Manual gearbox. A fresh engine. Bigger wing. Porsche’s best modern sports car is back
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What’s this? The new Volvo V40 – just about. Volvo’s 2012-vintage family hatchback has only sustained the merest flick of a stylist’s marker. Meet the 2016 V40, now wearing the ‘Thor’s hammer’ LED running light mascara, as modelled by the new XC90 (which we really like), the new S90, (ditto) and the V90 estate (even more so). That’s risky from Volvo, isn’t it? It’s, erm, confident, when Audi’s just treated the A3 to new lights, bumpers, wheels, the TT’s Virtual Cockpit (optionally) inside and a somewhat excellent 1.0-litre turbo motor. The Volvo has to tackle disparate new left-fielders too, in the form of the Mini Clubman and Infiniti Q30. Why has Volvo not tried harder, then?
Think of the V40 in the terms of say, a mid-table F1 car. It’s still in the race, but back at base the big brains are hard at work on the next all-new version. This one is a stopgap. In fact, come 2018, the oldest car in the Volvo range will be, believe it or not, the current XC90 – a car we first drove just 18 months ago. That’s how quickly Volvo is turning the ship around. Can the V40 still cut it in the meantime? The list of areas in which the V40 is feeling its four-and-a-bit years is rather long. For a car that occupies the same space as an Audi A3 Sportback, it’s never felt as roomy inside as a Volvo should, with thick pillars and small windows compounding the claustrophobia. With the new ‘90s pointing the way for Volvo’s minimalist, touchscreen future, the V40’s fussier dials and clusterbutton console feel very last-gen, if still attractively put together. What about out-driving the Audi or Infiniti? Can’t be too difficult? Again, the V40’s never been the sharpest steer. The steering’s extra-stodgy, and because the V40 comes from Volvo’s awkward phase of trying to be taken seriously as sporty, the ride gets a bit choppy. For £2,090 over the basic V40 you can spec the R-design package, because every premium carmaker needs a sporty set of bumpers and big wheels christened with a racy letter of the alphabet. Anyway, in Volvo-Land, R-design gets you the angrier splitter, the playschool rear diffuser and a set of spindly 17-inch alloys, with even skinnier 18s worn on the test car. Bad move. It looks pretty smart… Agreed: the R-design bodywork certainly adds swagger, but the meaner rims add a sharpness to the ride that’s intrusive at lower speeds. Sure enough, if you find a set of corners you’d never expect a Volvo to relish attacking, the V40 stays flat and firm and generally quite composed, it’s just a case of ‘better than you’d expect’. You could get Mo Farah to run the 5000m in Wellington boots. Doesn’t mean they’re the best tools for the job, does it? To drive, the V40 generally feels more lethargic than any of the German suspects. The D3 engine of the test car develops 148bhp and 104g/km, but it’s really hamstrung by the drowsy optional six-speed automatic gearbox. BMW moved for eight speeds long ago, Mercedes into nine gears, and Audi’s seven-speed dual-clutch is the snappiest of the bunch. Thing is, Volvo knows all of this, because its whole range is of a safer, comfier, more relaxed and pliant trajectory that’s a welcome refresh from its competitors. If the next car can offer more of that, and finally package it in a Volvo hatch that’s got the cabin space synonymous with the box-on-wheels badge, the Germans ought to be worried. In the meantime, this V40 won’t bother them.