Car reviews - Volvo - V40 - range
Interior design and quality, steering, brakes, ride, handling, thoughtful touches, digital dash, spacious, safety tech
Room for improvement
Road noise, dated automatic transmission, vague manual transmission, hot T5 could be more fun, small boot
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18 Feb 2013
THE Volvo V40 has way more going for it than the world’s first pedestrian protecting airbag.
By that we mean it is great to drive, has a lovely interior and can be specced up with an unmatched level of safety gadgetry that makes it harder to crash in the first place.
Stepping aboard, a perfect driving position is easy to attain, with plenty of adjustment for the seat and steering column, and we appreciated the well sculpted and supportive shape of the cushions.
The V40 has one of the best executed digital instrument displays we have seen, and it can be altered to encourage economical driving or to support sporty driving, with a third mode for everyday use.
Economy and everyday settings cleverly and subtly highlight the part of the speedometer dial being used and fade out the rest, reducing information overload for easy at-a-glance speed checks while the sports mode provides a massive digital speed readout surrounded by a rev-counter.
Other areas of the display alter depending on purpose, such as the engine temperature gauge that becomes an economy meter or the rev-counter that becomes an available-power graphic.
The centre of the speedometer occasionally displays information such as driving directions on cars fitted with sat-nav fitted (which at a ludicrous $4175 costs more as an option than it does to upgrade to a better specified variant that has it as standard).
A floating centre stack with a range of attractive colour and design options – including an offset go-faster stripe on the R-Design – houses rotary controllers for audio, infotainment and climate functions plus push-buttons for major features.
In the centre is a numerical keypad for phone dialling, and doubles as text entry for the sat-nav if using the rotary controller (which works in an eerily similar way to Audi’s MMI) is too fiddly.
We found it all to be quite logical and easy to use and gathering all the switchgear on to this attractive panel enables the rest of the dashboard to be clean and clutter free.
None of the interior surfaces felt cheap, and it all seems well screwed together, while a classy selection of textures and metal finishes provide a subtly upmarket ambience, helped by the oodles of standard equipment.
Decent-sized door bins, a big glovebox, a sizeable bin beneath the centre arm-rest, a cubby behind the centre console and another by the driver’s right knee provide plenty of interior storage.
In the back we found plenty of knee-room for tall adult passengers in the outboard seating positions, which like the front provide excellent comfort and support, although rear passengers get no air vents.
Cleverly, Volvo has offset these positions so that rear passengers can easily see over the shoulder of front occupants, although this is at the expense of hip room for anyone sitting in the middle, who also has restricted headroom.
However, the shape of the rear bench places the central passenger slightly ahead of those in the outboard positions, increasing shoulder space.
Instead of locating cup-holders in the rear centre arm-rest, Volvo has built them into the base of the central position under a section of cushion that is released by tugging a cord, which we thought was quirky and original, while those offset outboard seating positions create space for small storage trays between the cushion and the door.
Time to set off and the position of the handbrake means getting a bit too personal with the passenger.
In the T5 R-Design, with its 187kW/360Nm 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo-petrol engine that can do 0-100km/h in just 6.1 seconds, acceleration is violent and it is the first automatic car we have driven that chirps the tyres on changing into second gear. It’s a beast.
The steering on all variants is delightfully direct, crisp and accurate, but all the variants we drove (D4, T4 and T5) all exhibited torque-steer under hard acceleration.
Volvo has struck a great ride/handling balance with the V40, even the firmly-sprung T5 R-Design, that, while never harsh, thumps over larger obstacles compared with other variants that soak up imperfections more seamlessly.
The V40 can be flung into bends harder than almost any Volvo we can remember, with the most intrusive electronic nanny being the one that attempts to quell understeer by braking an inside front wheel.
It almost felt as though the system is sound-operated as the first sign of tyre squeal results in a slightly ham-fisted electronic attempt to pull things into line.
Disappointingly, the T5 R-Design does without paddle-shifters, and its old-school Geartronic six-speed automatic transmission, while quite violent and sporty in its behaviour, feels off the pace compared with dual-clutch and eight-speed offerings available on rivals.
The transmission’s sport mode made the car a bit over-responsive on the throttle and harder to drive smoothly.
It is a shame there is no central driving mode option that ties in the driveline, instrument display and steering weight (selectable steering is an $80 option).
We also felt the T5’s handling could have been more fun. It is doubtless a highly capable and prodigiously rapid hatch but it lacks drama – and the same it true of its engine and exhaust note, which could have made so much more of the five-cylinder thrum.
For this reason, we suspect Volvo is keeping its powder dry for an all-conquering, even hotter version of the V40 that will take the fight up to the Audi RS3, BMW M135i and Mercedes A45 AMG.
Road noise was regularly intrusive and wearing on the South Australian roads we plied with the V40.
At first we thought it was the big, grippy tyres fitted to the T5 but all variants we tried afterwards were as bad. It is the car’s biggest weakness and a real shame.
We felt that the D4, powered by a five-cylinder 130kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine, was the sweetest drive, with seemingly endless mid-range shove for confident overtaking, relaxed cruising and effortless hill-climbing.
There was also a decent – not just for a diesel – engine note that disappeared behind the road noise while cruising.
We thought the D4 was almost preferable to the T5 as a car to chuck around a set of bends, as the more compliant suspension and skinnier tyres provided a wider margin of breakaway in which to have some fun at legal speeds.
The manual transmission of the model we drove was a bit notchy and vague though, making it easy to select fifth instead of third or vice-versa, and the clutch pedal had an inconsistent feel throughout its travel.
Volvo thinks the auto-only T4, its 2.0-litre five-pot turbo-petrol punching out 132kW and 300Nm, will be the biggest seller in Australia.
We were only able to sample this variant for a short time, with initial impressions that it is a smooth operator with plenty of punch, but nothing like the urge of the D4 – and it’s thirstier too.
Fitted to this car was the $5000 Driver Support pack that includes adaptive cruise control, self parking, road sign recognition, lane-keeping assistance, automatic high beam and blind spot monitoring.
The quiet roads of the Adelaide Hills did not test the blind spot monitor or adaptive cruise, but the road sign recognition and lane-keeping systems both impressed with their accuracy and quick responses.
All this talk of safety brings us back to the matter of that pedestrian airbag.
This technology must have added a great deal to the cost of developing and manufacturing the V40, so Volvo has done well to pretty much match the sharply priced Mercedes-Benz A-Class, which launches in Australia a week after the Volvo.
An airbag is like insurance, something we pay for but hope not to use, and the pedestrian ’bag is uniquely altruistic – although the driver can also take comfort from the reduced risk of a death on their conscience if someone steps out in front of them.
It is clear Volvo has thought hard about the people who will drive and travel in the V40, as so many features make sense, with the kind of logical quirkiness that is oh-so Swedish.
Factor in the strong engines and agile handling and surely this is a recipe for success. The V40 is clearly a strong competitor in the premium small segment but sadly lacks the badge kudos and brand recognition of its German competitors.
Let’s hope for Volvo’s sake that the V40 does not become one of those best-kept secrets as it deserves far better than that.
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