it lifts the whole interior, making it feel special compared to more conventional dashboards in rival models. The cabin is also very comfortable, with well sculpted seats providing excellent support for travelling over long distances.

Volvo's usual focus on safety means there are proper head restraints and three-point seatbelts for all five occupants. There's no shortage of equipment either - four electric windows, remote locking, climate control, six-speaker CD tuner and stability control all come as standard. And there's also a leather steering wheel and gearknob to enhance the driving experience.

With only 1.6 litres and 100bhp under the bonnet, the S40 is no sports saloon, although it performs surprisingly well. There are moments when more power would make life easier, but most of the time the petrol unit is quick enough to keep up with the traffic flow.

It's a refined engine, too, remaining tolerably quiet even at high revs. The benefit from the engine's low capacity is its frugal nature - 39mpg is impressive for a car of this size.

The fine-handling chassis helps you make the most of the modest power available. Sharing a platform with the Ford Focus means a sophisticated suspension set-up, which delivers a smooth ride that has the ability to shrug off bumps with ease. Throw it into a bend and the car remains controlled, with accurate and well weighted steering adding to the driving pleasure.

The clincher is the S40's value. For a little over £15,000, you get all the safety, convenience and ability of a bigger car, with the only downside the engine's unhurried performance. At this price, there are few rivals that can offer such a wide range of abilities.

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