You have to admire Volvo for their bravery. In a move that echoes the clash between David and Goliath they have pitched the new V40 hatchback against not one, but two, giants in their field – the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series.
You can’t underestimate the difficulty of this task as both rivals are very good and are well established in the car park hierarchy. First impressions of the V40 were very good and it looked like Volvo were onto a winner but would I still feel the same after a week behind the wheel?
What Model Is This?
It’s the Volvo V40 SE Lux. What that tells you is that this is the SE model with a dash of extra ‘Lux’.
That means you get leather upholstery, 17-inch wheels, LED DRLs and bending xenon-headlights on top of the keyless start and power mirrors on the standard SE. That’s in addition to the City Safety system, Bluetooth, 5-inch colour display and dual-zone climate that comes as standard on all V40s.
The V40 is also fitted with the first-ever pedestrian airbag, a inflatable cushion that pops out of the top edge of the bonnet to soften the landing for anyone unlucky enough to step out in front of you. Having said that, you could argue they were lucky to step out in front of a V40 as that airbag might just save their life!
Any Nice Options Fitted?
Yes, there are. My favourite is the driver’s active display, a riot of colour and information that can be adapted to suit your driving mood. Choose from traditional ‘Elegance’ mode, economy-minded ‘Eco’ mode and on-a-mission Performance mode. All three serve their purpose well and are crisply detailed and beautifully animated.
Another feature I learned to love is the adaptive cruise control. You just set your desired top speed and let the V40 handle the rest. It will slow down for you and even brake to a halt if necessary, holding a safe distance behind vehicles in front. If you signal to overtake it immediately accelerates as you move over. I’ve used similar systems on other cars but in the V40 it works especially well with the active display as you can see your intended and current speeds, the limit on the road and the speed of the vehicle in front.
The adaptive cruise is part of the Driver Support Pack. That adds blind-side information (an orange light warns of traffic in your blind spot), lane departure warning (accompanied by an eerie tug on the wheel if you stray off course) and collision warning (alarms sound and lights flash if the V40 thinks you’re about to hit something). At £1,850 it is expensive but it’s both useful and could even save your bacon in an emergency.
What’s It Like Inside?
Very nice indeed. The fit and finish is very good and as you close the door you get the same feeling of solidity and safety that you get from much bigger Volvos. The interior styling is a little bland with very little to lift the sombre tones of black leather seats and black door trim, but there’s no arguing with the quality of materials in here.
There is one subtle source of colour mounted in the roof but you’ll only notice it at night. LED ambient lighting is nothing new these days … but in the V40 you can change it’s colour! Red, yellow, white, green and blue are just a few of the available shades, just take your pick and bathe in the soothing night-time glow. I know, it’s a gimmick, but I actually quite liked it. Not sure the illuminated gearstick works quite as well though.
Seats have long been a Volvo strong point and the V40’s are no exception. They’re very comfortable with superb lumbar support and make long distance journeys a breeze. I spent two 3-hour journeys in the V40 and felt fresh as a daisy when I stepped out at my destination. The optional winter pack includes heated seats and they’re perfect for gently toasting your buttocks on a cold winter morning.
The centre console might look a bit daunting at first but you soon realise that most of the myriad of buttons are rarely used. Volvo’s signature ‘floating’ design features on the V40 where you can reach around the back to find fresh air behind the centre console, as well as a little shelf.
The display for the stereo and heating controls is crisp, easy to read and not afflicted with the over-styled interfaces of some other cars. It’s easy to use too, with the four dials on the console giving you access to the majority of functions.
Rear leg and head room is reasonable for taller adults. The boot is on par for the class and includes a handy divider to stop your possessions from rolling around.
What’s Under The Bonnet?
This particular V40 is equipped with the 1.6-litre D2 diesel, originally a Ford unit. It is the slowest of the V40 range and has to make do with a lowly 113bhp. Claimed figures are 0-62mph in 12.3 seconds and top speed of 118mph, but the flip side of that coin is an astonishing claimed EU economy figure of 78mpg and as little as 94g/km (free road tax!).
On paper 113bhp should barely be adequate to pull 1,380kg of prime Swedish metal and yet, somehow, the V40 feels quite sprightly. That’s down to the 199lb/ft of torque, available from 1,750rpm to 2,500rpm. That might sound like a very narrow range but it’s easy to keep the engine spinning away in this sweet spot thanks to the well chosen ratios of the six-speed manual gearbox.
