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There’s only one small Swedish car on the market, and the Volvo V40 hatchback is it. Now, for the 2017 model year, it has just been given some updates.
The Scandinavian brand’s compact five-door model has been around for a few years now, having launched back in 2013. It has seen some changes over the time it has been on sale in Australia – including the recent facelift including the “Thor’s Hammer” LED headlights – but the fact of the matter is that it has never garnered as high a proportion of sales as it potentially could have.
It accounts for about a fifth of the sales of the segment-leading Audi A3, though that car is admittedly available in both sedan and hatchback guises. Roughly 100 people buy a V40 each month, but that number could rise for those in the market for a sportier version of the Volvo hatch.
That’s because the brand has just added a new Polestar Performance Parts accessories pack for some V40 variants. Ours is the D4 Inscription diesel model (listed at $44,990 plus on-road costs), with the $9982.50 pack adding some sporty styling and some extra performance.
The usual outputs of the 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine in the D4 model are 140kW at 4250rpm and 400Nm from 1750-2500rpm – hardly grunt numbers to be taken lightly.
But with the engine software rejig of the Polestar Performance pack, those numbers jump to 147kW at a slightly lower 4000rpm, and peak torque is up by 10 per cent, to 440Nm, this time across a slightly narrower rev band of 1750-2250rpm.
The reasoning behind the recalibration, according to Volvo, is that Polestar’s engineers want to improve the driveability of the car: “They want the car to be optimised for racing, you want the car to be optimised for driving on streets and roads”.
Performance is improved as a result, with the 0-100km/h sprint pegged at 7.1 seconds (usually it's 7.2sec). There's no penalty to be paid in terms of claimed fuel consumption, either: the figure Volvo reckons you might see is 4.2 litres per 100 kilometres, but we saw a much, much higher 8.1L/100km over our time with the car.
It’s not just an engine tune, though: there’s also a stainless steel exhaust and a new sports air filter, while it also gets lowered suspension, stunning 19-inch wheels with Pirelli P Zero (235/35) rubber, a rear spoiler, rear diffuser and black door mirrors.
As a result, this already punchy diesel hatchback is even, er, punchier, but the advantage is that you can access the urge of the engine where it naturally spends most of its time, that middle band.
Thing is: the chassis isn’t really up to harnessing all that torque. There’s some evidence of torque-steer when you stomp the throttle, and the wheels will spin, too, if you’re not careful when using your right foot.
Still, there’s an abundance of torque and the engine is nicely refined when it’s building speed. It is almost muted at highway speeds, but the engine is very noisy at lower speeds (at idle, and particularly when cold).
The gearbox can be a little sluggish, too: when you’re trying to explore the rev range, you might find the eight-speed auto has chosen a cog one or two ratios beyond what you will want. There are paddle-shifters, but the gearbox can still be slow to react when you pull one of those triggers. It feels as though there might be two too many gears for the engine.
As eluded to earlier, the dynamism of the Volvo isn’t quite as good as you might hope. Part of that comes down to the steering: it is quite good on centre, but if you wipe off a lot of speed into a tight corner, you’ll find you have to turn the wheel a lot more than you should have to. The turning circle when parking is worst than some big SUVs, too.
Corners with a wider radius aren’t the Volvo’s bag, either: the nose can be a little slow to react to inputs in those situations. Find the right corner – something not too tight, not too wide, flowing and not too fast, and it’s a confidence-inspiring handler. It’s just, finding a road made of only those types of curves that could be the issue…
The suspension is quite firm, and that is particularly noticeable when you hit a hard bump, as the rear suspension will rebound quite sharply, even bouncing about a bit: we noticed it bottom out on a couple of occasions, and the front end crashed down sharply once or twice, too.
The upshot is that it holds a nice line through corners, without too much body roll – and the excellent front seats offer great bolstering to hold you in place, and both front seats have manual lumbar adjustment.
When the road is smooth the ride is generally fine, but there’s too much road noise on coarse-chip roads for it to ever be a serene cruiser on that type of surface.
If you want, you can boost the volume on the eight-speaker stereo system to rid the cabin of the tyre roar, and it’s quite a good system to do that with: it’s controlled by a 7.0-inch colour screen with an array of buttons and dials below, and while it isn’t quite as intuitive as some competitor media systems to use (Audi A3, BMW 1 Series), you learn it quickly enough. We don’t like that there are no phone controls on the steering wheel, though: you need to look for the right button on the centre stack to receive or end calls.
Inside there are some additions as part of the pack, too, with sports pedals and a revised gearknob, and door sill finishers.
The cabin is ageing a bit, especially when you consider cars like the XC90 and S90 that have come out since the V40. Still, the digital instrument cluster remains one of the best in the segment for driver information and details.
All the bright finishes in the cabin, like the shadow chrome trimmings on all four doors and the dash, add up to make the cabin of the V40 feel quite special: the materials and execution are top notch, and it truly feels premium inside.
The rear seat is a bit tight for headroom, and there’s a lack of foot room when you're getting in and out, due to its shallow floor pan area. Knee room is fine for a six-foot adult. The seating is well bolstered and cushioned in the back, too.
If you’re more likely to cart smaller humans around with you, there are dual ISOFIX child-seat anchor points and three top-tether attachments, but unlike some of the larger Volvo models, the V40 misses out on integrated booster seats in the rear. There are no rear air-vents, either, and the rising belt-line and small rear windows mightn’t be ideal for some kids.
The door pockets in the rear are quite small, but there’s a flip-down armrest with flip-up cup holders, and a pair of lined map pockets, too. Up front there's decent storage, including big door pockets and decent cup holders between the seats, not to mention the little hidden area behind the centre stack.
Our car also had some other options on it, including the Convenience Pack ($1500) which includes heated front seats, an alarm system, and keyless entry and drive (there’s a slot on the dash but you don’t have to put the key in). Also fitted was the Driver Support Pack ($4000), including blind-spot monitoring, driver drowsiness monitoring and adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning.
Volvo offers a choice of two pre-purchase servicing programs – SmartCare: including brake fluid, oil, filters; SmartCare Plus: adds wiper blades, brake pads and discs and wheel alignments – spanning three years/45,000km ($2115/$2790), four years/60,000km ($3175/$5100), or five years/75,000km ($3875/$6175). Maintenance, clearly, is due every year or 15,000km, whichever occurs first. If you service your car at a Volvo dealer, you can get up to six years’ of roadside assistance, too.
When you consider the options fitted to our car, it has a list price of $60,472.50, before on-road costs. That’s a lot of cash for this car, particularly when you consider you could pitch a deal at Audi and get an S3 for similar money, or a BMW 125i, or a Mercedes-Benz A250, and while none of those are diesel, all of them are better driver’s cars.
In fact, that's an accusation you could level at the Volvo V40 range in its entirety: it's a good car, but there are better options from the big three, and that's why we've given it the score you see here.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.