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Volvo tilts at the hatchback elite and aims to woo business drivers, but the Mercedes A-Class and rivals from Audi and BMW are firmly entrenched at the premium end of the segment

The Volvo V40’s lineage can be traced back through the 1995 Mitsubishi-related car of the same name, via the DAF-built 440/460 of the late 1980s and the 340/360 cars of the late 1970s, and even as far as the PV51 of 1936 — Volvo’s first attempt at a more affordable but practical car.

Its maker’s world-beating reputation for safety is backed up by a number of innovations, such as the safety cage (1944), the three-point seatbelt (1959) and the side impact airbag (1994). But innovation doesn't automatically lead to a easy time for car makers.

Volvo's expected sales target for the V40 is 800,000 units

After a concerning time, stability has returned at Volvo. The pain of several years without profit, of sales volumes up to 30 per cent down on the firm’s pre-financial-crisis height, have largely come to an end.

Production is climbing from 2007 levels, and with new owner Zhejiang Geely Holding Group committed to doubling the company’s sales by 2020, there looks to be a brighter future for Sweden’s one remaining global car brand than many dared hope for three years ago.

Having said that, the subject of this road test will need to pull its weight if the 800,000-unit sales target is to be reached. The new V40 isn’t just a replacement for the S40 and V50; it’s also a concerted effort to break into one of the most important segments of the whole European car market. If it succeeds, it will be the most important new Volvo in 20 years. To keep pace with the swift changing premium end of the hatch market, Volvo facelifted the V40 in 2016. 

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But that ‘if’ is a very large one. This is Gothenburg’s attempt to do ‘compact premium’ well enough to tempt Europe’s fleet drivers out their Audi A3s, Volkswagen Golfs and BMW 1 Series. Mission statements don’t get much tougher

Volvo V40 design & styling

Volvo has arrived at a five-door format for the V40 by trial and error. It previously thought the S40 four-door saloon was the answer. Later, it looked to the three-door-only Volvo C30. Now it seems to have adopted segment convention for a 4.4m family hatch, but only with the begrudging reluctance you’d expect of a company used to going its own way.

With an underbody made of hot-formed and boron alloy steel, the V40 is slightly larger than the Audi A3 Sportback and BMW 1 Series – although an overall height of less than 1.45m gives it a more sleek, sporting profile than, say, the Volkswagen Golf. The V40 range was expanded to include a more rugged model - the V40 Cross Country - similar to the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, Skoda Octavia Scout or the Infiniti QX30.

Like every other Volvo for decades, the V40 has a transversely mounted engine, providing more passenger space and better crash deformation than a longitudinal one. Four-cylinder turbo petrol and diesel units are offered, almost all with lightweight aluminium construction and all driving the front wheels only, except for the range-topping Cross Country model which comes with Volvo's all-wheel drive system

A model expected to play a sizeable role in the V40’s UK sales mix is the is a mid-range 148bhp D3 turbodiesel. The cleanest engine in the V40 line-up - the 118bhp 2.0-litre D2 oil-burner - as well as a 188bhp D4. Buyers can also choose between a 120bhp, 148bhp and 242bhp 2.0-litre petrols, and while those wanting an automatic T2 and T3 models get a 1.5-litre petrol engines providing the same output as its bigger capacity rangemate.  

Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front and multi-links at the rear. A sports pack is optional, lowering the ride height by 10mm and increasing the spring and damper rates. Our car was so equipped. 

But it’s the V40’s active safety systems that really set it apart from the class. It’s the first car in the world with an underbonnet pedestrian airbag, and it comes with Volvo’s City Safety low-speed crash avoidance system as standard. Spend £1850 on the Driver Support Pack and you’ll also get a car with a full-speed collision warning and crash avoidance system, as well as pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, blindspot monitoring, road sign information and driver alertness monitoring systems. Seven airbags also feature.

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The 2016 facelift, chiefly revolved around numerous optional additions including eight new alloy wheel designs and five colour choices, while the V40 gets a redesigned front grille and Volvo's 'Thor' shaped day-running lights which made its debut on the Volvo Volvo XC90.

Volvo V40 interior

If you’re drawn to the V40 by Volvo’s reputation for practical, comfortable transport, you’ll probably be quietly impressed by what you find. That it doesn’t lead the class on space is perhaps a slight shame, but it’s not a major surprise, given the car’s average outward dimensions.

