Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Volvo S40

I’ve been on Long Island all week, which is closer to where I’m usually located but still counts as travelling because I haven’t even gone into Manhattan so far, and that means another rental car. I like renting through Enterprise because they’re cheap and frequently give me a free upgrade. I won’t risk driving an “economy” car because life is short and there’s no reason to make it shorter, but I reserve the compact unless I’ve got a very good reason to reserve something else. This week’s car was the Volvo S40.

The S40’s a funny car. As I understand it, it’s Volvo’s entry to the sporty sedan class. What it really is, essentially, is a fast(ish) luxury car. It’s got a leather interior, power everything, heated seats, tilt wheel, etc. etc., largish wheels, and smallish tires. I think it’s front-wheel drive, though. Certainly handles like it. This one has a “geartronic” transmission, which is a really funny transmission. It’s an automatic transmission, but you can yank the shifter into another gate on the right that locks you into the current gear, whatever it is, and allows you to instruct the car to shift up or down. However, the car will still shift up if the engine gets close to redline, or down if it’s close to a stall. I haven’t had it on any roads where I could push it – I’ve basically been driving in traffic – but my understanding is that it’s a system that you can use to keep it from shifting during a curve. However, if I want the car to shift, all I can really do is make my desire known and then wait for it to decide it feels like doing it. It took several seconds between when I used the shifter and when the transmission got around to doing something about it. So the feature looks more sporty, but doesn’t go all the way.

The reason I devote a whole paragraph to the transmission, aside from the fact that it’s the first time I’ve used one like that, is that the car in general is like the transmission. It looks a little more aggressive than most of Volvo’s line, but aside from some vibration that I think is due to the larger wheels and lower-profile tires, it’s a smooth but fairly pedestrian ride. At least the sound system was a little better than the one in my Forester, but I had more fun with my last rental, a Chevy Cobalt.

The other complaint I have about the Volvo is I never did find a seat position I really liked. It’s like they stuck a sporty seat in a family car – I tipped the steering wheel down as far as it would go without obstructing my view of the instrument panel much, but it was still too high for where the seat is. Maybe all Swedes have fat thighs. Didn’t like the pedals much either – the throw was too long and the resistance was too light, so I couldn’t leave my heel in one place on the floor and just move my toe, so driving was more work than I like it to be, at least in that respect. Visibility out the back and sides isn’t great either.

Some cars are supposed to be like a shaved gorilla in a suit. This one is more like a poodle in a leather jacket. And it’s clearly a Banana Republic leather jacket.

In figuring out what, exactly, the geartronic was, and finding it was what I thought it was, I also did a little more reading about semi-automatic and clutchless manual transmissions. That’s what I want in my next car. And it could weigh about two thousand pounds less…

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