After well over three decades of driving I might (finally) be showing signs of growing up. Not because I’m reviewing a new Volvo, although I’ll come back to that somewhat jaded stereotype a little later. Instead I’m learning to value cars which manage to tick a multitude of boxes, treading that fine line between usability and fun.
It’s about now you’d expect me to wax lyrically about the merits of a diesel hatchback over a 300bhp hot hatch on today’s crowded roads. We’ve been conditioned to correlate fun with a hierarchy of ever more focused driving machines with super hot hatches at the top, such as Audi’s RS3 Sportback, Ford’s Focus RS, Subaru’s Impreza STi and Renault’s Mégane Renaultsport 260 Cup.
Then there are warm hatches such as Citroën’s DS3, Ford’s Fiesta Zetec S or the Suzuki Swift Sport. And finally family hatches such as the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra.
So, if we were playing ‘Pin the Donkey’ with Volvo’s new V40, where would you imagine it fits in such a driver focused hierarchy?
Warm hatch? The V40 D4 SE Lux that I drove around Goodwood Motor Racing Circuit this weekend was powered by a 2.0-litre 5-cylinder diesel engine with 175bhp and 325lb-ft (440Nm) of torque.
At £23,595 it’s around £2,000 cheaper than the less powerful VW Golf GTD. Even though Volvo offers a T4 variant of the V40 with 177bhp and 177lb-ft (240Nm) from its 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, the D4 is clearly packing the bigger firepower.
Volvo quotes a top speed of 140 mph and 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds for the T4, while the D4 (on paper) manages just 137 mph and 7.9 seconds to 60 mph, but the figures disguise the D4′s impressive spread of torque which seemingly propels it harder and faster the further above 70 mph it goes.
Even so, it’s a Volvo isn’t it? So let’s not get carried away — at best we shouldn’t expect much more than a VW Golf and even then you’d probably be a brave man to pit the D4 against Volkswagen’s most sporty diesel Golf, the 168bhp 258lb-ft GTD.
So when presented with an open race track and the keys to Volvo’s sensible but handsome looking new 5-door hatch, my expectations were low, even if I already knew how enjoyable Volvo’s S60/V60 models are to punt around a circuit.
The qualities I look for from a car on track are simple enough — progressive turn-in via a well-weighted steering make the faster corners less of a bum-clenching affair. A suspension which remains balanced and predictable under load, and in a front-wheel drive car, the ability to tighten your line with the throttle as well as with the steering.
A competent track car stands out by its ability to deliver consistent (yet hopefully fast) lap times, enabling the driver to concentrate on adding more speed and carving the shortest line through the corners.
Ultimately you try and discover a car’s limits, then use as much of its available performance within those limits.
Producing a fast car on track is relatively easy, but a fast and friendly car is considerably more difficult, especially if that same car must operate smoothly out on the public road when driven by less experienced drivers.
Whereas some car makers assign huge teams of chassis dynamicists to hone their cars to perfection, Volvo employed just four in developing the V40. But these four individuals were clearly working to the same brief, because the first thing we noticed with the V40 was how confident and unflustered it felt out on track — this is clearly a chassis that could handle much more power and yet with 175bhp was still far from dull.
Our Volvo D4 was a top of the range SE Lux model fitted with 225/50 x 17 Pirelli P7 tyres all round. Whilst by no means designed for Goodwood’s 2.4-miles of sweeping asphalt, they acquitted themselves well over the dozen or so laps of our test, but what stood out as we pulled away from Goodwood’s timeless pitlane was how nicely weighted the V40 steered – progressive, precise and with reassuring levels of feedback.
The steering wheel itself feels compact, just the right size and covered in expensive feeling leather.
A Lap of Goodwood
I first drove at Goodwood 28 years ago, competing in the popular AROC Sprint Racing series and the layout hasn’t changed at all since then. Madgwick corner is the first and trickiest corner on the circuit — it’s a double-apex blind turn with an unsettling bump in the middle. It’s the type of corner where time can be made up or a race can be thrown away in an instant.
