Pedigreed (Wheels, Australia, August 1997)

May 20, 2013 | Magazine Articles

They’re medium four-doors, a little exxy but that’s because they’re European and therefore, somehow, just… better. Right? MIKE McCARTHY decides

What does the S40 mean to the mid-market Euro-four class? Bare knuckles at dawn!

Though comparatively minor players on the local stage, leading Euros have significance beyond their numbers. After all, Europe was motoring's womb, crib and heartland and, in the minds of many, its cars are again a viable alternative (indeed, the viable alternative) to less pedigreed products from elsewhere.

The point to grasp is that more than other cars from other places, Eurocars live or die largely on the perception that their quality is bespoke, their integrity ingrained and their value intrinsically, oh, just better.

All of which applies in spades to the upper middleclassers gathered here the Audi A4 1.8, Peugeot 406 ST, Saab 900S and, of course, the conquesting Volvo S40.

While these are birds of a feather in size and price, it's not even remotely coincidental that they're also European; one each from France, Germany and Sweden, while the S40 is Swedish by design and Dutch by birth. That not only says something about what these cars are, but also to which market segment they gravitate.

Generally, mid-size Japanese fours' prices range from high 20s to mid 30s. Even the aspirational 626 and Accord do most business in the 30-something bracket.

Equivalent Euros, however, effectively start at $40K, and go up from there. That's the price of perception, though a wondering perusal of closer price proximities overseas might suggest other forces influence outcomes in Oz.

Be that as it may, there's no denying the A4, 406, 900 and S40 are European to the point of exclusivity. It shows; not just in prices but equally in their presentation and sense of presence. They get noticed.

Admired. Style and standing are their calling cards. Yet, while individuality is another of the Euros' assets, they preach the almost universal mid-size, front-drive formula.

Aside from offering mainstream four-door sedans, the A4 and S40 already have wagon siblings here, as does the 406 overseas. Only Saab strays from the flock because the 900 is a liftback, with three or five doors, either way combining the deportment of a sedan with the wagon-like cargo capacity. The 900's valiant is convertible. Literally.

Appearances apart, the four rivals aren't dissimilar in size and specification. There's only 1 50mm between the longest wheelbase (406) and the shortest (S40). The Audi and Volvo almost dead-heat for shortest length overall, which is within 160mm of the longest (Saab). There's little in it for overall width and nothing much in height, either.

And if you think they're closely matched already, wait till it gets to picking a winner.

Prices, Equipment

Everything considered, there's no getting around the fact they're still on the exxy side.

But that's the way things are, and it's just another Euroquirk that has to be liked or lumped. Or not.

The comparatively good news is that the 406 ST costs less than 40 grand. Just. The manual 406 lists at $39,995 inclusive of air conditioning, dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, heated minors, electric windows, engine immobiliser and the usual power assistances for steering and brakes. In those respects the Pug parallels its peers. It alone has a rear sunblind, but shares Audi's rear foglight and Saab's remote central locking.

The test 406 lacked Peugeot's optional $1800 sunroof but carried $700 metallic paint and $1350 alloy wheels, taking the bottom line to $42,045. If you insist on ease over acceleration, Peugeot charges $2500 extra for auto trans, versus Volvo's $2000 impost, Saab's $2100 and Audi's $2150.

The S40 has the group's second lowest basic price at $42,950. At that, the Volvo's cupboard is by no means skint in offering dual bags plus side bags, air-con, lumbar adjustment for both buckets, integrated rear child seats and virtually everything else its rivals possess except adjustable headrests. However, the test S40 came with the $4000 SE pack: leather trim, climate control, polished woodwork, alloys, cruise and 10-disc CD stacker. With this bit of kit aboard, the S40 asks $46,950. But that's not necessarily the end of it, because Volvo gladly indulges Oliver Twists. The S40 offers many other tempting morsels including $740 metallic paint, $575 traction control, $1100 trip computer, $2000 sunroof and $1890 self-levelling suspension.