The V40 offers passenger accommodation levels and usable boot space that’s as generous as the most practical hatchbacks in most dimensions, but no better.

Passenger accommodation is as generous as the most practical of hatchbacks

But the air of simplicity and unpretentiousness that characterises the cabin is much more appealing than its sheer size. This is a car entirely devoted to everyday use. The driver’s seat is mounted a little higher than we’d like, but it’s where it is to grant excellent all-round visibility.

The outer rear seats are mounted slightly further inboard than the hatchback norm, providing a better view forwards and more shoulder and elbow room for occupants three and four. The fifth seat is slightly compromised, but how often do you actually carry five?

In the front, the primary ergonomics are excellent and the materials solid but entirely unostentatious. Liquid crystal instruments provide excellent legibility in any light. And although we’re not sure about the usefulness of the ‘eco guide’ economy meter, which simply reminds you how much throttle you’re using most of the time, the set-up reeks of good sense.

We like the full-length optional glass roof and practical touches like the drained ice scraper recess in the driver’s door. We also like the generous cupholders. This is unquestionably one of the most usable hatchbacks on the road.

There are four trim levels to choose from - Momentum, Inscription, R-Design and R-Design Pro, while there are two trim levels for the more rugged V40 Cross Country. Opt for the entry-level Momentum trim, you'll find LED headlights, 16in alloy wheels, rear spoiler, numerous Volvo safety systems, while inside occupants get climate control, lumbar support for the front passengers and a 5.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with DAB radio and Bluetooth.

Upgrade to the Inscription trim and you get a leather upholstery, 17in alloys, cruise control, parking sensors and a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav, while the R-Design models get numerous sporty exterior and interior details, bigger alloys and low profile tyres.

The range-topping R-Design Pro comes with leather bound sports seats, automatic wipers and lights, and an uprated stereo system, while the rugged Cross Country models receive numerous exterior syling cues including a skid plate and under guard protection.

2.0-litre Volvo V40 diesel engine

If all diesel engines were created equal and could be measured solely on their figures, the 148bhp variant found in the Volvo V40 D3 would appear to be perfectly suited to the 21st century business of propelling a hatchback around promptly and economically.

A sub-9.0sec 0-60mph time and a 45.9mpg overall economy figure attest to that. The five-cylinder unit likes to warble but, at 68dB at 70mph, it is not intrusive or unpleasant.  

We have issues with the D3's power delivery, which is too lethargic at low revs

But there are issues, chiefly with the way the V40 delivers its power. The D3 may develop all of its 258lb ft of torque at just 1500rpm, but it idles at 720rpm and the six-speed manual gearbox has a habit of repeatedly stumbling on the 780rpm of lethargy in between. Typically, this occurs when ambling slowly around residential street corners in second or third gear.

An impatient driver (or, indeed, anyone concerned with forward motion) will attempt to remedy the chronic lag with a more aggressive stab of the throttle, leading to a sudden rush of energy as the engine – or, more precisely, its turbocharger – catches up with your intentions. Spend too much time turning in and out of tight junctions and the D3’s driving experience comes worryingly close to tiresome. 

Moreover, the other diesels seem afflicted by similar traits; the 325lb ft of the D4 we also tried recently arrives in a great stampede between 1750rpm and 2750rpm. Its gear ratios compounded the problem, often dropping the engine into its frustratingly unresponsive zone below 1500rpm. The 114bhp D2 model is also a reluctant performer at low revs.

The D3 is much improved once it has been unfurled out of town. Peak torque is tapped out by 2750rpm, but more often than not you’ll have been pulled promptly beyond the national speed limit before needing to sidle into the in-line five’s reverberant high revs. It’s a strong performer on the motorway, too, where a long sixth gear chimes perfectly with all the available tug at cruising speeds. Just don’t try merging in top; 30-50mph takes an agonising 20.9sec.

A pair of 1596cc turbocharged fours comprise the petrol engine line-up. The D3 develops 148bhp at 5700rpm and 177lb ft from 1600-4000rpm, while the 178bhp D4 sees the same amount of torque stretching to 5000rpm. The results are a 0-62mph time of 8.8 and 7.7sec respectively, while top speeds are 130 and 140mph.