Take the wrong line and carry too much speed and its all too easy to run out of road, so the ideal car is one which remains stable across its uneven surface and pointed accurately towards its exit and on towards Fordwater, one of two corners on the circuit that are taken flat in most cars.
The V40 enters Fordwater at more than 100mph, but then must be guided to the right-hand side of the track to position the car for the downhill off-camber left turn, St Marys. This is the corner which ended Stirling Moss’ career and a good one to show the V40′s strengths, it’s easy for a car to become unsettled in the transition between the corners and if a driver turns in to St Mary’s before the front is settled, the resulting momentum could carry the car off into the grassy field beyond.
The exit of St Marys is another trap for the unwary. You exit by taking plenty of kerb on the left as the road falls away off camber. Road cars can bottom out in the compression leading towards the next corner, Lavant, but the V40 just hunkered down on its chassis and encouraged me to carry more speed on the next lap around.
Lavant is the most important corner on the circuit because it leads onto the longest straight — the fastest part of the track. Lavant is another double-apex bend and the perfect opportunity to see how the V40 responds to some provocation, will the front-end tighten or plough on unresponsively to a lift of the throttle? In fact, the V40 responds very nicely, shifting weight to the front axle and providing great traction as its 440 newton metres of torque accelerate it out and along Lavant Straight.
It’s been almost 17 years since I last drove around Goodwood, but from what I remember the fastest cars used to reach around 150mph before braking hard into Woodcote corner — the V40 D4 was comfortably reaching 115mph (with three passengers on board), more than respectable for a pukka hot hatch far less an entry-level Volvo.
Braking hard in a straight line for Woodcote and the V40 remained stable and undramatic. Woodcote is another double-apex corner which I usually take by ignoring the first apex, braking deep and then positioning the car for the straightest line through the second apex.
A short burst of acceleration towards the Chicane and we’re ready for another lap. Pulling hard away from the Chicane along the main Paddock straight is the only time our V40 D4 felt like it needed more power, but it gave us time to check our surroundings and marvel at the unflappable poise of Volvo’s new 5-door hatch.
We’ve already mentioned the huge torque of the V40 D4′s 2.0-litre common rail direct injection diesel engine – 440Nm versus the 350Nm of Volkswagen’s more expensive Golf GTD – but it’s also worth us pointing out how smooth and eager it is to rev. Our V40 was fitted with Volvo’s 6-speed Geartronic Transmission, and throughout the lap I was selecting gears manually using its (oversized) shift lever.
Despite the absence of steering wheel paddles, the D4′s auto transmission responded obediently, even when changing down and braking heavily into corners.
Volvo quote 54.3 mpg (136 g/km CO2) on the combined cycle (for the D4 Auto), but as I’m sure you’ll understand, I wasn’t paying a blind bit of attention to the D4′s fuel economy. Nonetheless, it’s nice to know that such a swift and driveable hatch can also deliver strongly in terms of fuel efficiency, while lightening the tax burden for company car drivers.
Despite measuring up at nearly 4.4m in length, Volvo’s V40 D4 Auto tips the scales at 1508 kg – which is some 77kg heavier than the shorter (4.2m) Golf GTD and similarly sized BMW 120d SE, although the V40 still feels light and agile on its toes.
The most powerful diesel version in Mercedes’ new A-Class range is the A 200 CDI, which delivers just 134bhp (compared to the V40 D4′s 175bhp) and is good for 0-62mph in 9.2 seconds, returning 65.7mpg and 114 g/km of CO2 when paired with the 7G-DCT automatic transmission.
With a revised Audi A3 now on sale, joining BMW’s second generation 1 Series, the compact premium sector has become the battleground for Germany’s major brands, but there’s a new kid in town, one that you might not previously have considered, but you’d be foolish not to.
Volvo’s all-new V40 is the most dynamic Volvo ever made, and when it goes on sale shortly the quietly-spoken Swede is likely to give the Germans a bloody nose. Game on.