Were this 900S the 2.0 five-door, the tag would read $42,300. Or $36,900 for the base-engine three-door. However, we got the 2.3 which costs $45,900 with all the usual fare and fittings, plus exclusives such as heated seats, trip computer, remote hatch release and cruise control as standard. Metallic paint is a freebie. Aside from the test car's $500 child seats, 900S main options consist of a $2490 sunroof, $2950 leather upholstery, and $2500 memoried power adjustable driver's seat. 2.0 litre versions also offer the 2.3's anti-theft system as a $500 option.

The A4 begins with the group's highest basic price of $46,800 and a seemingly arcane choice of features. The group's only extra instruments, standard climate control air-con and two-way wheel adjustment are provided, yet seatback map pockets, folding rear backrest and three-point centre rear belt don't make the grid. The A4 shows corporate stance as the $49,170 SE (manual) which brings leather trim, alloys and 10-disc CD stacker. Either way, you can add metallic paint (SI250), sunroof (S2950), walnut accents ($1250) and cruise ($990).

Audi A4 1.8 ***
Peugeot 406 ST ****
Saab 900S ***½
Volvo S40 ****

Accommodation

A4's cabin is more formal than the other three and perhaps a degree less welcoming.

The interior has fine style but no cheer because everything below window level is portrayed in broodingly dark tones. The trim fabric has the look and feel of a service drill material; top quality drill no doubt, but far from plush.

The well shaped seats are emphatically firm. Very comfortable in the long run we believe, but they ought to be inviting for short runs, too. That's no fault of the driving position, though, because the wide-ranging seat and wheel adjustments maximise the possibilities.

The 406 encapsulates a lot of what's attractive in Eurodesign, and a little that's not. High class from its touchy-feely fabrics to its well matched tones and the gracious lines of its elements, the 406's cabin is a pleasure to view and to use. The buckets have really good backrests, compromised only by the short cushion's rolled leading edge being too pronounced.

The S40's cabin is neat and tidy, yet so archly conservative and flatly grey (or, alternatively, beige) that it says nought about 'new' and' Nineties'. Except to Volvo volks. The buckets make very good first impressions but with familiarity prove a shade soft and their lumbar adjustment hasn't quite the scope some might wish. In brisk driving the optional leather's slipperiness negates much of the benefit of the seat shape. The standard plush velour would be our choice.

The Saab's driving position is noticeably taller and more upright and, even at its lowest, is further from the floor than the others at their crests. Medium padded, the Saab buckets are amply supportive for cruising but the sides are too shallow for security in hard cornering. Get the backrest angle exactly where you want it before departure; the adjuster wheel is almost inaccessible when the door's shut.

Nice as the other wheels are, the Pug's is even more amenable and has the neatest little airbagged boss. Sans horn button, which is on the turn/dip stalk which comes unchanged from lhd Eurodrive mode; same as the others, which is no excuse. Once found, the French horn is powerfully strident, unlike the Volvo's effete beeper.

The A4's extra gauges are welcome, unlike the oppressively red night lighting. The Volvo's dials display graphically at night when their bold markings are clearly fingered by fluoro needles. But S40's small, murky trip and odo meters lack contrast and defy speed reading.

The 900S 2.3 features Saab's excellent black-out panel, wherein everything except the speedo is extinguished unless other information need be imparted. Saab's taste for the unusual runs to odd-numbered speedo markings and its traditional on-tunnel ignition switch. Its laudable attention to detail includes widely directional facia outlets. Peugeot, please note. Standard cruise is a plus, though not when it drifts on gradients, as Saab's does.

In the rear-seating category, the A4 is hard pressed to impress. The bench is sternly flat and firm, its kneeroom seriously short. However, the sculpted rear cushion is reasonably supportive in ride and cornering. There's a little less headspace than in the Saab and a little more than in the 406 and S40 which have just enough.

