Today, the Volvo marketing message underscores style and sportiness almost as much as safety. We’ll get to the ‘sporty’ claims shortly, but on the latter, the bank-vault bodied, five-star Volvo V40, with its innovative safety systems scores highly, while Scandinavian minimalism pervades even this eco-slanted, entry-level model’s cabin.
The floating centre console is decidedly different to that of any other brand, with its Volvo-trademark air-con zone buttons arranged in the form of a passenger’s body – press on the ‘head’ button to direct cool air to front occupants’ faces, for example. But the small storage bin behind might be the perfect place to inadvertently leave a wallet or phone.
On the plain looking steering wheel, the cruise control plus and minus buttons could be mistaken for volume controls, but those are on the right. Familiarity breeds user-friendliness, however, and the cruise system itself works well.
The front seats, with their basic bolstering, are only average for long-haul comfort, though the Volvo V40 is the only car among its entry-level premium cohort - Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, and Mercedes-Benz A-Class - to offer a powered driver’s seat with memory.
The standard multimedia system, with Bluetooth phone and audio, is tapped via a five-inch display, and brings radio, a single CD, USB and iPod connectivity, and eight speakers, but Volvo’s voice-controlled sat-nav adds $2750.
A rear parking camera and sensors, a rain sensor, auto dim interior rear-view mirror and selectable cabin mood lighting are the highlights of the standard convenience equipment package.
The standard safety package brings Volvo innovations such as its ‘city safety’ emergency braking system, which can help prevent or reduce the severity of low-speed accidents, and a pedestrian airbag, which deploys across the wiper recess, lower windscreen and A-pillars to cushion impacts, in conjunction with a bonnet that’s fired upwards by a pyrotechnic mechanism to provide 10cm of additional crumple space above the engine. There are also the brand’s roll-over and whiplash protection systems, and a driver’s knee airbag (in addition to the front, side and curtain ’bags).
You pay extra to get Volvo’s latest cutting-edge systems, such as its blind-spot monitor ($1275), and adaptive cruise ($6250) complete with collision warning with auto brake, queue assist, and pedestrian and cyclist detection. Pricey, but they’re systems not offered at all in rivals.
The Volvo V40’s rear seat is a well-packaged, comfortable place to sit. The seat base is angled just right to offer uncommonly good under-thigh support, and elevates passengers’ knees to make the most of the good amount of leg-room. The backrest angle is spot-on, with great lateral support, while toe room is generous, and headroom is good. An elegant armrest flips down, and central, seat-base cup-holders are revealed by yanking on a fabric pull.
The tailgate reveals a high loading lip, and a generously proportioned boot with handy tie-downs and a 12-volt socket. A space-saver spare is accessed by lifting the boot floor.
The V40 is built on Volvo’s version of the sweet-handling Ford Focus C1 platform, which holds promise, but something of the Ford’s driver appeal has gone missing.
The Volvo’s electric steering lacks the Ford’s immediacy and crispness around centre, and the chassis in Volvo’s questionably titled ‘dynamic eco’ tune, though well balanced, isn’t particularly alive or adjustable. The ‘dynamic’ setting of the D4 and T4 isn’t available, though you can option the D5’s ‘sports’ tune for $1000.
The flavour is stodgy rather that fluent, though the longer you drive it, the more obvious it is that there’s a Focus lurking within. It certainly doesn’t encourage enthusiastic driving, and if you don’t go looking for the hidden talent, it can all feel a bit snoozy, which could make the $2075 Driver Alert system worthwhile to snap the driver out of a nap.
But just look at the Volvo’s Michelin Primacy HP tyres and it’s clear that the early onset of understeer has more to do with a relatively low grip threshold than an inherent lack of chassis poise.
The harsh, busy ride on ripply roads and over sharp-edged urban bumps is at odds with the fat-sidewalled 205/55R16 tyres, though the Volvo blots up larger undulations with absorbency and good body control.
If the surface is smooth, the cabin is hushed, with just a trace of exterior mirror wind rustle to break the silence. However, on typically coarse-chip country roads, tyre roar shatters the serenity.
The Volvo’s 1.6-litre turbo diesel offers effortless low-rev performance for around-town duties. Its note is muted, but not great-sounding, and you certainly couldn’t mistake it for a petrol engine like you (almost) could in a VW diesel. The engine becomes strained above 3000rpm – witness the very low 3600rpm power peak, and the fact that the 270Nm torque peak is spread from 1750 to 2500rpm. With a claimed 0-100km/h figure of 12.1sec, the 1402kg, 84kW V40 D2 is ultimately a bit slow.
The payoff should be the V40 D2’s official 4.2L/100km combined cycle fuel consumption, though we saw 7.4L/100km during a touring country-road fill.
The lack of paddle shifters leaves the driver reaching for the gear lever, which is oriented the wrong way around for intuitive up- and downshifts. But in the context of the engine’s reluctance to rev, and lack of grunt, as well as the fact the D2 has no designs on being a hot-hatch, that’s all forgivable. Left to its own devices, the six-speed dual-clutch works well.
While up-spec petrol Volvo V40s such as the T4 and T5 deliver driver appeal and decent economy, the D2 feels so focused on being frugal that it’s not much fun. The eco suspension tune should have been comfortable but, around town, it’s harsh. Meanwhile, the turbo-diesel engine is underpowered – it could be worth waiting for the forthcoming entry-level petrol V40, which will feature Volvo’s next-gen 1.6-litre turbo engine.
But, even then, the entry-level Volvo V40 really needs to be a bit less expensive, or a bit better equipped – or both – to tempt buyers out of its best primo base-model rivals.