There are many great unknowns in motoring. Why did anyone think a performance-orientated large MPV would sell? What is it like to travel at almost 170mph in a Vauxhall Vectra? And why hasn’t Volvo made a C-segment hatch for 20 years?
We may never know the answer to the last question. What we do know is that Volvo do make the three-door C30 coupe-hatch-thing – and they did sell the saloon-shaped S40 and estate V50 in roughly the same sector. And that both of those cars have now been replaced by a car that Volvo says is its most important model in 20 years.
This car is, of course, the V40 – a proper C-segment hatchback that lines up against the BMW 1 Series, Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. This is a busy and fiercely-competitive sector, with over 300,000 sales in 2011. But what is it that makes the small family car sector so tough?
There are a number of answers, but thinner margins on cars that need to be competitive on price and quality don’t help. Neither does the fact that these cars have to be the ultimate all-rounders. Stylish, comfortable, well-specced, well-priced, good to drive, frugal-yet-peppey engines, powertrain options…
The right spread of engines – low-CO2 for fleet users and pleasing petrol lumps for private buyers – are very important. Both types of buyer will look for a smart and stylish car. Deft uses of specifications and product packs can’t hurt either. So, basically, these cars have to be good at everything.
On the face of it, Volvo seems to have ticked all of those boxes with the new V40. It looks excellent, with concave and convex flourishes across the body work, and three distinct lines reaching back to a high rear end, giving a coupe-like profile.
Step inside and there’s the usual, reassuring Volvo quality. The seats are very comfortable and the floating centre stack always looks impressive. Add in touches like an illuminated gear stick, rimless rear-view mirror and a digital display behind the steering wheel and the V40 looks like a car that can more than hold its own in the sector.
Used-car experts seem to agree, suggesting that the V40 is level with – or ahead of – its key competitors in the segment, with predicted residuals after three years around the 39-40 per cent mark.
Volvo has specced the V40 cleverly. Bluetooth is available on all models as standard, so as to appeal to user-chooser business drivers, who seek low-CO2 models but are rarely allowed to add on extras.
Interior and specs
At SE Lux specification the V450 looks very strong inside – and the seats, which adjust and boast memory settings, are some of the most comfortable car seats available.
The digital display may look nice, but it also adopts the ‘fuel economy as a computer game’ aspect that EVs and EREVs have brought in. Keep the digital dial in the right place and you know you’re saving fuel. Switch the car to a different driving style and the dash illuminates red in Performance mode. Choose Eco mode and you’re all set up to save cash; Elegance is pitched somewhere in the middle.
The interior matches competitors for space, though the boot seemed to fill up very quickly – capacity is 402 litres, which is decent, and the lip is quite high.
The car is well-specced at all levels but, crucially, offers elements that are standard on all models that breaks from the norm. Bluetooth hands-free for telephone and music streaming, for example, is included as standard so that the car is appealing to fleet and business buyers.
There are various themes options packs – security, entertainment, sport and the like – that are offered in place of individual options. Theoretically that makes it easier to find what you want, but it may also mean you have to stump up for some things you’re not fussed about.
Volvo V40 powertains
The 115bhp 1.6-litre D2 diesel engine, emitting under 100g/km of carbon with either wheel set-up (larger wheels impinge on emissions) and returning 78.5mpg combined, will therefore be the car of choice for these buyers – and for fleet managers too. It’s responsive when you escape low revs and actually felt pretty good blasting around the hills of Snowdonia.
Once the engine is into its stride it’s responsive, but this car is going to spend most of its life on the motorway and around the urban sprawl. On hand as comparisons were the last-generation Audi A3 and a new BMW 1 Series – while the BMW handles best of all the cars there wasn’t much in it in terms of the powertrains, though I thought the V40 a little lacking at the bottom end.
I did not find the 150bhp 2.0-litre D3 lacking however. This five-cylinder diesel engine provides all the power you’d want from a turbodiesel in a car like the V40. Little detectable turbo lag, a raucous engine note and plenty of torque across the board make the D3 so peppy it feels close to warm hatch territory – and figures like 350Nm make it a serious contender. Additionally, 114g/km and 65.7mpg make it a flexible and affordable performer. There’s a D4 diesel too, offering a little more power and torque but identical fuel economy.
All of the diesels that I drove offer good mid-range torque, but they can need a bit work at low and high revs, thanks partly to the longer gearing. If you need to overtake at motorway speeds in the D2 you’ll certainly have to drop down a gear or even two. The same will be true of any spirited driving, but that’s half the fun. Get the D2 and D3 in the sweet spots and they feel eager, however. I’d be tempted to split the difference between the D2 and D4 – the D3 is my pick of the diesels and probably overall.
The 180bhp T4 petrol engine offers similarly spirited attributes, in that the car is fast but also economical. 129g/km and a spring time of 7.6 seconds don’t appear to compute, but the impressive numbers are testament to how recently this engine has been developed.
There’s also a T3 petrol engine available, which is slightly less fast and powerful – and a 254bhp T5 petrol engine will join the range to offer a genuine hot hatch option.
Six-speed manuals are available on all bar the T5, while the D3 and D4 can be selected with an automatic gearbox. I would suggest that the manual box will benefit driveability and fuel consumption.
And the V40 can be enjoyable to drive. Volvo models rarely feel like the best handling car in the sector, and I’d repeat that sentiment for the V40, but it’s much better than Volvos of a few years ago. The steering may feel a little light sometimes, but the nose goes where you point it and it feels as if there’s the right amount of weight over the front wheels. The V40 doesn’t understeer into corners; nor does it torque steer under high revs off the line.
There’s still that reassuring sense of comfort, refinement, relaxed style and solidity to the V40 – a certain ‘Volvo-ness’ – but it’s an enjoyable drive; the dynamics matching the intent of the exterior.
Safety in the V40
Needless to say, because this is a Volvo, the V40 is packed with safety technology. There are more examples of Volvo’s push towards a self-driving car with technology that allows the V40 to find a parking space and park itself, while the lane departure warning is upgraded.
Drift across white lines without indicating and the car with gently guide you back into lane. Stray further and it will vibrate the steering wheel to warn you. There’s also parking sensors, blind spot system, pedestrian detection, city safety, driver alert, active high beam, active headlights and the excellent adaptive cruise control that will hold a regular speed but adapt it to the car in front.
To add to the existing raft of airbags inside, there’s also a driver’s knee airbag that deploys in the event of a frontal collision.
There’s a world first too – a pedestrian airbag that pops up to protect a pedestrian’s head from the engine block and windscreen. It makes one wonder just where car safety will go next and makes Volvo’s aim to ensure no-one is killed or injured in its cars by 2020 seem realistic.
The car hasn’t been crash tested but it seems inconceivable that the V40 won’t receive a maximum five stars. That’s another area where a car in the C-segment, small family car sector must prevail – and the V40 has that box ticked too.
Volvo says the V40 offers “a-large-car-feel-inside-a-small-car” – something that sounds dangerously close to flim-flam, but you can see what they’re getting at. Where the three-door coupe-esque C30 felt fun but a little lightweight, the V40 feels grown-up.
But not dull. There’s enough to draw people away from BMW in terms of styling here. And enough to take a wedge of Volkswagen’s traditional Golf clientele. For the first time in a long time – too long – Volvo have a realistic alternative to the C-sector premiums on their hands.
Is it the best car in the sector? I don’t think so, but the V40 is far more than the ‘interesting alternative’ to the sector-leaders. It’s as near enough as dammit and presents an excellent all-round package. It’s a step up for Volvo, without ditching the things that make a Volvo good. And that makes the V40 a very good car indeed.