What is it?
A Volvo V40 used to be a compact estate car, related to the S40 saloon – now it’s become a five-door hatchback. Volvo justifies this confusion of initials by pointing out that V stands for 'versatile'.
This is the first new Volvo since the company departed from Ford's control and into the arms of ambitious Chinese carmaker Geely. Despite the divorce, its mechanical parts are derived from the Focus, but with many Volvo re-tunings. The low-slung coupe-ish look indicates the broadness ofn the V40’s ambitions – effectively it replaces the old S40, V50 and C30.
The further up the range you go, the more Volvo the V40 becomes. Diesel versions will be the most popular, with either the usual Ford/PSA 1.6 (113bhp, just 94g/km CO2) or Volvo's own 2-litre, five-cylinder unit with 148 or 175bhp. These latter two, confusingly, are now called D3 and D4, the number relating approximately to power output rather than cylinder-count.
Petrol engines start with the 148 (T3) or 178bhp (T4) versions of Ford's 1.6-litre Ecoboost turbo units, but will be joined by two Volvo turbo five-pots. The first has, again, 178bhp and a T4 designation but a 2-litre capacity (a curious bit of range positioning), while the brawnier has a 2.5-litre capacity and 251bhp. A less powerful version of the 2.5 with 210bhp will be sold in other markets.
Innovations of note include a TFT screen for the instruments which alters the way they are displayed according to your chosen driving 'theme' – with the rev counter only visible when you’re in ‘Performance.’ Safety items - this is a Volvo, after all - include a pedestrian airbag which pops up to raise the back of the bonnet and cushion the scuttle area, and an improvement to the City Safety system which can automatically stop the V40 from up to 31mph (previously 19mph) if it detects an obstruction ahead.
What's it like to drive?
Very good indeed, mainly. Thicker piston rods for the front struts, Tenneco monotube dampers and detailed recalibration of the electric power steering relative to the Focus give a crisper, more transparent and more natural steering feel which hides the electric nature of its assistance very effectively.
The V40 also rides a little more fluently than the Focus, even with the optional Sport chassis (larger wheels, 10mm ride-height drop, stiffer settings), and it has just the right amount of throttle-adjustability in its handling balance to make it an amusing companion on a twisty mountain road.
The 178bhp T4 sprints along with conviction, too, with a great torque spread and ample overtaking ability. It's smooth and quite quiet but has enough of an aural edge to show it's interested in getting going. Our test car had a six-speed double-clutch transmission whose Sport mode was too hyperactive and held on to lower gears too long. Normal mode works better.
We're less impressed with the five-cylinder diesel D4. The heavier engine takes away some of the dynamic delicacy but, worse, the automatic gearbox option - an old-fashioned torque-converter 'box - is matched badly to the engine. The initial accelerator response is too violent, making the transmission surge and smooth driving almost impossible. The better diesel is the lowly D2, low on power and high on turbo lag but smooth and willing once on boost. Its six-speed manual gearbox is the most pleasing of the lot.
The cabin is very comfortable and finished almost to Audi standards, although the disappearing rev counter is irritating.
How does it compare?
Very competitively, if chosen with the right engine and gearbox. It’s better handling than Audi’s new A3 and it’s a more thoroughly thought-through piece of design than the Alfa Giulietta.
Anything else I need to know?
Volvo is determined to price the V40 against premium rivals, with the cheapest D2 ES starting at a weighty £19,745 and the most expensive D4 SE Lux costing £26,795. UK sales start in August, with the automatic-only T5 arriving later in the year.