First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R-Design

Volvo-V40-R-Design-Review_G0

What does ‘sporty’ mean to you? Is it a firm ride with vice-like body control? Or perhaps a hyper-sensitive steering with an almost telepathic foresight of your next manoeuvre? Maybe a razor sharp throttle response like you ‘imagine’ a Formula One car would have?

Well, just as 20-inch rims have little correlation with real racing, the same is true of the characteristics above.

A fast car is one in which a driver can extract its potential most of the time. A car which steers, brakes and applies its power consistently and presents itself through its seat of the pants feel. You can tell how far to push a car when you feel the transition through its natural point of balance, something which is dictated by its centre of mass, suspension layout and weight distribution.

Steering feel is overrated, as is any artificial amplification of a driver’s input, often quaintly referred to as “driver involvement”. The only involvement a driver needs is to know where a car’s balance point lies – if this is clear and the steering and throttle obey the driver’s inputs then the car can be driven close to (or beyond) its limits.

Most hot-hatches are designed to simulate this ‘edge’, fooling novice drivers into believing they’ve conquered the beast, when in fact the real limit is probably well beyond this point. It’s understandable why a car maker would do so, but it’s something we hoped Volvo would avoid with the V40 T5 Geartronic R-Design.

And that’s where we encounter the first of our problems with Volvo’s 250bhp hatch, the top model in the V40 range and theoretically the one which best represents the Swedish car maker’s performance car credentials.

In T5 guise, the V40 is fitted with Volvo’s five-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, a six-speed automatic gearbox, firmer springs and shock absorbers, larger diameter anti-roll bars and an optionally 10 mm lower ride height than the standard Dynamic chassis.

To address it by its given name, the V40 T5 Geartronic R-Design Lux Nav starts from £31,390, although the car we tested retailed at £38,115. With 250bhp, the T5 R-Design is 65bhp down on BMW’s M135i despite being priced £865 more than the Beemer, while Audi’s 296bhp S3 and Volkswagen’s 227bhp will also provide stiff opposition for less money. To an already strong list of competitors you could also add Ford’s 246bhp Focus ST and Renault’s 261bhp Mégane R.S, both of which are considerably cheaper.

We brought along Volkswagen’s 207bhp 2.0-litre GT TSI to provide some context, fully expecting 250bhp of Sweden’s finest to put it in its place. If it can take down Volkswagen’s soon-to-be replaced Scirocco, then it should stand a good chance against the Mk7 Golf GTi and Golf R when they arrive later this year.

We also drove the 177bhp V40 D4 R-Design which retails at £33,320 in the spec we tested.

* * *

Style

Volvo V40 R Design Review G2 First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R Design

The R-Design is more than just a cosmetic upgrade – it features a silk-metal framed high-gloss grille with re-profiled front bumper and daytime running lights. The sporty stance is further enhanced with an ironstone rear diffuser, silk-metal finished details and twin exhaust tailpipes.

While the standard V40 can look a little too polite and somewhat bland, the R-Design allows it to show more of its personality, and in the V40’s case the result seems spot on.

Our T5 R-Design test car was painted in Rebel Blue – a colour which evokes the Swedish touring cars raced so successfully by Volvo’s motorsport partner, Polestar. It’s certainly striking, but we preferred the more classical Ice white of the V40 D4 R-Design we drove later on the same day.

The contrasting matt black styling lifts the V40’s front-end to such an extent you wonder why Volvo launched the V40 without it. It’s sharp, stylish and draws complimentary looks wherever you go.

With its 18-inch wheels and distinctive front and rear bumpers, the R-Design looks every inch the hot hatch. Once you see if parked next to a regular V40, there’s little doubt it’s the way to go when speccing a V40. Even if performance isn’t your thing, the R-Design’s sharper more dynamic look makes an already stylish car even better.

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Engine & Drivetrain

Volvo V40 R Design Review G1 First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R Design

With 250bhp the T5 R-Design should feel fast, but the Volvo engineers weren’t satisfied with letting the T5’s performance speak for itself, instead they’ve tried to give it a razor sharp throttle response that makes smooth driving something of a challenge.

Driven at a constant speed, you can feel the throttle adjusting (without a noticeable flex of your right angle) and this pseudo-sportiness is both unnecessary and tiring. It’s not even that quick. Following the 207bhp Scirocco GT, Volvo’s hottest V40 spun its front-wheels out of junctions, struggled to apply its power smoothly and ran out of puff well below the rev limit.

It’s not a bad engine – it’s smooth, makes a pleasant warbling sound and is reasonably torquey (although 40Nm down on the D4) – but it’s nothing special either. We also found road noise drowned out some of the T5 engine’s timbre, although the D4 was noticeably quieter.

