It’s mid-January, a Monday morning, 04:30am. I’m on my way to work and taking the back route – a series of sweeping corners, the odd hairpin and the odd wallaby on what can only be described as a goat track. The engine is warm, as is the air for this time of morning.
Fourth gear. I stab the throttle and shift back to third. Repeat to find second. Nailed it. Today is going to be a good day. Around the sharp left hairpin and the road rises steeply. I floor the throttle and hear the growl from the 2.0-litre inline four as extra fuel is pumped in. The tyres have no issues handling the power, as there isn’t too much of it! The engine clears its throat and the revs rise steadily to 3000 then 4000 rpm before a marked step up in power.
The little engine wasn’t designed for this but its doing its best to satisfy my inner child today.
Up and over the crest and I’m cruising at 80 km/h in fifth. A dangerous off-camber, sweeping right hander is coming up. It’s hard to see, so I’m looking intently. There are no guide posts, the lines have faded and the cats eyes have disappeared. That’s if they ever existed in the first place.
On the opposite side of the road, waiting to turn right is a jacked-up 4WD. The right-hander is not far past this driveway, I know that much. As I approach the 4WD my day gets worse. With the brightness of a thousand suns he turns on his eBay special, million watt LED bar that is conveniently placed at my eye level. Time slows down.
I’ve been blinded. Uh-oh.
Blink, blink, blink. Still blind. Major uh-oh.
The right-hander. Where is it? It’s close.
Blink-blink. I still can’t see. I’m in trouble now.
I feel the camber of the road change and the road falls away from underneath me. The sound of one rock getting flung up onto the undercarriage is quickly followed by a cacophony of rocks being hurled by the tyres. 80 km/h and I’m heading straight into a forest. There’s a very narrow shoulder here before the road drops off completely. There is no guardrail. The only thing to hit is trees. I’m in real trouble.
I hurl the truck-sized steering wheel to the right. “Don’t brake, don’t brake, don’t brake,” I tell myself. The front wheels grip. The car turns. I’m headed somewhere towards the road again.
The back wheels try to follow but lose traction. Despite having stability control the car is sideways. Completely sideways. Colin McRae-meets-Lancia-Delta-Integrale-on-an-oil-covered-roundabout sideways. I’m still in major trouble.
Swinging the wheel back to the left it weighs up as the front wheels grip. I’m regaining control. I might be sideways but my front wheels are pointed the right direction down the road. It’s a start.
After what seems an eternity the rear tyres behave and grip. Without any boogie and shake from the suspension the car settles itself into line. I find myself smack-bang in the centre of the lane I am meant to be in. A miracle.
Time returns to its normal pace. My heart doesn’t.
I’m driving a 16-year-old Volvo S40. It’s the base model with a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine. I could compliment my little car for its comfortable leather seats, the high quality speakers and the effective cruise control, which actually depresses the accelerator for you.
I could also criticise it for being underpowered, and fuel inefficient, for the air conditioning that works brilliantly except on the really hot days I actually need it, for the chassis that errs on the side of understeer and for spare parts that are worth more than the car. But this car has just saved my life.
I’ve owned and driven multiple cars in my life. Falcons; Mondeos; Focus; Rangers; 207s; 306s; HiAces; HiLuxes; Libertys; Meganes; Polos. And out of all these vehicles that I have thrown around wet, off-camber corners, taken to track days and generally pushed the limits (where appropriate) it was the Volvo that handled the best when pushed past the limits in an emergency.
When it comes to scoring this vehicle I’ve got an issue. The car does what it’s intended to do very well. That is, it’s a comfortable, relaxed vehicle for cruising through suburbia and along the motorway. There are sportier options out there. There are more luxurious options too. But when it comes to safety there is Volvo. As my friend with the eBay special lights helped teach me, if safety is your highest priority then you’d be hard pressed to go past a Volvo.
For that reason it scores a 10/10 in my eyes. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell you.