It’s one thing to have safety as your main selling point, as Volvo does, but a car also has to have appeal when you're not busy crashing it.
The Swedish brand has done good work in the appeal area in recent times. Its cars have steadily become nicer to look at and better to drive, although they've still lacked a certain X-factor that would make them compete directly - both in sales and image - with the German triumvirate of Audi, Benz and BMW.
The new-generation V40 is the car Volvo hopes could stage a bit of a palace revolt in the premium hatchback sector. It takes Volvo's safety philosophy to unprecedented levels, which we'll get to in a minute, but at the same time it's been given an image injection in a bid to entice buyers away from cars such as the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series, and the upcoming Mercedes A-class.
YOUTH AND VIGOUR
The V40 hatchback replaces the previous generation S40 sedan and V50 stationwagon and has more youth and vigour in its modern curves - especially compared to the staid-looking V50 which was the automotive equivalent of a pair of grey shoes.
The new V40's design has sass and sex appeal, taking its cue from the smaller Volvo C30 which was the first car to signal the Swedish brand's more playful side.
There's decent family practicality to go with this new-found styling mojo. The V40's cabin is reasonably spacious and tall adults won't feel scrunched in the back seat, although the drawback of the rear roof's sexy coupé-like slope is that it limits boot space to a rather tight 335 litres, around 30 litres smaller than an A3 or 1 Series. And this is with a space-saver spare tyre.
Inside, the dash is covered in upmarket soft-touch plastic and there's the mandatory leather and brushed aluminium to raise the elegance factor, but to me the understated cabin still doesn't radiate as much perceived class as you get in its German rivals.
The funky coloured instrument panel, with its personalisable displays, partly makes up for this with its playful feel. The full-colour thin-film transistor (TFT) display lets the driver select one of three graphic themes: Eco with green backlighting, Elegance with a smart beige background, and Performance, backlit in red - each mode presenting different readouts and functions.
Being Volvo, the aim was to make the V40 the safest car in its segment and this is the world's first car fitted with a pedestrian airbag, which pops out from under the bonnet to cushion the blow should an inattentive pedestrian forget to look left and right before crossing the road.
The car comes with a raft of other crash-preventing features including a lane-keeping aid, pedestrian detection, blind-spot warning, and automatic road sign information - all stuff you normally expect to find in large luxury cars.
However none of these items, including the pedestrian airbag, come standard. You'll have to lay out extra money to buy them, as you will have to if you want your V40 fitted with a feature called Cross Traffic Alert which alerts the driver to crossing traffic from the sides when reversing out of a parking space.
That said, the V40 does come with a fair level of standard-fit safety such as ABS brakes, six airbags, whiplash protection, stability control, and a City Safety low-speed collision avoidance system which automatically applies the brakes when sensing a possible collision with a stopped or slower-moving vehicle in front.
Gadgets are plentiful too and the car tested here, the V40 T4 Excel selling for R316 800, comes standard with items such as cruise control, electrically adjustable front seats, a rain sensor, and a rear parking sensor. The steering column also adjusts for height and reach, allowing drivers of various physiques to find an ideal driving position.
Optional is a Park Assist Pilot that makes parallel parking easy by taking over and operating the steering wheel while the driver handles the gearbox and controls the car's speed.
All Volvos come with a five-year or 100 000km warranty and maintenance plan.
The V40 is available in several derivatives and the T4 version we road-tested is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine with outputs of 132kW and 270Nm. It's a lively engine for a 1.6, with brisk if not fiery performance.
It's afflicted with mild turbo lag and prefers the revs to be singing a bit, but this is dealt with easily enough as the four-cylinder engine stays smooth and refined even when revved hard.
In our Gauteng altitude tests the car managed 0-100km/h in a decent 8.5 seconds (against a sea level 7.7 sec claim), which means you can call it a warm, if not a hot, hatch.
Due to the aforementioned lag the overtaking acceleration's quite sluggish unless you gear down a few cogs. The manual transmission is a little notchy and doesn't move through its gate as effortlessly as it could. A stop-start system is fitted for economy, and fuel consumption in our test car averaged 8.8 litres per 100km - not bad, if nowhere near the 5.5 litres per 100km figure claimed by Volvo.
CLEAN AND PREDICTABLE HANDLING
Traditionally, Volvos have lagged behind you-know-who in the handling stakes, but the V40's chassis copes well with quick direction changes. The handling is clean and predictable and the car doesn't run into premature understeer. When driver enthusiasm overcomes grip levels, the traction control chimes in fairly gently, rather than cutting power intrusively.
The level of steering feedback can be adjusted to three different settings: from a light setting for city driving, to a heavier setup that gives better feedback through the curves.
The ride quality is pretty good, but there was some mild juddering due to the car being fitted with super low-profile tyres.
Volvo's well-known safety comes with a new-found style in the new V40, and it ticks the right boxes when it comes to practicality (with the exception of the cramped boot) and driveability. - Star Motoring