From its distinctive design to its straightforward marketing, Volvo always has been about substance — not flash.

So why would this traditionally Swedish auto maker use trendy Los Angeles as the backdrop for the introduction of its new '04½ S40? Because the car is unlike Volvos of the past.

There's still a focus on safety, and it carries traditional Volvo styling cues, but this car marks a significant milestone for Volvo Car in terms of exterior and interior styling.

On the outside, the S40 features more rounded shapes that fall in line with the S80, the flagship that displayed Volvo's intention to renounce its boxy sheet metal origins. The flagship's styling, in fact, was the template for the new S40.

In terms of overall dimensions, the S40 is 1.9 ins. (4.8 cm) shorter, 2.1 ins. (5.3 cm) wider and 1.7 ins. (4.3 cm) taller than the car it replaces.

Among its signature features are the short front and rear overhangs and V-shape contour of the hood. The car's taut form gives it an athletic look.

The styling is typically Scandinavian, says Al Briscoe, exterior designer for the S40.

“With Scandinavian forms, less is more,” he says. “We have taken away some features we thought would clutter some of the nice lines on the car.” Briscoe and his team also paid close attention to the S40's rear fascia, crafted with a family resemblance to the S80 and S60.

Inside is where the S40 excels, thanks to the slim center stack that resembles a flat-screen television.

In most vehicles, the center stack consists of a large plastic housing for audio system components. In the S40, Volvo engineers moved the audio hardware to the trunk and used multiplexing to allow switches and knobs on the center stack to control the audio and climate systems.

The result is added space behind the center stack that can be used for storing cell phones, purses, etc. The ultra-slim center stack also looks pretty darn cool.

In designing the center stack, interior stylists wanted to mimic the side profile of Swedish wooden chairs, while taking cues from electronic remote controls for its facing.

When the S40 debuted at the Frankfurt auto show last year, Volvo designers were proud to see their competitors at Audi AG fawning over the car. One of the Audi designers, as a Volvo insider tells it, asked, “When does this (center stack) design go into production?” thinking it was a concept.

They were flabbergasted to learn it would be on sale within months.

They should be. Even though the feature has no safety or fuel-saving benefit, it is a clever touch that makes the S40 stand out.

The rest of the interior is tastefully done as well, with the instrument cluster featuring two round gauges, surrounded by metal trim. The use of innovative fabrics, including the new soft, sporty T-Tec upholstery, projects a youthful flare.

The interior is comprised of a number of layers. The first features an edge trim that runs along the side windows and windshield. The second layer includes the instrument panel, which features a clean layout and uses texture for a more contemporary look, as opposed to traditional leather.

Below the surface, the S40 benefits from a unique crash structure developed specifically for the car, dubbed VIVA (Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture).

The structure protects occupants in the event of a collision via three grades of steel used in strategic locations. The unique setup is not shared with the S40's platform mates, the Mazda3 and Ford Focus C-Max.

Volvo's focus on safety does not make the new S40 boring. Quite the opposite. Chassis planners focused on making the car a spirited performer, even in base trim.

The suspension is fully independent, with spring struts at the front and a multilink system at the rear. The rear suspension was designed to provide a certain degree of passive steering to counteract any tendency to skid.

The tuning of the suspension provides a balance between sporty handling during aggressive driving and the surefootedness needed in everyday commutes.

The all-new S40 comes with a standard 2.4L 5-cyl. or optional 2.5L 5-cyl. with a light-pressure turbocharger.

The 2.4L produces 168 hp at 6,000 rpm and 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm. The turbocharged 2.5L produces 218 hp at 5,000 rpm and 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque at 1,500 to 4,800 rpm.

The base 2.4L is available with either a standard 5-speed manual or optional 5-speed automatic gearbox with manual operation. The turbocharged 2.5L T5 receives a base 6-speed manual transmission derived from the gearbox used in the S60 R and V70 R.

Our testing was limited to the 2.4L. Even in California's higher elevations, this sedan showed its spunky side, especially with the manual. The shifting was effortless.

But the automatic disappoints. It is clunky and frequently hunts for the right gear. During a drive through the mountains, the S40's automatic is uncertain and less engaging.

Push the throttle to the floor and it hesitates too long. Throw the transmission into manual mode and the S40 performs a bit better, but only marginally.

Bottom line: The S40 is a true competitor for Audi and the rest of the European entry-luxury pack, but Volvo's attempt at building a spirited, yet affordable, machine is apparent only with the manual transmission on the base package.

The new S40 begins at $24,190 for the base 2.4i, while the higher output T5 model with its 2.5L 5-cyl. carries a base price of $26,990.

2004 Volvo S40 T

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan

Engine: 2.4L (2,435 cc) DOHC I-5, aluminum block/aluminum head

Power (SAE net): 168 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) @ 1,500-4,800 rpm

Compression ratio: 10.3:1

Bore x Stroke (mm): 83 × 93

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Wheelbase: 103.9 ins. (280 cm)

Overall length: 175.8 ins. (456 cm)

Overall width: 69.6 ins. (185 cm)

Overall height: 57.4 ins. (168 cm)

Curb weight: 3,084 lbs. (1,400 kg)

Market competition: Acura TSX; Audi A4; Volkswagen Passat