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First drive: Volvo's V40 makes safety sexy

Volvo viking: Volvo's all-new hatch is safe – as you would expect – but fun too.

Feisty V40 hatch to give Volvo mainstream muscle in battle of the luxo littlies


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22 Jun 2012


VOLVO'S all-new mainstream premium hatchback, the V40, will shoulder the Swedish company's Australian small-car market aspirations when it arrives in February, just after three existing small Volvo models are shown the door.

Volvo Car Australia (VCA) has confirmed that the current entry-level model, the funky three-door C30 hatch, will go out of production at the end of this year, along with the more conservative S40 small sedan and related V50 wagon.

Although the super-safe V40 is not a direct replacement for any of those except in price, it will fill the resultant void below the S60 mid-sized sedan and V60 wagon, entering the Australian market in February with a sub-$40,000 starting price.

The Belgian-built five-seater will be pitched against the likes of the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, VW Golf and – from early next year – the all-new front-drive Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatchback in an increasing crowded and competitive premium compact car market.

The V40 can be expected to undercut the Audi A3, which starts at $41,300, and the 1 Series that just slips under the $40k mark.

VCA hopes to sell between 500 and 1000 V40s in Australia in the first full year, but even at those volumes, it might not displace the XC60 medium SUV as the brand's most popular vehicle Down Under.

The V40 line-up will have only one body style – five-door hatchback – armed with an all-turbo engine line-up at launch (two petrol and two diesel), all driving through the front wheels.

The engines will range from a frugal 1.6-litre turbo-diesel capable of a Prius-beating 3.6 litres per 100km fuel economy and CO2 output of just 94 grams per kilometre, to a fiery 187kW five-cylinder turbo petrol range leader that will take on the likes of the Audi S3, Volkswagen Golf R and Renault Megane RS250.

To be called T5, the auto-only two-wheel-drive V40 flagship is said to be capable of laying down a 6.5-second time for the 0-100km/h sprint, thanks to some technological tricks supplied by Volvo race team Polestar. On paper, it looks set to put a few cats among the European GTI pigeons.

Surprisingly, no four-cylinder petrol model will be offered in Australia, at least in the short term.

While the high-output 187kW 2.5-litre five-cylinder T5 will claim the glory, the downsized 2.0-litre version, called T4, is likely to be one of the biggest-selling models, making do with a handy 132kW of power and 300Nm of torque.

Ultimately, a new family of Volvo-designed four-cylinder engines is likely to find a home in the V40 – as well as all other Volvo models – once the new powerplants arrive in 2014.

Right now, all V40 variants will get a world-first pedestrian airbag that pops out from between the bonnet and windscreen – a technology that is likely to be applied to other Volvo models in time.

As well, the V40 gets the latest version of Volvo's City Safety crash mitigation technology that can now work at up to 50km/h, instead of the previous 30km/h on models such as the XC60 SUV and S60 sedan.

A vast array of other safety technologies, including a pedestrian detection and auto brake system, lane keeping alert, blind spot warning system and autonomous braking, have all been engineered for the V40, which deep down shares a platform with the Ford Focus in a hangover from the days when Volvo was a Blue Oval subsidiary.

However, VCA managing director Matt Braid told GoAuto that his company was still to decide which of these safety technologies will be made available in Australia, and whether they would be applied as standard equipment, options or grouped in optional packs.

He also said pricing would not be decided until closer to launch, with Volvo keeping a close eye on the competition in the meantime.

Collectively, the new safety technologies make the V40 arguably the world's safest small car, but much of the engineering focus has been on its dynamic ability and refinement, which are both world class.

The hatchback's design is far more practical than the C30's polarising three-door layout, and should appeal to a wider audience, provided customers are prepared to pay for the liberal sprinkling of new technologies and high-quality finishes.

The V40 gets an all-new electric power steering system – a first for Volvo – and a premium suspension set-up, including a five-link rear end that puts the dynamics of the smallest Volvo at least on par with other European front-wheel drive hatchbacks such as the Audi A3.

Similarly, ride quality is first class, dealing with a wide variety of road surfaces in a three-hour test drive in northern Italy.

Unfortunately, only two of the engine variants destined for the Australian line-up were available for test driving at the launch, both diesel.

First up was the smallest and most efficient powertrain in the range, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder D2, which bangs out 84kW of power and 220Nm of torque – about par for the size and class.

The hills around Verona were a tall order for this little engine, and the six-speed manual gearbox – the only transmission that will be offered with this powerplant – needed rowing up the steep hills and around myriad hairpins.

The gearbox has wide gear ratio gaps that are clearly aimed at frugality rather than fun, although the chassis showed it could handle a lot more.

Next up was the mainstream D4 2.0-litre five-cylinder diesel – a wholly Volvo exercise – that is said to be capable of 4.3L/100km fuel economy and an 8.3 second 0-100km/h dash. It dominated the mountains, executing the steep inclines with ease.

Matched with a six-speed automatic transmission (a slick-shifting six-speed manual also will be offered), the 130kW/400Nm turbo diesel could even chirp the front tyres with a dab of the throttle in lower gears until the traction control nanny took over.

Mild torque-steer was evident at these moments, but hardly in the Mazda 626 Turbo lane-jumping class.

Both diesel engines are distinguished by their refinement, with a barely audible rattle to be heard from inside the cabin.

The only petrol engine we sampled was one that is not on the list for Australia – the T3 132kw/240Nm 1.6-litre turbocharged direct-injected four-cylinder that is shared with Ford as the EcoBoost.

This free-spinning engine is spirited, although lack the big diesel's torque. Remarkably, we saw a fuel economy figure of about 8.4 litres per 100km in our half our drive with the T3 V40 – not much different from the real-world figure we got from the D4.

It is a shame this engine won't be on offer in Australia, but for some reason, it is not available to this market.

It was also a shame we did not get to sample the fire-breathing T5 at the event, but that is off limits until it is launched in Europe, probably at the Paris motor show in September.

So while we did not get to feel the full power of the V40, we did cast our eyes over the all new digital dash display, and liked most of what we saw. Crystal clear, the dash can been set up in three modes to match the mood – Elegance, Eco and Performance.

As the names suggest, the display can show the most beneficial dials and gauges to help the driver to achieve high fuel efficiency or high speed, all with an accompaniment of an appropriate colour scheme (green for Eco, amber for Elegant and red for Performance).

These modes also modify the throttle settings and – in the auto – transmission shifts, to go fast or go economical.

The driver can also set the steering weight according to taste – light, normal or heavy – but we thought normal was just fine for all occasions.

The operation of these modes could be a bit simpler, and we would like to have seen a digital speedo in all modes. Nevertheless, a great start.

Planted in the middle of the dash is a five-inch screen (seven-inch with sat-nav and other gadgets), to show the usual array of functions.

Overhead in the test cars was the giant sunroof which does not open. It will probably be an option in Australia.

We can't sign off without a bouquet for the seat comfort and general care and attention to cabin ambience and ergonomics. First class.

As usual, we will have to reserve full enthusiasm until we can sample all powertrains and suspension set-ups on home territory, but the new baby of the Volvo range is promising indeed.

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