7 / 10
Strong car, but it has strong competition
When Volvo announced its 2010 model range for Australia late last year, there were some interesting changes to its smallest series of cars. The C30/S40/V50 siblings were blessed with the addition of a new 2.0-litre, four cylinder turbocharged diesel engine, which replaces the warbly five-cylinder diesel previously known as the D5.
Along with the new engine, a new transmission was introduced. Called Powershift, it’s Volvo’s version of DSG – a dual-clutch, instant-change gearbox – and it’s the only transmission offered with the 2.0D. Not that it’s a bad thing; the Powershift transmission is possibly one of the smoothest dual-clutch gearboxes going around.
Our test car this week was Volvo’s baby wagon, the Volvo V50, and finished in crisp white you begin to notice things like the darkened surrounds for the head-lights and tail-lights, the flat sides broken by the concave “Volvo” line that runs from front to back, and the very long glasshouse for such a compact car.
What the masses of windows do is increase visibility, with the V50 being easy to see out of in all directions with the only possible exception being the slightly thick A-pillars. Of course, Volvo’s focus has always been on safety, which means strengthening the passenger cell is the first priority. Combined with housing the airbags, wider A-pillars result.
But what that focus on safety does is also shape the door trims around the SIPS (Side Impact Protection System). The top of the door trims is almost square in cross-section, where the steel runs across the doors. In terms of styling, Volvo has disguised it remarkably well, with the chunkiness continued onto the rear doors, as well as where the window switches sit.
We’ve seen this styled interior with some minor tweaks for quite a few years now, which means the dash is looking rather dated. The instruments are also looking a little bland now, so although the quality is still very good with nice dashboard plastics and smooth metal used across the centre console, Volvo’s small cars are probably in need of an interior update. Yes, functionality may be fine but with other small wagons in the marketplace exhibiting more modern styling, it’s going to be difficult to maintain the same look for much longer.
The cloth seats (which were heated on the test car) still have that smooth fabric, with contrasting stitching and easy-clean properties making for a particularly practical pew. They’re very comfortable – although initially seeming a bit firm – and despite the dash layout, actually look quite sharp. The rear seats have inbuilt boosters for young children, but they may not be able to be used with the new laws regarding child seats, so as a selling point, it may not work.
Legroom in the rear is reasonable despite the small platform, due to the decent wheelbase (2640mm) and entry and egress is also simple. Boot space is better than the S40, as expected, however at 417-litres, it’s comprehensively trounced by the new Volkswagen Golf Wagon at 505-litres. The Golf is also over $9400 cheaper. More about that later.
Turn the key and the diesel engine rattles into life. At idle with the windows up it’s reasonably quiet, but despite matching specs with Volkswagen and Peugeot’s 2.0-litre diesels, the V50’s mill is nowhere near as smooth and refined. It is better than some truck-spec Japanese offerings (Mazda being a notable exception), but still has a way to go to match the German and French offerings.
Engine aside, the rest of the drive is a very smooth affair. The Powershift transmission is worthy of praise in its own right. Some DSG-style ‘boxes tend to shunt a little at low speed, whereas the Powershift holds the revs for a little longer before selecting the next cog. What this seems to do is smooth the changes out so that you’d think you were in a regular automatic. At full throttle it’s not as quick-shifting as a German DSG, however this is a diesel, so you’ll be riding the mid-range torque and not exploiting top-end power. It makes for beautiful gear-swaps and gives a nice, relaxed feel.
Braking comes on fast on strong with plenty of assistance, and it steers pretty well, although the feel is a little numb. It is weighted nicely, and it turns in like a decently sprung sedan. In the handling stakes you’d call it capable, but not quite sporting. The fact it’s a diesel means it will lap up a twisty hilly road, but this is still a family car, so don’t expect to be Jensen Button winning the Aussie GP when you’re behind the wheel of a Volvo V50.
The fact is, you’ll be buying this car for its practicality. It’s safe, it’s efficient, it’s got decent room for such a small car, and it’s easy to get things in and out of. There’s just one thing standing in its way – Volkswagen.
Yes, the moment the Golf Wagon was introduced onto the Australian market, the V50 had nowhere to hide. Let’s do a quick comparison.
So the Golf has more power, uses less fuel, has more space and is over $9000 less. It also rides and handles better, has the same ANCAP five star crash rating, is more modern inside, but is not as good looking outside.
If you’re in the market for a European wagon which is cheap on fuel, is safe and practical, then the Volvo V50 may be right for you. But if you want to use even less fuel and have more space, then there are certainly other choices which make more fiscal sense.