It reminded me of the V70 T5 I used to drive in the mid-1990s, riotously exuberant, but not very fast when compared to its rear-wheel drive competitors such as BMW’s 328i.

If anything I’d say the previous-generation Ford Focus ST made better use of this 2.5-litre powerplant, but no matter which way we look at it, the five-cylinder engine feels outdated and out-gunned by all of the V40’s opposition. It would be unfair to compare it with the 3.0-litre twin-turbo six in BMW’s M135i, but if you do, there will be no doubt which is better.

To add to the T5’s woes, it’s fitted with Volvo’s 6-speed Geartronic auto box as standard (no manual option is available), which kicks down too slowly, holds on to the lower gears far too long and then changes down abruptly when slowing to a stop. Even driven manually using the stick (there are no paddles), there’s a discernible thump as each gear is engaged on the upchange (very unlike Volkswagen’s excellent DSG system). All very old skool and very, very annoying.

Volvo’s engineers would be better advised to leave the T5’s engine and gearbox alone, rather than configure their management systems to make it feel more sporty. All they’ve achieved is to highlight its shortcomings and make the state-of-the-art V40 feel like a previous-generation model.

The Geartronic auto suits the diesel engined D4 far better, which can also be chosen with a manual box. Unfortunately no such option is available on the T5 R-Design.

Volvo are saddled with a range of engines and gearboxes from their days under Ford, which in most cases offer the average driver a reasonably competitive package, but in the V40 T5 R-Design the illusion unravels in the most disappointing of ways.

You’d be much better advised to chose a different R-Design variant, the V40 D4 we drove shortly after exhibited none of the T5’s failings and was a delight to drive.

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Steering

Volvo V40 R Design Review G3 First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R Design

Drive a cross-section of Volvo V40s and you’ll find the characteristics which best describes its appeal are that of calm, fluid and well-balanced progress. My first experience of the V40 was around Goodwood Motor Circuit last summer, the place where I first learned to race cars in the early ’80s, and I’d swear the D4 Auto we drove was faster (and easier to drive) around the circuit’s fast sweeping bends than any car I drove back then.

For reasons I can only imagine, Volvo has re-calibrated the T5 R-Design’s steering turning it into a hyper-active mess. Gone is the confident linear feel of all other V40s, to be replaced with a variable weighted rack which destroys the V40’s finest quality. For this reason alone, we would encourage you not to buy a V40 T5 R-Design.

Where the standard car’s rack might initially feel under-geared, it turns in incisively and remains consistent through and beyond the apex of a corner. The T5 R-Design requires several bites to scribe a clean line, taking the driver’s concentration away from the chassis and removing much of the enjoyment found when driving other V40s.

Twenty-four hours later and we’re still in shock that Volvo threw away one the V40’s finest attributes, replacing it with the kind of steering that made me long to hand the car back to my co-driver.

The D4 R-Design we drove shortly after was like a breath of fresh air, a driver’s delight, providing a baffling contrast to the supposedly more sporting T5 model.

Don’t whatever you do judge the V40 R-Design based on the T5. Insist on driving another version in the range (any version) and you’ll discover what Volvo are really capable of.

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Ride & Handling

Volvo V40 R Design Review G7 First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R Design

The R-Design was developed in cooperation with Swedish racing driver Robert Dahlgren, who drives for the Polestar Black R team. The front McPherson struts have 25 mm piston rods, which are said to absorb lateral loads better, while at the rear it has monotube dampers, featuring compression and return damping via the same valve. This means the damper responds more quickly and together with thicker diameter anti-roll bars contribute to the R-Design’s more sporty drive.

Even so we drove the same roads several times, just to confirm we weren’t imagining what we initially noted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the T5 R-Design’s chassis behaves just as inconsistently as its steering. What initially feels like a firm and well planted chassis, turns slightly soft and uncertain when turning into a corner.

Gone is the standard V40’s fluency, to be replaced by an untidy agility borne (it would appear) from a combination of firmer dampers and standard springs. It turns in quickly but loses composure while doing so.

The end result is somewhat scruffy, making the T5 R-Design the type of car which you’d chose to stay on the motorway rather than take to the back roads.

This is starting to sound like a broken record, but the D4 R-Design is hugely better, a car which lets you play around in a corner, remaining predictable, consistent and planted. I’d be more than happy to pit this R-Design variant against a Golf GTI – gone is the standard car’s floaty feel at speed, to be replaced by a tightly controlled but supple chassis which offers a balance of ride and handling as good as anything else in its class.

