Published on Saturday 2 July 2016 08:34
Ten Second Review
The improved Volvo V40 is a car with a key job to do. It's tasked wih driving a massive increase in brand sales over the next few years, though that imperative has been made easier with the introduction of efficient 'Drive-E' engine technology. To remind you, the V40 is a five-door hatch, sized and pitched to match premium compact hatch models like Audi's A3 and BMW's 1 Series. 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 one of the more affordable versions, the 152bhp 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. In the Spring of 2015, the look was updated with a restyled front end featuring the segment-first standard fitment of LED headlights. The value proposition seems strong too, especially in the 152bhp petrol T3 guise we're looking at here, a variant that features the brand's efficient 'Drive-E' engine technology. 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.
One of our favourite engines in the whole range is the one we're looking at here, the 152bhp turbocharged T3 petrol unit. 62mph from rest in the 2.0-litre manual model takes 8.4s on the way to 130mph and this is a genuinely sweet powerplant. It's also really good on fuel and is priced well. There's the option of getting this version in 6-speed auto form too, though if you do, the engine changes to a 1.5-litre unit. Power and efficiency stay the same.
In truth, most V40 customers are going to buy diesel, but they shouldn't overlook the T3, especially if their 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.
Design and Build
This facelifted V40 gets a smarter front end, courtesy of the addition of revised LED headlamps that feature the so-called 'Thor's Hammer' style that's already been seen in the brand's larger XC90, S90 and V90 series models. A smarter grille mesh completes the more confident look. As before, the V40 has a relatively low and sleek bonnet line: that's because courtesy of a unique under-bonnet airbag, it doesn't have to leave an under-bonnet void to meet pedestrian impact legislation. So the bonnet line can be much lower, part of a lean, wide coupe-like stance in a shape very slightly longer and wider than rival BMW 1 Series or Audi A3 models.
Pleasantly different then, an observation equally applicable in the cabin. Of course it needs to be good if sales are to be stolen from rival German prestige-badged contenders, a tough assignment tackled with an unpretentious 'Designed Around You' philosophy epitomised by a beautifully positioned infotainment screen that, once you've figured out its complicated menus, enables you to deal with audio, navigation, 'phone and other functions almost without taking your eyes off the road. The idea is that, like IKEA furniture, this cabin should be typically Scandinavian, comfortable, simple, intuitive and visually pleasing. And broadly it is. Cabin space is fine and there's a 335-litre boot.
Market and Model
The 152bhp petrol T3 prices roughly between £23,000 to £26,000, so you're talking of around £2,000 over the 122bhp T2 variant. That puts this car above 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 on price, 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 we applaud Volvo's decision to equip its entry level models so well, we 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 the base 'SE'-spec T3 petrol model we tried, 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 51.4mpg with a CO2 return of 129g/km, even in auto form. 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. This improved 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. We could take or leave the powerful D4 diesel and T4 petrol engines, but we're hugely impressed by the lowlier D2 and D3 variants and in particular, this petrol T3 version. Less, in this case, really is more.