The all-new Volvo V40 is charged with the unique and unenviable task of filling the shoes of three now-extinct Volvo models: the S40, V50 and C30 models.
It’s the Swedish brand’s first five-door hatchback since the 440 of the 1990s, giving it a belated rival to the Volkswagen Golf and a raft of entry-level vehicles from Germany’s premium-car manufacturers.
The Volvo V40 only catches the upper part of the Golf range, however, with its $34,990 to $49,990 price spread a closer match for those cars with the highest brand cachets – even if the manual base model undercuts the most affordable of the German hatches, the $35,600 Mercedes A180, as well as Japan’s Lexus CT200h.
Volvo, then, will need to convince Australian buyers that the V40 delivers enough ‘prestige’ to compete in this lower end of the luxury spectrum.
Broad, low-slung and curvaceous, the Volvo V40 certainly gets first impressions off to a good start with an undeniably pretty car that may well lure less badge-conscious buyers.
It’s also armed with a battery of high-tech safety kit that includes the world’s first pedestrian airbag.
The V40 enters the market with two turbo diesels (D2 and D4) and two turbo petrol models (T4 and T5), with three trim levels: Kinetic, Luxury and R-Design.
The $34,990 Volvo V40 D2 Kinetic makes do with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel developing 84kW and 270Nm. It pulls well enough, is nicely matched with its six-speed manual, and is the most fuel-efficient model in the range using an official 4.2 litres per 100km.
The power band is fairly narrow, though, and there’s no automatic option.
An optional six-speed dual-clutch transmission, which would be a certainty for boosting D2 sales locally, won’t be available until 2014.
The more powerful V40 D4 Kinetic gets a 130kW/400Nm 2.0-litre five-cylinder and is priced from $39,990 for the six-speed manual or from $41,990 with a six-speed auto. Step up to the Luxury trim level and the D4’s price jumps again to $45,990.
The V40 diesel D4 (tested) gets along with a surprising amount of urgency and there is blissfully little turbo lag thanks to those 400 Newton metres doing their best work from 1750rpm.
Things get even more entertaining when you shove the transmission into Sport mode, which holds gears until the 5000rpm redline. Not bad at all for a diesel-powered family hatch, though paddleshift levers for changing gears manually would liven the driving experience.
There’s a bit of clatter at idle and low down in the rev range, but anywhere north of 2000rpm and the D4 doesn’t sound any different to its sweet-singing T5 petrol sibling.
It’s the same story with the range-topping V40 R-Design – even more pronounced though, given its sporty pretentions.
Priced from $49,990, the 187kW400Nm (with overboost) 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo petrol is the quickest car in the V40 line-up. It will go from 0-100km/h in 6.1 seconds and has a top speed of 250km/h.
It certainly doesn’t hang around, and that performance is in the ballpark of a Renault Megane RS265 or Opel Astra OPC even if the T5 R-design is a high-spec luxury hatch rather than hot hatch.
If there were any complaints on the performance side, it would be with the smooth-shifting six-speed auto that is at times slow to react and can’t quite keep up with the free-spinning five-cylinder powerplant.
There’s also a sport mode, which moves the shift points to the 6500 redline if you’re really going for it (but we’d still prefer those paddle shifters to truly enjoy it).
The V40’s platform is related to the one beneath the excellent Ford Focus, so the compact Swede has a sound basis from which to work from. And from behind the wheel, it feels rock solid.
The D2 on its high-profile 205/55 series tyres provides the most comfort over broken bitumen with the Sport suspension of the T5 R-Design – with its stiffer dampers and lowered ride height – bringing the firmest ride without shaking bones, but also the most composed cornering.
Generally, the V40’s ride quality is a notable improvement on the choppiness of the C30 three-door hatch.
The V40’s steering in general is relatively precise, and the handling sharp.
On the inside, the V40 actually manages to feel a bit more special compared with some of its German rivals thanks to a simple but luxurious Scandinavian look and feel to all the materials and switchgear.
The ‘cool’ fully graphic instrument display screen is a treat and can be tailored to three separate modes: Elegance, Eco and Performance. It’s a benchmark piece of technology for the segment and should find plenty of favour from technophiles.
The V40 also introduces a frameless rear-view mirror Volvo says was inspired by modern smartphone design.
Tick the optional Driver Alert System and apart from a plethora of safety kit including Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Aid, Active High-Beam Control and Forward Collision Warning, you’ll also get the ‘licence-saving’ Road Sign Information.
The system uses a series of cameras that continuously monitor speed signs and then flashes the correct legal speed limit inside the central display. We tested the system repeatedly, especially on those notoriously poorly signposted country roads, recording a 100 per cent success rate.
We’re still big fans of Volvo’s trademark floating console, the look of which varies with each trim level.
The base model V40 D2 we drove was finished in a smart white gloss with a red pin stripe, while the T5’s console was a blend of polished alloy and a patterned material.
The leather seats on the Luxury variants are both cosseting and nicely bolstered without being too cushy, whereas the R-Design trim includes Alcantara pews that are more heavily sculptured – just as comfortable, though.
Despite its compact dimensions, the Volvo V40 offers exceptional rear legroom. Headroom is strangely better in the R-Design models, due entirely to the more aggressive contours.
There’s plenty of cargo space, too, with flat folding rear seatbacks, as well as the front passenger seat, thereby allowing for longer objects such as surfboards to be carried.
The V40 is also fitted with a two-piece floor, which we found unnecessarily fiddly, but there’s decent load space down there all the same.
It offers the style and performance buyers have come to expect from the segment’s more prestigious badges, while maintaining the company’s reputation for safety.