Note: this review was written by CarAdvice contributor Alex Misoyannis.
It's 1999. The Ford Motor Company – which just enjoyed the most successful year in its then-96-year history – is looking to expand its portfolio into the global luxury market, beyond the reach of its US-focused Lincoln and Mercury marques.
To do so, the Blue Oval chose not to endure the struggles and challenges associated with establishing an all-new luxury brand – as many of its Japanese rivals had done earlier that decade – instead opting to purchase existing, ailing European carmakers and bring them under one Ford-controlled umbrella.
The brainchild of then-CEO Jacques Nasser, the conglomerate would be known as the (confidently-named) Premier Automotive Group, with the first brands to join being Ford's existing continental acquisitions, Jaguar and Aston Martin, which were acquired by the American brand in 1990 and 1991 respectively.
The first European marque to be purchased following the establisment of PAG was Volvo Cars, the automotive division of Sweden's best-known carmaker.
The deal looked promising. Volvo – also in the black – would get access to vast engineering resources and economies of scale it had previously never seen before, while Ford would reap the profits and be able to dip its toes into new waters.
However, within a few short years into the new millennium, plans soon began to fall apart. Nasser's retirement in 2001 and a change in strategy – combined with the group's vast unprofitability, as by 2004 Ford had spent an estimated USD$17 billion on PAG with questionable returns – meant the group's demise was in sight.
Lincoln and Mercury returned to Ford's direct control in 2002, followed by the sale of Aston Martin in 2007. Jaguar and late-acquisition Land Rover were sold to Indian firm Tata in 2008.
Volvo was the last to depart the group in 2009, entering the stable of Chinese marque Geely at a cost of around AUD$4 billion.
Fast forward to 2012, and the company's days under Ford ownership appeared to be long gone. With Geely funding behind it, the Swedish brand was hard at work on its all-new, modular SPA platform set to underpin a raft of future models, in addition to a family of three and four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines.
However, the Volvo-Ford partnership wasn't over just yet. Volvo unveiled the V40 hatch at the 2012 Geneva motor show – the indirect successor to the ageing S40 sedan, V50 wagon and C30 coupe models – underpinned by Ford's Global C architecture, as used by a raft of Ford, Mazda and Lincoln models ranging from the Mazda 3 hatch to the Ford Transit Connect van.
That's where the car I'll be reviewing today comes in, a 2015 Volvo V40 T4 Luxury. This Passion Red example has been in our family since new, accumulating a touch over 80,000km over the past half-decade.
The car on test, when new, retailed for $45,990 plus on-road costs, and as the penultimate model in the range its list of standard equipment is, unsurprisingly, plentiful. Highlights include heated, power-adjustable front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and seat trim, a 7.0-inch (non-touch) infotainment display, satellite navigation and 17-inch alloys – though ours wears a set of optional, 18-inch 'Midir' units.
However, it's the V40's suite of standard safety technology that is most impressive.
Fitted as standard on all variants is Volvo's 'City Safety' autonomous emergency braking system, capable of detecting and braking for obstacles in front at speeds of up to 50km/h. Unlike some systems on the market it's unobtrusive, almost to the point where you begin to question whether it's actually enabled – a concern that was quelled in traffic one winter morning, upon coming hair-raisingly close to the rear of a stopped Mini.
Also on offer – though fortunately not tested by this writer – is the pedestrian airbag, the first of its kind to be fitted to a production vehicle. Once sensors in the bumper detect contact with a pedestrian, the rear of the bonnet raises up and a U-shaped airbag is inflated across the windscreen and up the A-pillars to soften the blow of a pedestrian's head.
However, a number of features – many unique to the V40 at launch, but now segment must-haves – remain exclusive to the $5000 Driver Support Pack, which includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, driver attention monitoring and automatic parking. Sadly, this tester doesn't have that box ticked.
Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, sending 132kW of power and 300Nm of torque to the front wheels. Fairly standard for the premium small car class, it seems.
However, whereas its competitors 'make do' with just four cylinders, the catchily-named ‘B5204T8’ mill in the V40 offers five – a layout becoming increasingly rare in the era of three-cylinder hybrid supercars and pure-electric propulsion.
As a result, it's far more characterful than a ubiquitous turbo-four, delivering a surprisingly rich exhaust note and plenty of punch once the turbo comes on song above 2000rpm. It feels quicker by the seat of the pants than Volvo's 8.7-second 0-100km/h claim suggests.