Catch the D2 unawares with less than 1,500rpm on the dial and you’ll wonder if the engine’s died but keep it above 1,750rpm and it pulls keenly. Volvo have worked hard to improve the D2’s refinement and it feels smoother and revs more keenly than in the equivalent Focus.
What’s It Like To Drive?
The V40 is one of those cars that strikes a great balance between comfort and handling. On a rough road it will smother all but the worst of imperfections and on the motorway it glides effortlessly.
Road and tyre noise are never an issue. Just like the bigger members of its family the V40 is quiet and refined and that’s a key part of its upmarket appeal. The diesel engine is little more than a quiet background rumble in the background, the downside being that it never makes the kind of sound to get a petrolhead’s pulse racing.
Once you get off the main roads and onto your favourite stretch of quiet country lanes the V40 really gets stuck in. There’s very little body roll as it settles into the bend and it always feels stable. Inevitably the front wheels give way to understeer but there’s enough front end grip for you to keep entry speeds higher than you might expect. Just as well, as that allows you to keep up momentum to counter the D2’s lack of ultimate pace.
A BMW 1-Series could teach the V40 a thing or two about agility and driver involvement but it’s more entertaining than an A3.
The only fly in the ointment is the steering. The wheel is a bit large and you get very little information being passed through it from the front wheels. It’s not that it’s a bad setup, it just robs you of that feeling of connectivity to make it the keen driver’s first choice.
What’s Wrong With It?
There are a lot of positives to the Volvo V40 and, really, very few negatives. Price is an issue, or should I say the price of options. A starting price of £19,995 seems quite reasonable but you can very quickly specify a rather expensive car. Would Sir like a sat-nav for £1,200? Or would you rather use Google Maps on your smartphone for free? Having said that, BMW and Audi both share the same school of thought – start at a seemingly sensible price but charge a small fortune for those desirable extras.
It’s also fair to say that the SE model looks rather plain. The V40 is essentially a scaled-down V60 and that is a very good thing but it lacks any visual sparkle to make it stand out. Some will like its undertstated appearance but if you crave more style there’s an R-Design trim level which gives the V40 a sportier image (while adding £2,300 to the price).
There’s also the thorny issue of fuel economy. Over 500 miles I averaged 56mpg, well short of the ‘official’ EU figure of 78mpg. I certainly didn’t spend the whole week thrashing the V40’s D2 to within an inch of its life and two long motorway journeys should have kept the average high. It sounds disappointing to fall so short of the EU figure but not that surprising as I get almost exactly the same economy from my 1.6 TDCi Focus, the engine that formed the basis for the D2.
The Final Verdict
The Volvo V40 is such an easy car to live with. The D2 engine might not satisfy my inner hoonigan but its compromise between pace and economy certainly appeals to my bank balance.
It is a delight to spend time in, covers big distances with great ease and cossets you with superb seats and a hushed cabin. It feels safe and secure and you know that with all of that safety gear on board the V40 is doing its best to look after you and your passengers.
So is it better than its German rivals? Personally I think it is. It feels better to drive than the Audi A3 and has a better interior than the BMW. The Volvo V40 might not be able to deliver a knockout blow to either of these Goliaths but it poses a serious threat to their dominance.
There is a third rival, another newcomer to the arena, in the shape of the Mercedes A-Class but after a drive in the entry-level model I don’t think the V40 has anything to fear from this third German contender.
Volvo V40 SE Lux Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Not a strong performer unless you’re talking economy||6|
|HANDLING||Composed, comfortable, predictable||7|
|AFFORDABILITY||Avoid the options and V40 is well priced, cheap to run||8|
|DESIRABILITY||Svelte looks, great packaging, very appealing||9|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||A great all-rounder, just pick the D3 for extra power||7|
Volvo V40 SE Lux Specifiations
|Engine:||1,560 cc 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel|
|Power:||113 bhp @ 3,600rpm|
|Torque:||199 lb/ft @ 1,750-2,500rpm|
|0-62 mph:||11.9 seconds|
|Top Speed:||118 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||94 g/km (Band E)|
|Official Economy:||78.5 mpg|
|Price (As Tested):||£28,970*|
*Prices taken from Volvo website, March 2013