Published on Tuesday 10 December 2013 16:10
Ten Second Review
The Volvo V40 is a car with some big boots to fill. It has replaced the S40 saloon and V50 estate and whereas the V used to denote an estate car, the V40 is now a five-door hatch. Based on the same underpinnings as the Ford Focus it drives well, looks great and has a superbly finished interior. Here, we're going to look at the most affordable version, the 1.6-litre petrol T3 model.
This V40 doesn't look anything like the V cars of the past, a period in which the 'V' letter was used by Volvo to denote an estate. You're probably familiar with the big V70, or the V50 that this car replaces. It also takes over from the S40 saloon, so it's really got some ground to cover. If the basic proportioning of the car is provoking a little deja vu, that might well be due to the fact that this car rides on the chassis of Ford's latest Focus, so you'll instantly get a handle on how big it is. As you might well know, Volvo is no longer part of Ford's Premier Auto Group, instead being owned by Geely, a Chinese car manufacturer. As such, this is probably the last of its small cars that will be spun off a Ford chassis.
It was first shown at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show to a universally favourable reaction, the press and public alike impressed with its styling and range of engines. Since its introduction to the UK market, the pricing has raised a few eyebrows, with the car coming in a little less than most industry watchers mooted, so the value proposition seems strong too, especially in the entry-level petrol T3 guise we're looking at here. Is this a car without an Achilles heel? Let's go for a drive and find out.
Those who know cars will know that any vehicle that's based on a Ford Focus chassis is going to drive well. Really well. And the Volvo V40 doesn't disappoint. How does it feel compared to a Focus? In the way it goes, steers and stops, there's not a lot of difference. The electrically-assisted steering is a little lighter than you might at first expect, but it doesn't take too long to feel your way into it and you learn to trust the front end of the car, as it seems to almost magically find grip through a fast corner. And this is a car that rewards a driver looking for a bit of fun behind the wheel. Body control is excellent for a car that's big enough to seat five comfortably and the brakes are reassuringly punchy.
My favourite engine in the whole range is the one we're looking at here, the 150PS turbocharged T3 1.6-litre petrol unit. Sixty from rest takes 8.4s on the way to 130mph and this is a genuinely sweet powerplant that's a good deal lighter than the five-cylinder diesels. You really feel that when stringing a set of corners together. It's also really good on fuel and is priced well. Most customers are going to buy diesel but don't overlook the T3, especially if your mileages aren't going to be huge. It's genuinely good fun and impressively refined. The only flaw in its makeup is the fact that the lower mileage drivers who would look to the T3 may well be doing more urban driving where diesel would have the edge. Oh and this variant isn't offered with the Geartronic automatic gearbox that'll save your left leg from constant clutch work.
Design and Build
Certain cars just have that instant element of rightness about them and the Volvo V40 is certainly one of them. I appreciate that beauty is entirely subjective but come on. There's really not a bad angle on the V40. It's rare that a car's styling generates such universal acclaim. What was the last one that got such a positive consensus? Ferrari 458?
If you think it looks good on the outside, check out the cabin. It needs to be good to steal sales from the likes of the BMW 1 Series and the Audi A3 and it is extremely impressive. The styling department has really blown the overtime budget in here. The floating centre console houses a rather busy centre stack, but the eye is drawn to slick detailing such as the frameless rear view mirror and the translucent gear selector. It's not perfect. Some of the stalks feel a little cheap and headroom is a little pinched in the rear with narrow rear door apertures, but features such as the rubberised microswitch tailgate release, the full TFT graphic instrument panel and the deft piano black framed door mirrors keep the design balance well into credit.
The boot is a decent size at 335 litres and features a hidden underfloor section to keep documents and valuables out of sight. Special mention has to go to the seats. It's remarkable how little importance we put on the comfort of a car's seats given that we'll be spending many hundreds or thousands of hours in the things, and down the years Volvo has quietly earned a reputation for making the comfiest chairs in the business.
Market and Model
The petrol T3 is the most affordable variant in the line-up, pricing roughly ranging between £21,000 to £26,000.That certainly doesn't look bad value for money even when compared with more mainstream fare like the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and the Honda Civic. It's not these cars that Volvo is really targeting with the V40 though. It would prefer to be stealing sales from the BMW 1 Series, the Audi A3 and the Mercedes A-Class. That's quite a big ask as all of these cars have really upped their game in recent years, and while the Volvo does undercut them quite significantly it's hard to compete with the equity of these prestige badges.
The value proposition looks strong though. Take equipment. It's hard not to be impressed by what Volvo's offering. The ES trim level gets alloy wheels, a roof spoiler, electronic climate control, the interior theatre lighting system, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob, audio controls on the steering wheel, Bluetooth, a five-inch colour display screen, an eight speaker stereo with USB and iPod inputs and a rather cool frameless rear view mirror.
Safety kit includes dynamic stability control with torque vectoring, twin front, side, knee and curtain airbags, an airbag built into the bonnet to protect against pedestrian impact, an anti-whiplash prevention system and Volvo's City Safety function. City Safety keeps an eye on traffic in front using a laser sensor integrated into the top of the windscreen at the height of the rear-view mirror. In other words, if you want the safest car in the family hatch class, you're looking at it right here.
Cost of Ownership
While I applaud Volvo's decision to equip its entry level models so well, I do wonder whether the company has shot itself in the foot a little. After all, most of its rivals are past masters at what's known as the price walk-up. This is the process of choosing what equipment you'd like, only to find you need to buy the top model in order to get, say, climate controlled air con, stability control and a stereo that will interface with your iPod. So you end up forking out a couple of grand extra buying a bunch of other features that you didn't really want. A flock-lined spare wheel well. Joy.
You see for most car makers the cheapest car in the line up has a very important job. It's so they can splash its price across their ads. Nobody in their right mind would buy the thing unless they got a kick out of their four year olds wrestling with manual window winders in the back seats and felt that their superhuman driving talent would react quicker than a stability control system. With the Volvo V40 it's different. You'd quite happily drive this entry-level T3 petrol model, which is why Volvo might have a tough time shifting the plusher models which is traditionally where the bigger profit margins reside.
The T3 will return a combined figure of 52.3mpg with a CO2 return of 125g/km. Those were the sort of figures you'd have expected from a good diesel not so very long ago.
As with most things in life, the best products take what seems a complicated bunch of requirements and reduce them to something very simple and elegant. The Volvo V40 is just such a car. The Swedish company has built something that looks great, drives well, makes sense on the balance sheet and which has an amazing amount of safety equipment built into it. Even in entry-level T3 petrol form, it really is as good as it looks.
Any caveats? Not many. Whereas most model ranges get better the higher you go, with the V40, the opposite seems to be true. I could take or leave the powerful D4 diesel and T4 petrol engines, but I'm hugely impressed by the lowlier D2 and D3 variants and in particular, this petrol T3 version. Less, in this case, really is more.