Volvo V40 cornering

One would think that building a hatchback on the carcass of Ford’s perennially well honed Ford Focus should practically guarantee a degree of dynamic finesse. But the last time Volvo’s engineers were left to tinker with a Ford hatchback platform (one they helped to develop), it turned into the decidedly lumpy Volvo C30.

This time around, it’s clear within half a mile that Gothenburg’s chassis tuners have fettled a far finer product. 

Figuring out how to switch off the V40's ESP takes time

The V40’s electric power steering (shared with Ford, but retuned) moves through a slippery, wrinkle-free arc with persuasive ease. Opt for the variable system and there are three settings from which to choose, although none makes the car’s rack particularly communicative. 

Nevertheless, the weight and speed are precisely where you’d expect them to be, and that’s generally enough for a five-door family hatch. Through a familiar, synthesised haze, it also has just enough directness to provide a modicum of agility when covering ground quickly.

The V40 has been set up too sympathetically to make this seem wilfully sporty, but there’s sufficient enthusiasm on turn-in and adequate grip through medium-fast bends to make the Volvo feel obliging where previous models would merely have tolerated attempts to push on.

If that all sounds faintly reminiscent of Ford’s default state of tune, then that’s high praise for a firm that usually favours a stately and pragmatic attitude to handling. The ride comfort, graced with Volvo’s own spring and damper settings, is on the same page, too, but our test car suffered from the addition of the sports pack, which includes 17-inch wheels and a 10mm lower ride height.

Consequently, there’s a ponderousness in the way the D3 ebbs and flows. Although quietness, refinement and a competitive sense of comfort are all readily apparent, the hatchback’s wheels have a tendency to react to undulations with a heavy-handed studiousness, as if continuous contact with the ground were of greater consequence than the pliable harmony that defines the best in class.

Hopefully, this problem can be rectified by 16-inch rims, as standard on Momentum models. Our first impression of a lower-powered, smaller-wheeled D2 on non-UK roads was that it drove fractionally better than the equivalent Focus.

Volvo V40

Whichever way you look at it, the case for the Volvo V40 is strong here. Opt for the entry-level D2 and you’ll pay lower benefit-in-kind company car tax than on any BMW 1 Series or Audi A3 Sportback

Our D3 Inscription test car occupies an equally strong position. Add its equipment tally to the equivalent A3 Sportback (Bluetooth, climate control, cruise control, keyless go, leather upholstery, 17-inch alloy wheels and active bi-xenon headlights) and the price will exceed £29k. The difference that makes to the 40 per cent income tax fleet user is worth just under £200 a year.

D3 SE Lux Nav models get leather, cruise control and active bi-xenons

Economy is competitive, albeit not outstanding in the case of the D3. Our test car averaged 45.9mpg over our test, and its touring economy result (51.7mpg) was acceptable. It’s good enough, just, to prevent you from questioning the wisdom of putting a five-cylinder engine in a car like this.

The D4 model, which has a slug more power, matches the D3's official figure of 65.7mpg and 114g/km, but choosing the Geartronic automatic version of either model causes those numbers to look far less favourable.

More fiscally sensible is the D2, which is the only diesel to pack a more conventional four-cylinder configuration. Its 1560cc unit returns an official figure of 78.5mpg on the combined cycle, and emissions of 94g/km.

The turbocharged petrol engines both record 50mpg-plus on the combined cycle, and emissions of 125 and 129g/km are comparable with the D3 and D4 models.

Volvo V40 rear quarter

Stylish, practical, economical, refined, even classy… so much of the job here is done. Prick the surface and the V40 still bleeds the blue and yellow of Volvo’s idiosyncratic personality.

The D3’s interior is well conceived and at the premium end of durable. It canters to a five-pot bassline, hustles along with unswerving dependability and is as safe as the Riksbanken.

A significant step forward for Volvo, but not for the class as a whole

To the faithful, then, the V40 will push all the right buttons. But for the atypical Audi and BMW buyer, already distracted by a modish new Mercedes A-Class, it’s tricky to argue that Volvo has provided enough of a reason to contemplate a switch of allegiance.

Especially since the Sport pack, a likely popular addition for that demographic, trims some of the much-needed absorbent fat from the hatchback’s figure.

Nevertheless, jettison that option, ignore the occasional lack of vigour and the V40 certainly rewards closer inspection.

Volvo V40 2012-2019 First drives