Group leader for rear kneeroom and footspace, the 406 has a very good back bench. Besides being supportively comfortable, except at the cutaway outermost corners, it's augmented by rear shelf sunblind and oddments bin, plus door and map pockets like the Volvo and Saab.

The Volvo runs the 406 close in rear seating, except for noticeable narrowness and a bit shorter leg length. Praise for the inbuilt pop-up kiddy seats of course. The leather is a loser through the twisty bits.

Even with its high cushion, the Saab has the most headroom. The seat itself is restfully supportive in all respects. Kneeroom is similar to 406 and S40, but rear width and toe space are only adequate.

The Saab's boot takes top spot for capacity, versatility and low loading. The Audi's boot is cubic, but that's all, and the untrimmed bulkhead looks rude. The 406's boot is not only large but offers a ski port with the folding backrest which, unlike the Saab's, is split for convenience. Volvo includes an oddments net and an adjustable security strap.

Audi A4 1.8 ***
Peugeot 406 ST ****
Saab 900S ***½
Volvo S40 ****

Performance

These cars show there's no menage a trois between perception, price and performance.

As performers, these Euros make better cruisers than bruisers, since they get along satisfactorily once wound up, but are in no special hurry to do so. If the Saab looks like being an exception to that rule, thanks to cracking mid-nines and 17 straight for the 0-100km/h and 400m respectively, remember that this is the 2.3 engine, not the general-issue 2.0. At max, the smaller lump has 14kW and 33Nm less than the 2.3. From experience, the smaller Saab's standing-start performance is very close to the Valva S40's, unlike the laggardly response in the gears.

To avoid comparing oranges with lemons, we've recalled manual A4 figures from an earlier (Nov '95) report. That's because we received an auto A4 for this test - which needed 12.7sec for 0-100 and 18.7sec for the 400m. The A4's classmate autos have no reason to gloat.

Modest as the manual A4's standing-start sprint may be, the Peugeot manages to display even slightly less spirit and lets its rival creep ahead. On that basis, the standing-start honours aren't so much won as inherited by the Valva which at least feels as though it's stirring into action. But at the end of the adventure, the Saab 2.3's clear lead over the field on dry roads reaffirms that, when you've gotta go, there's no substitute for cubes. Even if it has you despairing for electronic traction control as the front tyres scrabble for grip on damp roads.

A pity, then, that the 900S doesn’t hold its end up when urgent rolling response is summoned. Instead of showing its rivals the way when floored in the gears, the Saab loses impetus and becomes the group’s tail-end Charlie. There’s no more graphic measure of the 2.3’s inability to overpower 3, 4 and 5's arrogantly tall gearing than to note that it falls behind even the -1-06 through most in-gear increments.

The Pug scores tolerably well for tractability because, when floored from 40, it also gets the jump on the Audi in third and fourth from low to middling speeds. After that, the A4 hits its stride to show the 406 and 900S its tail lights. That's all any of them see of the Volvo in third. It draws ahead from low to middling speeds in fourth and fifth, too, but isn't quite as quick through the upper registers where it cedes some increments to the Audi and/or Peugeot.

Given that these cars' performances hover no higher than average, it has to be said that they're battling to live up to their specifications. Each, after all, has a contemporarily high-tech engine with twincam heads and l11ultiivalve combustion chambers. Saab includes contra-rotating balancing shafts, but now that solid-state ignition systems are the norm it's unusual to find a mechanical distributor directing the sparks.

The Audi in particular pushes the engineering (and marketing) envelope by employing five valves per cylinder. To what practical effect? As the smallest engine here, with least power and torque regardless, the A4's specific output is 51.6kW per litre. Not bad next to the Pug's 50.5 and the Saab's 48, but kept in context by the Volvo's 52.8.

