Volvo is well known for its excellent work in vehicle safety, but the company isn't as well regarded when it comes to environmentally friendly motoring. That perception could soon change, however, with the launch of the £17,995 Volvo S40 Drive -- one of a selection of Drive vehicles that promises CO2 emissions of just 99g/km, and exemption from road tax and the London congestion charge.
Slide and ride
The S40 Drive is something of a contradiction. It's marketed as an environmentally friendly vehicle, yet it's powered by a diesel engine -- a type of motor that isn't always regarded as very clean. That's being kind, in fact -- diesels are despised among eco-friendly motorists because they spit out more NOx, SOx and CO2 emissions into our environment than their petrol-powered rivals.
Volvo's tried to reduce engine emissions, however, by making the S40 Drive more aerodynamically efficient, thus reducing the amount of work its engine has to do to get the car moving. The S40 Drive is 10mm lower than the standard S40, has air-flow deflectors moulded into the body ahead of the front wheels, and has a lower lip spoiler at the front, all of which makes it slip through the air more easily. Volvo has also fitted low-rolling-resistance Michelin tyres that glide more smoothly over the surface of the road.
There's plenty of eco-minded wizardry under the bonnet too. The S40 Drive comes with a start-stop system that shuts the engine off when the car is at a standstill, and restarts it again when the clutch is lifted. The company has also optimised the S40 Drive's engine and gearbox-management software to favour fuel economy over performance, and introduced a gear-change indicator on the dashboard that reminds the driver when to shift up a gear.
Volvo has equipped the S40 Drive with eco-friendly electro-hydraulic steering too. This works much like standard hydraulic systems, but uses a pump driven by an electric motor instead of a pump that's belt-driven by the engine.
Combined, the aforementioned tweaks help reduce the burden on the engine, which increases fuel economy and lowers emissions. The S40 Drive achieves an impressive 74.3mpg, which is on a par with the very best hybrids.
Its CO2 emissions are low, too. Just 99g of the stuff is emitted per kilometre, meaning the car qualifies for free road tax and is exempt from the London congestion charge. What's less clear is the exact amount of NOx and SOx emissions it produces, compared to its petrol-powered rivals.
Handle with flair
Economically efficient cars are rarely fun to drive, but the S40 Drive is surprisingly agile. Its 1.6-litre, 115bhp engine is a keen performer, capable of propelling the car from a standstill to 60mph in 11.4 seconds. It'll never worry a Nissan GT-R in a straight-line race, but the S40 Drive will claw back some ground on twisty roads, as it handles remarkably well.
The car offers astounding levels of grip, despite its low-rolling-resistance tyres. You really have to be trying, even on a damp road, to induce understeer. There's a distinct lack of feedback through the steering wheel, so it's difficult to tell when the car will lose traction, but this shouldn't present a problem, as the S40 Drive is equipped with an electronic stability control system that kicks in to prevent the car getting out of shape.
Cabin tech fever
There S40 Drive has an adequate, if hardly mind-blowing, list of cabin tech features. Our test car came with the 'premium sound' package, which includes an RDS radio, an MP3 and WMA-compatible CD player, USB and aux inputs in the centre arm rest, and 12 separate speakers, including one mounted centrally on the dashboard. It isn't the worst audio set-up we've heard, but neither is it anywhere near the best.
The S40 Drive's satellite-navigation system, which folds out of the top of the dashboard, is relatively impressive. It lacks some of the advanced features seen on third-party systems, but seven-digit postcode entry makes it easy to find destinations without entering lengthy street names.
Oddly, Volvo supplies the S40 Drive with an infrared remote control that can be used to operate the sat-nav and stereo. It's clever, certainly, but there's very little point to it, unless you've got unusually short arms or you're extremely lazy.
The Volvo S40 Drive delivers excellent fuel economy, low CO2 emissions and is cheap to run. Unusually for an economical car, it's blessed with excellent handling and is an absolute blast to drive. We approve.
Edited by Charles Kloet