The Volvo V40 T5 R-Design attempts to shake up the premium hot-hatch segment monopolised by the Swedish brand's traditional German rivals.
The sports halo atop the Volvo V40 range, the $49,990 T5 R-Design is a more powerful alternative to the $47,500 BMW 125i and the $49,990 Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport. It also promises to deliver more luxury than you’ll find in closer performance rivals, the $38,290 Ford Focus ST and $42,640 Renault Megane RS265.
At the Volvo V40 T5 R-Design’s heart is a turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder petrol engine – familiar from the previous-generation Focus XR5 Turbo where it earned praise for its meaty mid-range and distinctive offbeat burble.
Those traits carry over to the V40 T5 R-Design, where it produces 187kW of power at 5400rpm and 360Nm of torque from 1800-4200rpm – bettering the Germans by roughly 30kW and splitting the 184kW Focus and 195kW Megane. It offers a peak torque advantage over all but the Renault, which it matches.
A claimed 6.1-second 0-100km/h sprint makes the flagship Volvo V40 fractionally quicker than both the 125i and A250 Sport and just one-tenth slower than that French hot-hatch benchmark.
It doesn’t seem blisteringly quick off the line, however, feeling laggy low in the rev range and heavy – the latter unsurprising given the V40’s 1468kg kerb weight means it is roughly 100kg tubbier than the 125i and the RS265. It hits its stride above 2000rpm, where it pulls strongly and with impressive linearity towards its redline.
In normal mode, the six-speed auto is eager to seek higher gears in the pursuit of maximising fuel efficiency. Its decently calibrated Sport mode holds gears longer, keeping the engine in its sweet spot for more of the time. It also kicks back aggressively as you decelerate, which provides welcome engine braking during hard driving.
No manual transmission option and no steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters, however, means keen R-Design drivers need to nudge the gearlever back and forth to select their own gears.
Volvo claims fuel consumption of 8.1 litres per 100km on the combined cycle. We recorded 10.8L/100km in a mix of regular city and suburban traffic and more spirited bursts on the open road.
Inconsistencies emerge with the V40’s steering, ride and handling. The steering feels dull, vague around the centre position and slow in the first movements away, though it becomes more accurate the more lock you apply.
Torque steer is more pronounced than in its fellow front-wheel-drive rivals, while its wide 11.7m turning circle makes it harder to park and perform U-turns.
Around town the V40 T5 R-Design’s ride is sensitive to small imperfections, though it’s more adept at maintaining composure over bigger bumps and harsh potholes.
It sits extremely flat through bends and grips well, but understeers earlier than expected and shows a dislike for early power-down out of corners – thank its lack of a limited slip differential for the latter.
While less powerful and grippy, the Volkswagen Golf GTI – the ‘everyday’ hot-hatch benchmark – offers greater balance and a far more compliant ride. The Megane RS265 has a hard ride but makes up for this with better handling; while the steering and ride in the Focus ST are also superior.
The R-Design’s wide tyres also generate plenty of road noise that could be better insulated from the cabin.
The Volvo V40 outshines its rivals on the inside, however, with an ergonomic, user-friendly cabin that blends excellent build quality and an impressive standard specification.
There is beauty in Volvo’s attention to detail. Real polished metal is used generously around the centre stack and seven-inch screen, instrument cluster, steering wheel and door handles, while the metallic sports pedals, black headliner, blue pinstripes and black dimples on the centre stack, and the plastic-faced backlit gearknob enhance its upmarket feel.
Volvo’s signature floating centre console still works as a modern presentation of the infotainment and air conditioning controls, though its button-heavy structure lacks the simplicity of BMW’s iDrive.
Neither the 125i nor the A250 Sport match several of the Volvo’s standard features, including electric-adjust perforated leather seats, which are comfortable and supportive for torsos and thighs; audio system voice control; and its colourful and precise digital instrument cluster that offers three distinct themes – Elegance, Eco and Performance – to display its information.
Similarly, equipping a Golf GTI with the V40 T5 R-Design’s standard leather, electric seats, satellite navigation, parking sensors, rear-view camera, and 18-inch alloy wheels requires a delve into the options list to the tune of $9000 – effectively making the VW the same price as the Volvo.
None of the above rivals match the V40 for safety either. Its five-star ANCAP-rated package is headlined by the City Safety system that automatically brakes if it detects a collision is imminent below 50km/h, seven internal airbags and an external airbag that deploys at the base of the windscreen to protect pedestrians.
An optional $5000 Driver Support Pack adds adaptive cruise control and collision warning with full auto brake, blind spot detection and cross traffic alert, automatic reverse parking, and the driver alert system, which includes lane departure warning, lane keeping aid, active high-beam control, forward collision warning and road sign information.
The large glovebox, door bins and hidden tray behind the centre stack provide decent storage options. The V40’s boot has a high loading lip and its 335-litre capacity is below average for a small hatchback, though the rear seats fold completely flat when more space is required.
Legroom is adequate in the back for adult passengers though six-footers will be cramped for headspace due to the hatchback’s sloping roofline. The rear bench is quite flat and firm, and the centre seat is particularly small.
Volvo Australia’s free scheduled servicing offer applies for the first three years or 60,000km of ownership, saving customers thousands of dollars compared with its rivals. All Volvos in Australia are also covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and three years of roadside assistance.
The Volvo V40 T5 R-Design lacks the dynamic cohesion of the Focus ST, Golf GTI and Megane RS265.
But it’s quicker than – yet the same price as – an optioned GTI, better equipped than a BMW or Mercedes, and cheaper to service than all of them.
Add exterior styling that stands out from the conservative crowd, and the V40 proves an enticing alternative in the premium hot-hatch market.
Volvo V40 T5 R-Design
Engine: 2.5-litre 5-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 187kW at 5400rpm
Torque: 360Nm at 1800-4200rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 6.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 8.1L/100km
CO2 emissions: 189g/km