What lets down the entire package is the six-speed automatic gearbox. In 'Drive', it's suitably docile for traffic and day-to-day use, opting to select higher gears in an attempt to preserve some shred of fuel economy (more on that in a moment).
Suddenly push the loud pedal towards the firewall however and the transmission's torque converter configuration makes itself known. It's slow to react and, with the right throttle application, concerningly easy to confuse.
Flicking the gear selector across into Sport solves those problems, but creates a whole host of new ones. While it may hold gears longer, keeping the five-pot in its power band and eliminating D mode's slow response, it's over-eager and hard to drive smoothly around town, translating minor pokes of the throttle into abrupt forward surges.
There's also a manual mode, though cogs can be only changed via the tall gear selector in the centre console. A pair of wheel-mounted paddle shifters – as fitted to MY16-on V40 models – would be a worthy addition.
Fuel economy is equally far from ideal. Despite a featherlight right foot, the closest we could get to Volvo's 7.6L/100km combined claim was 8.5L/100km, measured over a mid-speed, suburban test route. In normal driving, you'll see numbers on the dash between 10 and 12 litres to the hundred, depending on your driving style.
In that case, the 10.5L/100km urban ADR consumption claim seems a more accurate representation of the overall combined cycle in the real world.
The V40 T4 errs towards the sportier end of the ride and handling spectrum, with a somewhat firm but far-from-uncomfortable ride that's compliant over bumps around town. On twistier blacktop, the Volvo's Focus-based architecture makes for a confident drive, with plenty of mechanical grip and ample weight and feedback from the electric power steering system.
Reliability over the last 80,000km has provided little to complain about, with issues of note limited to a leaking front shock at around 75-thousand clicks.
Moving inside, the highlight of the cabin is easily the standard-fit TFT digital instrument cluster, a segment first upon the V40's launch in 2012. The tri-section unit offers three visual themes – Elegance, Eco and Performance – with the lattermost swapping the former pair's conventional-looking rotary speedometers for a red central tachometer with a prominent digital speed readout.
While it may be overshadowed by cleaner flat-screen displays in newer, latest-generation competitors from Mercedes-Benz and Audi, the Volvo's cluster is fast, responsive, easy to read when you're on the move, and still offers plenty of customisability to suit the driver's tastes.
The 7.0-inch infotainment display is equally clear and responsive, though its Nokia-like physical dialpad and push-button air vent controls have been far outpaced by the touchscreens fitted to most class rivals. There's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone mirroring on offer, however the onboard satellite navigation system is relatively easy to operate once you get used to the array of dials and buttons that control it.
The seats are supportive and comfortable on longer journeys, and go a long way to maintaining an overall positive cabin ambience. Interior materials feel premium and build quality is solid.
The rear seats are less enjoyable. While kneeroom is ample for the class, taller homo-sapiens will begin to explore the limits of headroom and toe-room, with shoulder-room becoming an issue when attempting to travel three abreast.
A few minor gripes uncovered by 80,000km of eagle-eyed motoring: no rear-seat air vents, a large transmission tunnel ‘hump’ in the rear footwell despite the lack of all-wheel-drive on Australian-specification V40 hatchbacks, small front door bins and a finicky cruise-control system that doesn't brake on downhills and, while 10km/h ones are available, is frustratingly slow to increase or decrease in 1km/h increments.
Boot space is rated at 335 litres with the second row in place – ample space for day-to-day duties and enough room for a pair of medium/large-sized suitcases.
It's also worth touching on the V40's exterior design, which has aged well and still looks sharp eight years after launch. Up front bi-xenon headlights – which work well on the road, though the LED units fitted to 2017-on facelifted V40s are a cut above – complement a slim black grille and lower LED daytime-running lights, while at the rear tall tail-lights in Volvo's trademark style flank an extended glass hatch window.
Overall, the V40 is a competent premium small hatch that impresses with its pleasant on-road manners, wide safety suite (for its time, mind you), characterful five-cylinder engine and premium-feeling interior.
A touchscreen infotainment system, better fuel economy and a more responsive gearbox would certainly improve the experience – though the latter two issues were (partly) resolved with the introduction of Volvo's 'Drive-E' four-cylinder engine range and eight-speed automatic transmission for the 2016 model year.
Considering Volvo's current form, and the sales success of its XC40 SUV, it's a shame a next-generation V40 will never see the light of day, featuring the latest CMA platform, more technology and electrified plug-in hybrid options – the Swedish brand could've had a world-beater on its hands.