Julia’s Rotten Rental Car Review: 2011 Volvo S40

Sometimes, in the right place and at the right time, something relatively mundane and ordinary can transcend ordinary and jump straight to hilariously entertaining.

Yes, you read right. I’m back again after a long hiatus with another review from rental car hell, or, in this case, rental car nirvana. You wouldn’t think that a Volvo S40 could inspire such a strong statement, but I guess I need to unpack that a little more.

Those of you who know me know that I drive a GTI. I love the hell out of that car, but when I was searching for a car, I had briefly considered going the Volvo way. I had, at the time, determined that I would need 4WD, given that I now live in Wisconsin, and I had an inkling that a Swedish WRX (read: S40 T5 with AWD and a 6-speed manual, not an actual Swedish WRX, like the Saab 9-2X) could be just what I was looking for. I was told, however, that the car didn’t come with a four wheel drive system anymore and that was that. No longer interested, I then proceeded to completely ignore my own requirements and bought my GTI.

As a result, when I saw the white S40 sitting in the lot that night, it felt weirdly like a homecoming of sorts. Sure, it was an auto, but it was an interesting chance to see what could have been. In the end I was not disappointed.

When I choose the cars I rent (when I get to choose, that is), it’s usually contingent on my mood. Some days, I want something sporty. Other days, I just want something comfortable, with a good stereo if possible. In this case, I’d just worked four fourteen hour days in a row and was about to work three more. I had a two hour drive to my hotel and the project site, and so I just wanted something comfortable. Anything on top of that would have been gravy.

The S40 proved a surprisingly competent highway cruiser. Winding it up to about 85, it was quiet except for a low thrum from the engine and totally planted. The perfect tool for a high-speed blast up the Florida coast before I passed out from exhaustion. The seats were well-bolstered, and were damn comfortable to boot. The best seats I’ve ever sat in were Volvo seats (S60R), and while these weren’t that good, they came close. The stereo was pretty damn good, and say what you want to say about the weirdness of the Volvo floating center console, it looked pretty damn good and was built like a brick shithouse. You could tell that despite a life as a rental car, this car was going to last.

It wasn’t until the next day that I really discovered the S40’s party trick: that engine. Oh my word, that engine…gruff, throaty, eager to rev. What a blast. Bringing it up to 2800 revs just to hear the turbo start whistling and kick you in the back was an absolute blast, for lack of a better word. The handling and dampening, while definitely a shade less sharp and tight than my VW, was surprisingly sporty and held up very well when I found a nice twisty road by the beach.

Other drivers saw a lot of this when the turbo spooled up.

About the only fly in the ointment, in my opinion, was the automatic. As good as the other parts of the car were, the transmission almost managed to drag it down to mediocrity. In auto mode, it was competent, but occasionally hunted, especially when accelerating. In manual mode, though, it was hilariously outmatched by any attempts to shift gear. In practice, when you accelerated and tried to change gear to keep the turbo on the boil, continents would shift, the human race would die out, the world would be overtaken by sentient creatures resembling dogs, and then the car would shift into third. I started counting time between gearshifts and found that the shifts literally took seconds at the worst. By the time I returned the car, I had managed to train the transmission to shift a little bit faster, but shifts still required noticeable lead time.

The Volvo’s floating dash, complete with weird behind-dash cubbyhole 

In the end, though, it was the coast of Florida. What hurry could I have possibly been in? When I adapted my driving to the car’s laid-back style, it proved a really entertaining drive. In retrospect, would I have taken it over my GTI? Nope, not without a manual and maybe some aftermarket sports suspension. Would I have been happy with it, though? Yeah, almost definitely. What this car makes me think, though, is how lucky enthusiasts like us would be if they actually brought the Focus ST, with its sportier chassis and apparently excellent six-speed, to the US. Or at least mated the two. Now that would make all of the yuppies think twice about getting themselves a 3 series.

Rating: 1.25 trash cans out of five. The wonky transmission keeps the car from smelling completely rosy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 64 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here