First Drive: Volvo V40
Key features: Lower price/higher spec than rivals, class-leading safety
Our view: When journalists arrived for the UK launch of Volvo’s V40, also in the car park awaiting evaluation were examples of the car’s direct rivals, the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series.
Allowing such a direct comparison between the Volvo and its competition is a first as far as this reviewer can recall, and a brave move by the Swedish brand. Clearly Volvo is confident in its new contender, which it describes as its most important car in 20 years.
The V40 has a lot riding on it. This car, a five-door hatch, will eventually replace both the existing S40 saloon and V50 estate, and is the brand’s first serious contender in the highly competitive C segment since the 440, last made – 20 years ago…
Volvo’s own management admits that the brand sits in a slightly odd position in the UK market. While pitching itself as a premium brand, it’s not quite regarded on the same page as Audi, BMW or Mercedes, but it is definitely above the volume market. The V40 will aid that image – appealing mainly to mainstream drivers wanting to move up, but also very much targeting Audi/BMW drivers fancying a change.
The car is a prime weapon in Volvo’s bid to boost its volume beyond the 37,000 it currently sells a year in the UK, towards 50,000. To compare – in the days of the 440 Volvo was selling 80,000 cars a year.
The V40 is expected to clock up around 12,000 a year, compared to the 10,000 the S40/V50 earned between them. UK boss Nick Connor admits this is conservative, but adds that he isn’t chasing volume for volume’s sake. He is adamant this car must maintain a premium image.
So does it live up to the billing? Well first impressions are good – in this case, first experiencing the car directly after half an hour in the Audi (admittedly the about-to-be-replaced version of the A3) and the BMW. It’s clear immediately that outside and in, the Volvo is a direct rival to them.
It’s a cliché to recall old boxy Volvos when talking about today’s, but it’s important to emphasise that the V40 is a very smart-looking car equal to if not ahead of its rivals.
The front-end is sharp, the notable styling cue the tapered headlamps clearly evolved from those on the larger S60 saloon. The rear, meanwhile, comes direct from that brand-redefining hatch the C30, with its signature glass tailgate.
Inside is well built and very well styled – something admittedly we’ve got used to in recent Volvos. Dominating the driver’s field of view is the new digital dash, with its speedo that illuminates only the part of the dial that the stalk is aiming at, and its three modes, activated by the interior stalk.
These modes are called ‘Elegant’, ‘Eco’ and ‘Sport’ and offer different parameters and information – the first is rather dull, Eco is cool and blue and we reckon most likely to be left permanently on, while Sport is bright red with your speed shown in large digital numbers in the centre of the dial. Rather neat…
Yet the style is equally signified by detail touches – some of the most frequent praise on the launch event was angled at the rear-view mirror, the simple act of removing the frame adding so much to its style.
One criticism is the handbrake lever that sits to the left of the centre console – clearly a left-hand drive feature that Volvo didn’t bother to change. A minor thing maybe, but if your front-seat passenger is anything more than petite you don’t really want to be touching their right thigh whilst trying to put the brake on…
We wouldn’t call the V40 over-generous on space. Rear-seat room is cosy, and the bootspace not that convenient with a high loading sill, though the twin floor boot compartment is useful.
Volvo has long been known for its safety, with seemingly a new innovation with every launch. The V40 majors on new airbags – a knee one for the driver, and a pedestrian one. A what?
Yup, the Swedes have gone one step further than the impact absorbing pop-up bonnet. An unlucky soul hit by the car will be thrown onto said bonnet which will pop up – and then shoot an airbag out of its back, across both the gap and the lower part of the windscreen…
With this feature heading a long, long list of now familiar features such as the auto brake-applying City Safety (which along with the pedestrian airbag is standard on all V40s), there’s no need to speculate on the likelihood of a top five-star Euro-NCAP rating for this car…
The current engine choice is two petrol and three diesel, with a third petrol unit on the way in a few months’ time. Trying out the lowest-powered variants of each, it’s easy to see why the 114bhp diesel is expected to take almost two-thirds of V40 sales.
The 148bhp entry-level petrol is confident, refined and a thoroughly satisfactory companion, and almost three seconds faster to 62mph than its oil-burning rival. Yet the diesel feels more eager, due no doubt to the impressive low-down torque, while remaining equally refined. And it offers a tax-busting 94g/km emissions figure.
Less impressive is the manual gearbox – a six-speed is standard across the range, but it could do with being more direct. Our test drive was accompanied with the odd wooly downshift, confidence slightly dented as we questioned whether it really had selected fourth instead of sixth.
On the road the V40 is very well behaved, soaking up the bumps and offering the ride comfort one expects of a fleet-angled motorway muncher. But presented with more challenging tarmac it delivers, with sharp, responsive handling that on our test was easily as good as the BMW and rather ahead of the Audi.
In summary, Volvo has a winner here. The V40 is a car that really should be considered by ‘premium’ buyers (a word that Connor admits he hates), and not just on prices that start with the smaller diesel in ES spec at £19,745. Yes, the potential money saved is a factor, but the specification and performance of this car also delivers.
On the evidence of our first drive, Volvo is right to consider its predicted sales figure as conservative – this is one Volvo that the Germans should be concerned about…
Model Tested: Volvo V40
On Sale: 22nd July
Price (range): £19,745-£26,795
Engines: Petrol 1.6 (2). Diesel 1.6, 2.0 (2)
Power (bhp): 148/177. 114, 148/174
Torque (lb/ft): 177/177. 199, 258/295
0-62mph (sec): 8.8/7.7. 12.3, 9.6/8.6 (auto 9.3/8.3)
Top speed (mph): 130/140. 118, 130/137 (auto 127/134)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 125/129. 94*, 114/114 (auto 136/136)
Key rivals: BMW 1 Series, Audi A3, Mercedes A-Class (to come)
Test date: July 2012
*= with 205 series tyres. 250bhp T5 petrol engine available later
Words by: Andrew Charman