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|The V40 is strong and confident about the nose, with a dynamic rising waistline. Photos: David Thomson|
Volvo's determined bid to raise global sales has gathered momentum with the launch of the new V40. David Thomson puts the D4 turbo-diesel to the test.
Seven years. That's how long Volvo has left to double its global sales from the 400,000 cars a year produced when it was brought from Ford by the Chinese Geely conglomerate in 2010.
The car you see here is a vital part, if not the key, to that sales push as it is pitching hard into the internationally vital and highly-competitive compact premium segment of the new car market.
Think of Volkswagen Golf and Alfa Romeo Giulietta as the benchmarks it seeks to move beyond, and Audi A3 and BMW 1-series as the rivals Volvo would like to be judged against; then you should get a feel for the challenge the company has taken on.
After mixed success in this segment with the four-door S40 as its centrepiece, the three-door C30 as its sporty number, and the V50 wagon as its sensible choice, Volvo has bowed to compact car convention, which dictates a five-door hatchback configuration.
The V40 is a good-looking hatchback, too, strong and confident about the nose, with a dynamic rising waistline, and a tidy tail that harks back to Volvo's 1960s P1800 ES in some of its detailed design cues.
The cabin architecture is pure Volvo up-front, with that trademark free-floating centre console, and a determined emphasis on excellent ergonomics and clean, uncluttered design. There are a few tech tricks too, including mood lighting and an interactive digital dashboard that offers three different combinations (elegant, economy and post) of gauges and background colour.
Interesting choices have been made in the rear of the cabin, where the combination of two well-sculptured outboard seats separated by a narrow raised section make it clear that - despite the presence of three rear-belts, the V40 is intended primarily as a four-seater.
It's disappointing that the V40 misses out on Volvo's excellent integrated child booster seat cushions. This omission aside, though, it would be hard to fault the car for safety-focused attention to detail.
Of course it holds the maximum five-star European crash test rating. It also boasts such advanced active safety features as City Safe automatic braking and a pedestrian airbag.
Mercifully, the external airbag was not required on test. Had it been, the car's bonnet would have popped upwards on pedestrian impact, and an airbag deployed from the base of the windscreen to cushion the person's fall.
City safe braking, which overrides the driver to apply full braking when a potential impact is detected at slow speeds, was activated on test. Indeed, it caught me by surprise, applying the brakes hard when the car's electronic brain decided I was nosing up to my garage door too fast.
If safety is something one has long been able to take for granted in any Volvo, raw driver appeal has usually been the preserve of the company's performance-focused flagships.
The test car, though, was the entry-level $49,990 V40 D4 6-speed manual, not the $64,990 V40 T5 R-Design.
While a long way shy of the T5 in power (130kW vs 187kW), the D4's turbo-diesel engine matches its flagship petrol cousin for torque, mustering 400Nm from 1750rpm. Equipped with stop-start technology, it also delivers a fine 4.3l/100km standard cycle economy return.
The engine is an interesting one, combining a distinctive but pleasant five-cylinder burble under moderate to high load, with a silent, refined nature when cruising. After an initial dead spot at very low revs, it works into its stride, with a 1750-2750rpm peak torque band that makes for strong, flexible open-road motoring.
A manual may not be the preferred choice of many in this segment, but the $5000 premium Volvo asks for the D4 auto may encourage more than usual to give it a look. For those who undertake a high proportion of highway driving, it's not a bad choice either.
The manual also combines nicely with the engine over twisty back roads, where third gear is the staple in which most ground can be covered at pace.
Back roads provide the sternest test of the V40's chassis and driving dynamics.
Within an overall package that has been engineered to deliver progressive, vice-free handling, there is plenty to like: the steering is precise and well weighted; turn in is crisp; grip and balance are good too.
Thanks to these qualities, the V40 T4 feels like a car that has been engineered to respond positively to press on driving rather than, as was the case with the old S40, to begrudgingly tolerate such behaviour.
There's a welcome tick for ride quality too: sure there is a little underlying European firmness to the V40's gait, but that is typical of cars against which Volvo expects this new arrival to be matched.