Paul Horrell28 February 2012

Exclusive: the new Volvo V40 driven

Paul Horrell reports back on Volvo’s first proper five door hatch. And count him impressed…

Volvo V40

Volvo has finally kicked its strange Scando obsession with estates, saloons and crossovers. The new V40 is the company’s first proper five-door hatch. It’ll be revealed at the Geneva show next week, and goes on sale in July. Volvo makes no bones that it’s aiming straight at the BMW 1-series and next-gen Audi A3. Not an easy job.

To get noticed, its body is unusually foxy from the outside, and coolly different within. See that scallop on the rear door? That’s meant to remind you of the P1800. No, us neither. The glassy, shouldered rear end is rather better at updating familiar Volvo cues.

The silhouette is low and fast, and unlike most rivals it doesn’t suffer from a bulbous, high bonnet. So how does it get around pedestrian impact rules, you ask? By having an airbag under the bonnet, just ahead of the wiper pivots. If a bank of seven sensors in the front bumper decides they’re striking a human leg (but not an elk’s, or a fencepost) then the airbag inflates, lifting the rear of the bonnet clear of the engine and putting a cushion over the base of the windscreen and A posts. Ahoy then to another safety first from the reindeer-eating nation’s finest. But of course you aren’t supposed to run anyone down: the car also has a pedestrian sensing camera that can invoke automatic braking.

See all the pictures of the new Volvo V40

Inside, Volvo’s usual calm, welcoming design has been updated by giving most models a highly configurable full-TFT instrument pack, like the sort of thing we’ve seen from Range Rover. You sit on newly designed seats which turn out to be exquisitely comfy. Neat design touches include a cleanly frameless rear-view mirror, and a backlit gearknob.

Volvo of course has always been good at safety, and in recent years its design hasn’t been any too shabby either. The problem has come when you came to drive them and got kyboshed by rubbery steering and a turbulent ride. And here we find things might just have taken a turn for the better.

It’s still several months to the on-sale date, but Volvo let me have a steer of a few prototypes on a greasy wet test track in Sweden. The surface was too smooth to tell me anything about the ride, but in other ways Volvo’s confidence does seem justified.

The 150 and 180bhp petrols both use Ford’s 1.6 Ecoboost as per a Focus. The result is a smooth, torquey flow of urge that the chassis seems perfectly comfortable with. It turns eagerly, doesn’t melt into understeer and – crikey, is this a Volvo? – provides decent steering feel and an opportunity to trim the line with the throttle, even with the ESP on.

Then the 2.0 diesel. This uses Volvo’s own five-cylinder, which sounds highly agreeable and doesn’t hang about. Trouble is, you certainly feel the weight of that big old block ahead of you when you swivel into a tight corner.

The short straight is good for about 85mph at the far end, at which rate there wasn’t much to worry about in engine or wind noise.

Jumping into an unfamiliar car and having very little time to get to know it is actually rather a stern test of control layout and driving position, and the V40 made me feel right at home.

It’s too soon to say this is a good car, but it’s certainly a promising one. Just as well. In making a hatch, Volvo is going into the busiest part of the car market. A place where the opposition is properly fierce.

See all the pictures of the new Volvo V40

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