By: Dave Abrahams
There is a road that snakes over the Western Head at Knysna on the Cape south coast from the head of the lagoon to Brenton on Sea. It's narrow and bumpy, with a succession of tight uphill corners, some of them slightly off-camber on the entry - not, one would say, a good place for a luxury front-wheel drive car with a longish wheelbase.
But Volvo's all-new V40 went up there like a squirrel up a tree, each of the three variants I drove at the South African media launch this week exhibiting its own character - but over the course of a long afternoon at slightly naughty speeds the V40 cemented its credentials as a capable and enjoyable driver's car.
It's aimed squarely at the Teutonic Autocracy - the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes B-Class - but it's understated, almost plain in very Swedish style, and that's how it drives.
The driver aids, notably the electronic stability programme with corner traction control, work unobtrusively, almost unnoticeably, to keep the car pointed exactly where you want to go, while the steering, with three selectable modes to make it as light or as firm as you like, is always as precise as the instructions on an Ikea flatpack.
There's no fuss, no showboating - although I did manage to chirp the inside front wheel of the bigger diesel variant pulling away around a corner - and, noticeably, very little body roll, although the suspension (straightforward MacPherson struts in front and sophisticated monotube dampers at the rear) is set up for more for comfort than for speed.
WELCOMED WITH A KISS
And it is comfortable; the power-adjustable seats welcome you with a kiss of soft, chrome-free leather, holding you in place with lateral support in the backrest rather than the bolsters of the squab, so that you don't battle to get out. All the controls - and there are noticeably less of them than on a German flight deck - fall neatly to hand and the switchgear on the slim 'floating' centre stack feels firm and positive in operation like the controls on an old-fashioned B&O amplifier.
But the piece de resistance of the V40 cockpit is the colour display at the top of the centre stack that invites you to scroll through a seemingly endless list of menus and sub-menus - looking as if they were laid out by a Swedish cousin of Bill Gates - and customise almost every feature of the car's interior, from the colour and intensity of the interior lighting to the layout and content of the instrument cluster to the temperature gradient between the front and rear seating area, and exactly whose smartphone it'll talk to.
By the time you get finished with it - and it will take a lot longer than the one afternoon we had - your V40 will be, quite literally, designed around you, as individual as you are.
Which is how Volvo defines luxury, and I find it difficult to argue with that.
But the first impression of the V40 is that it is lower, sleeker and much longer than it looks in the pictures. Volvo may choose to call it a premium hatchback but, at about 4.7 metres overall, it's closer to an A3 Avant than a Golf 7, with a noticeably longer wheelbase.
The immediate benefit is that it has a lot more rear legroom than its competitors. I rode in the back of a V40 from George airport to Knysna and I was able to stretch out my 1.78 metres and get comfortable, which I can't in an A3 (I can't even get into the back of a 1 Series, so that comparison is moot).
The rear bench is set up for three people, but the outer two sit in bum-shaped depressions that give the feel of bespoke, individual seating - very luxurious. The V40, according to Volvo, is also the first car in its class with heatable rear seating, which is admittedly more important in Sweden than it is here, although it will help keep the kids quiet on the school run on a chilly Highveld winter morning.
One quibble: the sound quality of the standard-issue audio system is no more than adequate and, in particular, the door speakers can easily be over-driven, but at this price level I don't see anybody ordering a V40 without specifying the optional premium audio kit.
ON THE ROAD
The first V40 I drove was the 1.6-litre, D2 four-cylinder turbodiesel, for which Volvo quotes 86kW and 270Nm. Around town it was more than adequate, moving from light to light with more alacrity than one would expect from those numbers, once it had overcome a slight but distinct hesitation just off idle.
At sea level I would hesitate to call it turbo lag, but it might become more of an issue at Gauteng altitude.
As with all diesels, its 'torque band' is quite narrow, so to get it up the hill to the Head took a lot of cog-swapping. As well, then, that the cable-operated five-speed manual 'box is slick and positive. It doesn't lend itself to snap-changes (we tried a few but the car didn't like them) but repays finesse with almost seamless shifts in both directions.
Nevertheless, this is not a sports car. It's an extraordinrily civilised family round-towner with very good road manners, for which Volvo claims a very creditable 4.3 litres per 100km and 94g/km of CO2.
We'll take those numbers under advisement until we've had one on test, but initial impressions are very favourable.
ALTOGETHER MORE MUSCULAR
Next I drove the T4 1.6-litre turbopetrol four, rated at 132kW and 240Nm - with another 30 available for overtaking. This is an altogether different animal; its response is instantaneous and it thrives on revs - it doesn't even have a redline on the virtual rev counter, although it seems to hit the rev limiter just shy of 7000rpm.
The six-speed manual is as crisp as fresh lettuce, the clutch is firm and positive, and the other two pedals are set just right for heel-and-toeing, while the engine has more than enough grunt to load the chassis, settle the suspension into a fast corner and get the tyres biting nicely - it'll even induce just a little understeer on the way out, uphill or not, which is easily balanced on the throttle, with cornering traction control working in the background to keep everything civilised.
It got me up to a rock-steady 160km/h on a very short, rather uneven straight with plenty more to come, accelerating even better through the stonking mid-range than hard on the gas. Given that this is the middle sibling of three petrol-powered V40's, the 187kW, 2.5-litre, five-cylinder T5 - due in South Africa in February 2013 - is likely to be something of a wild child.
PICK OF THE LITTER
Finally, I drove the five-cylinder 110kW, 350Nm, D3 diesel; take note of that second number, we are talking some serious grunt here - it went up the hill like it wasn't even there, making restrained but authoritative noises and working its six-speed Geartronic 'tranny like a pro.
I don't think I was any faster up the hill when I put it in manual and did the shifting my way.
The D3 is available as a manual in Europe but will be released in South Africa only with the Geartronic transmission (Volvo staffers mumbled something about South African drivers being hard on clutches, which would in all likelihood have to be replaced within the duration of the maintenance plan, and that would drive up the cost of the plan, and thus the price of the car).
The upside is that it gives you a relaxed, ultra-civilised town car for commuting, a stonking hooligan tool for Sunday morning getaways and a comfortable, long-legged cruiser with a seriously large boot for family holidays, all in one.
Bottom line, of the four variants released at launch in South Africa - the D2 and D3 diesels, and the 110kW T3 and 132kW T4 turbopetrols, the D3 is the pick of the litter, not because it's a diesel and therefore more economical (you have to do an awful lot of long trips to save money on a diesel in this country) but because it's the nicest, all round, to drive.
The rest of the V40 line-up, including the sporty R-Design and the V40 Cross Country soft-roader (for which there's no final line-up yet, therefore no prices) will be available from March 2013.
D2 Essential - R283 200
D2 Excel - R301 300
D2 Elite - R315 200
D3 Excel Geartronic - R339 800
D3 Elite Geartronic - R353 700
D3 R- Design Geartronic - R363 300
T3 Essential - R281 200
T3 Excel - R299 300
T3 Elite - R313 200
T4 Excel - R316 800
T4 Excel Powershift - R332 600
T4 Elite - R330 700
T4 Elite Powershift - R346 500
T5 Excel Geartronic - R373 700
T5 Elite Geartronic - R387 600
T5 R-Design Geartronic - R 397 100
All V40's come with a five-year or 100 000km warranty and maintenance plan; service intervals are annually or every 20 000km, whichever comes first, with an extra 10 000km oil-change in between for the diesels.