The disappointing T5 R-Design contrasts with the composed, entertaining chassis which other R-Design variants offer. Ride quality is never uncomfortable, even with the optional 18-inch alloys fitted to out test car and yet (T5 excepted) body roll is kept well in check.

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Confidence & Driveability

Volvo V40 R Design Review G5 First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R Design

Volvo’s V40 is the kind of car you’ll spend the whole day driving and exit feeling fresh and in good spirits. The T5 R-Design turns most of those traits on their head. Why Volvo chose to do so, I can only speculate.

Out of junctions the T5 injudiciously spins its wheels, tugging away at the steering and making even the simplest of manoeuvres seem ham-fisted. A smoother road helps, but nevertheless the T5 is the least composed of all V40 variants.

During the test we also drove the all-wheel drive V40 T5 Cross Country, which displayed none of this unruliness, so we’d recommend it as the model to choose if you’re determined to opt for Volvo’s turbocharged five-cylinder engine.

When you drive a V40 T5 R-Design, make sure you accelerate quickly from a junction, use its Geartronic gearbox in both ‘Sport’ and normal modes and take it down a twisty road. If you’re looking for a car which gets better the quicker its driven, then the T5 R-Design might not be for you.

If on the other hand you’d like a more dynamic V40, then take a closer look at the rest of the V40 range.

Could you settle for 180bhp rather than 250bhp? Because if so, the T4 R-Design makes a stronger case. Also, remember that Polestar Performance (Volvo’s motorsport partner) has just released a performance upgrade for the T4, lifting its power above 200bhp for an additional £500. We suspect a Polestar-tuned T4 would be just as quick as the heavier T5, without any of its downsides.

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Fitness for purpose

Volvo V40 R Design Review G8 First Drive Review: Volvo V40 T5 & D4 R Design

Volvo are the Ronseal of the car industry. If you’ve looked at the V40 on the street and thought that it looked pretty slick – it is. It also offers the same kind of tactile qualities as the best from BMW and Audi, with more options than you can shake a stick at and a genuinely premium feel.

Volvo say “..the R-Design appeals especially to customers that love active driving and a personal, expressive design.”

The latest R-Design version adds a stronger, more confident look to the V40’s exterior, better body control and greater dynamic appeal. It “does exactly what it says on the tin”, except for the T5, which seems to have forgone the V40’s talents in exchange for a superficially more sporty feel.

The V40 is better than that, and so are Volvo, so we hope they’re able to correct these issues as soon as possible.

..at the rest of the V40 R-Design range. Our pick: V40 D4 R-Design.

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Conclusion

If you’re reading this review, it’s because you’re curious about whether to consider Volvo’s V40 R-Design as a future purchase. The simple answer is ‘yes’. We’ve spent weeks behind the wheel of the V40 and found it a thoroughly satisfying car to live with – in R-Design spec, Volvo has taken a good car and made it even better.

The R-Design upgrade costs just £450 more on the D4 or T4 models (compared to a SE Lux) and adds a welcome dose of personality to the regular V40.

But we cannot recommend the T5 R-Design, the compromises don’t just spoil the otherwise talented V40, they make it considerably less appealing than either D4 or T4. That it costs £5,000 more in the spec we tested adds further insult to injury. Save yourself the money and chose another variant in the V40 range.

If you’d like the quickest, then add a further £500 for the Polestar Performance kit on the T4, or if you feel you must have that T5 engine then take a look at the V40 T5 Cross Country – its all-wheel drive chassis contains the turbocharged five-cylinder’s performance and which uses the same steering rack as other V40 models. We’ll publish a separate review of the T5 Cross Country soon.

Pros

  • Adds ‘soul’ to the V40’s timid looks
  • Better body control with no discernible loss in ride quality
  • Cool seats

Cons

  • T5 Geartronic lets the range down
  • Volvo’s 6-speed Geartronic auto feels old (and lacks manual steering wheel controls)

Bottom Line

At the end of the test, we’d have been happy to put a deposit down on the D4 R-Design, it’s that good. Just stay clear of the T5 R-Design, the only thing ‘hot’ about it is the temper it leaves you in after driving it.

V40 T5 Geartronic R-Design Lux Nav

Style

7/10

Engine & Drivetrain

6/10

Steering

4/10

Ride & Handling

6/10

Confidence & Driveability

5/10

Fitness for purpose

5/10

V40 D4 R-Design Lux Nav

Style

7/10

Engine & Drivetrain

7/10

Steering

7/10

Ride & Handling

8/10

Confidence & Driveability

7/10

Fitness for purpose

8/10