Posh hatchbacks are all the rage in Europe at the moment, and Kiwis are picking up on the trend, with prestige European five-doors moving up the sales charts.
The primary imperative for the Volvo V40 is to pitch into the upper class; regardless that it is built upon the same bones as the Ford Focus, the sales race will be measured against premium opponents such as the Lexus CT200h, Mercedes-BenzA and B Class, Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf and BMW 1-Series.
If timing is everything, then Volvo New Zealand has done brilliantly. By arriving now, this seriously good-looking single-shape replacement for the outgoing C30 three-door compact hatch and medium-sized S40 sedan and sister V50 wagon gets the jump on the next-generation Golf, A3 and A-Class, all of which are 2013 arrivals.
Still, taking on the Germans is a giant step that Volvo hasn't managed in the past, so invariably the car needs to build on more than traditional values.
In Volvo's case, the key allure has always been outstanding safety - and it says something of the brand's desire to break into new territory that while the impressive credential of an NCAP crash test score that leaves the V40 placed as the world's safest car won't be ignored, neither will it be marketed as a primary impetus for purchase.
"People already know Volvos are safe - we're pushing its driveability as much as its functionality - that it is an all-round great car," Volvo New Zealand boss Steve Kenchington said.
"We want the style, design to pull the heartstrings."
Achieving this means broadening the customer base. The distributor will aim less at the 60-plus age bracket and instead focus on the 35-54 zone, mainly pre- and post-family types; a strategy that, if fully successful, will deliver a buyer base that is 80% new to Volvo.
Families will also have to think about the car. What the brand calls a "tight five" seat count references that it has two sculpted chairs in the back, bridged by a flat area that, while it has a seat belt, is barely wide enough for a child. It's also the only Volvo passenger model without inbuilt booster seats.
Initially, four models will sell here - a 2.0-litre diesel in manual and automatic that is here now and a pair of five-pot petrols, a 2.0-litre and a faster 2.5, coming in February, all sited within a $15,000 price band.
A plush, simple interior meant to embody Scandinavian values has been tailored for stylistas; there's Mini-like mood lighting (with eight hues), a gently illuminated gear lever knob and a cool frameless rear-view mirror.
The digital dash is interactive, with three display themes: elegance, eco and performance. In Volvo-speak, "V" traditionally stands for "versatile" and it beats all but the B Class for luggage capacity.
The standard specification is strong, but prestige buyers want glam and getting this involves extra spend; the $3200 Lifestyle pack covers the basics - 18-inch rims, keyless entry, heated front seats and an alarm - but it will be the stronger-provisioned $6000 Teknik kit that will win more interest.
This presents a "high-performance" sound system, rear-view parking camera, leather, satellite navigation, active bending lights with washers and an illuminated gearstick. Go for a panoramic sunroof and that's another $3000. Even the sunglasses holder and a first-aid kit cost extra, at $110 apiece.
The safety side is, of course, also well-stocked; blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping smarts, the latest City Safety anti-collision system (that now raises self-stopping capability from 30kmh to 50kmh), speed sign awareness, the world-first of an all-new pedestrian airbag that pops up across the outside of the windscreen, plus all the now usual safety aids expected of a modern motor vehicle.
They're all here, and although again some of the electronic early alert and active assistance gew-gaws are optional, with potential to add thousands to the bottom line, Kenchington says that the base format V40 wasthe model that aced every NCAP aspect.
Standard to the New Zealand specification are the City Safety autonomous emergency braking and the new pedestrian airbag, so far unique to Volvo.
This pops the car's bonnet on impact and provides a large cushion at the base of the screen on to which a pedestrian can fall, yet which is U-shaped to allow the driver visibility to keep steering.
It's ironic Kenchington doesn't reckon the Focus, last year's New Zealand car of the year, to be a direct competitor because it is certainly the first car to come to mind when looking to find a benchmark for dynamic feel.
Volvo has re-rated the electric power steering and revised every spring and damper setting, but really it's the excellent Ford-supplied recipe that makes this car so good to drive. Even the diesel, while not wilfully sporty, is still the best-handling Volvo in years.
This bodes well for the T5 R-Design flagship, which uses the 2.5 turbo from the old Focus XR5 for a 250kmh top speed and 0-100kmh time of 6.5 seconds.
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