A significant part of the performance equation rests with these cars being fairly heavy. Even the lightest, the S40 and A4, tip the scales at just over 1220kg while the Peugeot is a husky 1315kg and Saab cites nearly 1345kg, within a cement bag or two of a Commodore. Thus the Volvo enjoys a comparatively favourable power-to-weight handicap of ll.8kg per kW, against the Saab's 12.2, the Pug's 13.1 and the Audi's 13.3. With 200km/h+ top speeds, these cars are more than fast enough, even for the enlightened NT. The Saab would crib a few clicks more if geared not quite so highly in fifth. But its long legged ratios at least support effortlessly brisk highway cruising, where the others can feel (and sound, in the A4 especially) a bit busy.

The 406 isn't high geared in first, but feels so because a dearth of torque when coming off idle prompts the use of more revs than usual to avoid stalling. The 406's shift is notchy from slot to slot, and the lever moves rubberily whenever you go or whoa. Usually, the synchros don't rate a second thought, but can be beaten if the lever's rushed into second and third.

In contrast, the Saab's synchros are unbeatable, which is a good thing since fast changes from first to second to third can almost feel power-assisted as the lever springs out of one slot and into the next. Also, the 900's next-to-fourth lift-up reverse lockout is much easier to use than the Volvo's which is slightly heavy and awkward. Though the Volvo's shift has the same quality as the others, running up and down through the gate you notice that it clicks on each change.

As an auto, the A4 was obviously at a disadvantage for fuel consumption, yet managed a not unreasonable 10.6 L/100km while in convoy with the manual rivals. For reference, the stickshift A4 averaged 9.6, which is entirely competitive with rival results this time.

The heavier/faster Saab was thirstiest of the manual trio and averaged almost 10.2 over the test's 1000km. The Peugeot came home on 9.7, while the Volvo posted a convincing win by averaging 9.3 after recording the most economical performance throughout. Don't forget, though, that in each case performance and economy must be viewed through the discolouring tinge of PULP.

Audi A4 1.8 ***
Peugeot 406 ST ***
Saab 900S ***½
Volvo S40 ****

On The Road

These cars can come to a halt so emphatically it's like smoko time at the wharf.

They brake strongly and straight, without squirming. Three have nicely progressive pedals. Though the original A4's hair-trigger pedal has been mollified somewhat, it still is over-boosted and easily applies more braking than the driver intends.

The opposite is true of the 5aab's steering which is slower than a wet weekend, especially when doughy understeer is dialled in. Thus the 9005 always needs much more 'wheel' than the others for given manoeuvres. Medium weighting is one of its few attractions. The 9005 claims to turn even tighter than the 540, but we found it's closer to the A4.

The Volvo complements its crisp turning circle with a laudably quick steering ratio. Add a direct connection between wheel and road and you have steering that goes one to one with the driver. However, the weighting is too light for absolute conviction, and the rim receives no real feel for the road. That's a beauty of the 406's steering. Also medium weighted, the 406's wheel has nicely tactile feel that keeps letting the driver know he's in communication. Which compensates for the fact that this isn't the quickest steering around, nor the tightest turning.

A4's steering is a touch firm-ish for parking, then lightens comfortably when the needle's off the stop. The car steers well bur the wheel jitters busily over mid-corner bumps. The feedback isn't flattering, but may be taken as proof that the fairly direct and well connected system isn't over-damped.

Handling very capably, the A4 chassis is well balanced and sits securely. Responding promptly co the wheel, it's a car always poised on its toes, ready and willing co change direction. Cornering with serious intent, the Audi points pretty much where steered, and doesn't invoke pushy understeer unless over-driven.

The A4's generally firm ride is skilled at ironing small bumps with almost fluidly supple wheel travel. It deals very effectively with larger disturbances too, albeit with some bump-thump from the tyres and an occasional smack from the suspension.

Even if the 406 didn't distinguish itself in other ways, its chassis is a bit special. Hurried into corners, the Pug turns purposefully, rolls moderately and settles securely. Finely balanced with both ends working in concert, its handling is characterised by benignly understeery attitudes and the ability co change line easily.

