The Volvo stereotype of rational squareness still has some substance, but the marque is moving on. John Simister uses the S40 T4 to make his point.

Doesn't look very square, does it? The Mondeo-sized (and Dutch-built) S40, and its tasteful-lifestyle estate sibling, the V40, are smooth, swoopy cars with tapering tails and rounded roofs. The "face" is still Volvoid, but the culture is changing.

The T4 is the S40 in macho mode: it has low suspension, fat wheels with fat tyres to match, extra bits of sporty greyness around the wheel-arches, an aerofoil across the bootlid, headlights with complex-surface reflectors and clear lenses - and a big, fat turbocharger.

This, of course, is the point. With the T4, you get 200bhp and, even better, 221lb ft of pulling power. That's despite an engine capacity that, oddly, is reduced from 2.0 litres to 1.9. A similar strangeness occurs with the prototypical bonkers Volvo, the S70 (formerly 850) T5, which has created a small cult among those who want to look sensible but be swift. The idea is that the T4 should do the same thing slightly lower down the size scale.

Unfortunately, the magic hasn't survived the downshift. The T5's engine spins sweetly and sounds wonderful; the T4 emits a dull drone enlivened only by the irritating sound of the turbocharger whistling up and down. And though there's plenty of power, its arrival is tardy.

Rather lifeless steering and handling also distance you from interacting with the Volvo; it grips hard, and has excellent brakes, but there's not much reward to be had for any skill and finesse.

Most T4 buyers will no doubt be pleased that the car comes with lower and stiffer suspension than the humbler S40. Trouble is, it thumps and fidgets over bumps instead of soaking them up.

So the T4 is not exciting enough to be truly sporty, or sophisticated enough to be an efficient executive toy like, say, a BMW 323i. The S40 breed is touted as a cut above a Mondeo or a Vectra, but its quality and detail design are still well short of the Audi and BMW approach.

Maybe the T4's biggest problem comes from within its own family. The 2.0T has just gone on sale, using a gentler turbocharger with "twin scroll technology" to reduce the response lag. It's not as fast, having a mere 160bhp to propel it (poor thing), but it's a great deal more satisfying to drive. If you like the idea of a quick S40, the 2.0T is the one to have.


Price: pounds 20,125 for the basic "platform" car. SE and CD trim packages, and a variety of option packs, add to the cost. Engine: 1,855cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 200bhp at 5,600rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 142mph, 0-60 in 7.7sec, 25-30mpg.


Alfa 156 2.5 V6: pounds 22,231. Gorgeous and a delight to drive. Best Alfa in years.

Audi A4 2.4: pounds 21,977. Solid, slickly sculpted package, good to drive.

BMW 323i: pounds 21,840. Benchmark thanks to looks, quality and six-cylinder engine.

VW Passat Syncro V6: pounds 23,995. Better built and better to drive than Volvo.

Volvo S40 2.0T: pounds 17,265. Smoother and more responsive than T4.