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Car reviews - Volvo - V40 - 1.8 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Safety levels, useable design
Room for improvement
Suspension improved but still not best in class

5 Jul 2001

VOLVO is without doubt the prestige station wagon car company in Australia.

Its V70 station wagon version of the S70 sedan (once known as the Volvo 850) has so far this year outsold the sedan variant at a ratio exceeding two to one.

The reasons are numerous, but high on the list undoubtedly is the fact that not only is the boxy style better suited to a wagon shape, but also that the Swedish importer has vigorously pursued sales with frequent special deals offering equivalent-to-sedan prices.

But it's probably fair to say the Volvo wagon's image as a totally acceptable conveyance in all the right upmarket suburbs has contributed significantly to its success. A Volvo with street credibility.

The smaller V40 wagon, in relative terms, performs nowhere as strongly but obviously Volvo would like to see the sedan/wagon ratio improve.

The chances of this happening look pretty good with the arrival of the new 1.8-litre S40 and V40 models, which ask no premium for the wagon version.

The new models undercut the 2.0-litre version of the medium-size Volvo, asking no sacrifice other than a drop of 200cc and 13kW.

With a sticker price hovering around the $40,000 mark, the 1.8- litre V40 looks reasonably alluring. Dual front airbags, side airbags, and Volvo's anti-whiplash front seats are all part of the deal.

The S40 and V40 were subjected to a minor update at the end of 1999. Visually, there's not a lot to discuss. Part-leather interior trim, pockets in the front seat cushions and a new colour for the exterior plastic parts (dark anthracite) such as door handles, bumpers and side mouldings are about the only clues that this is Volvo's latest.

As it should be, the most important changes are under the skin. And, particularly, they relate to the suspension.

Volvo might be playing coy, but the suspension engineers seem to have achieved a lot from very little. The company tells us that all they basically did was redesign the top MacPherson strut mount to separate front-end damper and spring forces, adopt strategically placed, softer bushes and re-rate the dampers at the front and in the independent multi-link rear suspension. They also beefed up the front end by reinforcing the cross member.

The result is a noticeable about-face on the ride/handling front. But more about that later.

Other invisible but tangible work was done on both the 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines, reworking the torque and power curves to develop similar outputs, but at different points in the rpm range. So while the outright power of the 2.0-litre might be slightly less (100kW compared to 103kW previously), it comes in 200rpm lower, at 5800rpm. The torque, increased from 183Nm to 190Nm, is produced at 4000rpm where the previous version required 4500rpm. The result is improved mid-range torque, and generally better engine response across the rpm range.

Volvo says the new four-cylinder engines comprise virtually all- new moving parts, with the accent being on reducing friction while also lowering fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.

Australia also picks up the latest iteration of the 1.8-litre, previously unavailable here. Like the 2.0-litre, the smaller powerplant benefits from a redesign programme that sees it producing more useable power combined with improved economy and lower exhaust emissions. But with 90kW and 170Nm, it's performance is - well, adequate.

The upshot of the entry-level 1.8-litre initiative, and the general upgrade, is a more livable and affordable small Volvo.

In V40 form, the car comes across as a slick package, at first observation very good value at Volvo's pre-GST adjusted prices.

From behind the wheel, the suspension rework has indeed transformed the car into an acceptably comfortable conveyance, able to handle just about everything it can be thrown at. But it's far from being best in class as the limits of travel can still be found with just a little effort, resulting in the odd muted thump from the front end as the suspension tops out, or hits the bump stops on compression.

Under less arduous conditions, the V40 rides in a well-damped, comfortable way, although there is still an awareness of a relatively short suspension travel. Is this a little bit of its joint Mitsubishi parentage still creeping through? Then again, Volvo has never scored any points as a suspension specialist anyway.

The car turns in well enough, via slightly over assisted steering, and even though it's only a 1.8-litre it's not too hard to break traction at the front wheels under acceleration - especially when a little steering lock is applied.

The engine itself is actually quite smooth and surprisingly quiet, considering the work it's asked to do, cruising easily without introducing an unacceptable racket.

It does not object to being wound out towards its 6500rpm red line, and is actually quite swift if asked.

The interior ambience of the V40 is appropriately upmarket, with the leather seat inserts adding, as much as anything else, a classy tang.

The front seats are Volvo-comfortable, with adequate adjustment for tall drivers and a promise of long-distance comfort, with support provided in all the right places.

In the back it's a little tighter, but not impossible if front- seat passengers are prepared to make a small sacrifice in legroom.

Cleverly built into the divided rear seats are two fold-out children's seats and, of course, lap-sash belts - and head restraints - are provided for all passengers.

The rear load area is not Commodore wagon size, but it's relatively large and offers the security of a combination solid shelf/roller blind to keep the contents hidden. The split-fold rear seat folds easily enough, although a jutting metal catch high on the right-hand side is best avoided if you wish to avoid scratching or damaging delicate items. Items such as mountain bikes, which can be loaded, with the seats folded, without need for removing the wheels.

Smart features include speed-sensitive windscreen wiper dwell, a rear wiper that comes on if reverse is selected when the front wipers are operating, a headlight delay that allows the lights to stay on for 30 seconds after leaving the car to illuminate the way to the house and a pollen filter to keep the interior fresh. But, annoyingly, there is no remote central locking.

In all, the V40 is an appealing wagon that carries the Volvo stamp of credibility even if at times it does exhibit signs of its mixed parentage.

And while it is probably cheap for a Volvo, it is not really a cheap mid-size wagon and faces stiff competition from the likes of Holden's Vectra and Subaru's Liberty wagons.

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