The 406's ride has sufficient pliancy to blot bumps and skim the dips. Though two-wheel holes and sharp ridges try ruining its composure, their passing is sensed rather than felt. Great wheel control over ripples and bumps leaves the 406 unmoved where the others fidget or shy offline.

Lithe and lively the S40 may be, for a Volvo, you won't confuse it for a sports chassis. On smooth roads it handles competently and rounds corners with elan, but loses authority when bends turn bumpy. It's on rough roads also that the S40's suspension lacks the Pug's ride control or noise suppression. The body rolls freely, especially when the turn is suddenly tightened, at which the nose kneels and the usually modest understeer turns piggy.

After the others, the Saab's chassis immediately seems altogether less able, less cooperative. Perhaps the absent driver's footrest is a Freudian slip; as if the nose-heavy handling isn't clue enough. Running with its rivals, the Saab's turn-in is lethargic, often seeming to require more wheel than the other three combined.

Hard cornering brings major understeer and the inability to apply new directions or corrections as readily as its peers. When pressed in any sense, Saab's chassis feels more dozy than dynamic. Good in parts, its ride soaks up the nasties and isn't fazed by rough stuff, but is constantly busy witnessing every irregularity. Tyre noise is noticeable and, on uneven roads, the rear passengers hear the hatch moving on its seals.

Audi A4 ***
Peugeot 406 ST ****
Saab 900S **
Volvo S40 ***

Conclusion

Sweet chassis puts Peugeot at the head of a close quartet.

1. An elegant car is the 406, in every respect. And priced to put its rivals in perspective. Yet at first sight, and even at first drive, the 406 is hardly an obvious and self-proclaiming winner.

However, the more time spent with the Pug, the more its winning ways rise to the top of the broth. Though stronger performance would be a blessing, and minor irritants such as the horn button, front cushions, clutch pedal and vent outlets may rub the wrong way, the package as a whole is outstanding in its drivability, habitability and the depth of its refinement.

What the 406 does may be quite ordinary, but how it does it makes all the difference. ****

2. A revelation for Volvo perhaps, but just another contemporary car to the rest of the vvorld, the S40 comes within a hair's breadth of beating the cream. of the (Euro) crop. The compact Swede is pretty impressive in general; nicely styled, efficiently packaged, fairly well built and equipped. Side airbags and built-in kiddy seats, and Volvo's renowned safety sense, reinforces the S40's cause.

Though the engine turns brusque when revved high and hard, its performance is willing, its economy thrifty. For the undemanding, the S40 also drives well, its steering, brakes, ride and handling putting it among the front-runners. But, for want of a bit more refinement, not right out front. ****

3. The A4 is battling to justify the group's highest price. No complaints about the body styling and build quality of course, though the interior's gloomy presentation is off-putting to some, as is the seats' strict firmness. The packaging falls short in rear legroom, and no throughput to the boot is a liability. The engine isn't necessarily a prize either. For all its enthusiasm and rampant technology, the engine's 1.8 litre capacity is a bit borderline for big-country cruising. Nippy around town and fine on the flat, it must be rowed with the gears and throttle to wring competitive performance on hills and/ or when laden. One can enjoy the A4's chassis to the hilt, but that hardly seems enough against rivals offering more. For less. ***½

4. The Saab 900S 2.3 would head the list if five-door practicality and versatility rated above all else, and Saab's out-of-the-rut individuality drew the value it deserves. In terms of its accommodation, the 900S is a car that works for and with the occupants. There are details like the high-mounted door handles, the doors' generous handholds, the centre-mounted ignition switch, the black-out instruments, and the foolproof audio and HVAC controls that say Saab has tried hard to make the 900S more than just another car. Unfortunately those erstwhile efforts were unable to penetrate the Opel-based chassis. So the 900S ends up as a good thing in great need of competitive steering and handling. ***

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