When you think of Volvo, what comes to mind? Quality? Certainly. Safety? You bet. Practicality? 100%. But what about excitement?
On that one, the traditional answer would probably be no. Sure, Volvo has run successful touring car teams since the beginning of time, but aside from a few special editions, that racing pedigree has rarely translated to the road cars that Volvo actually sells. And rightly so, if you ask me. Volvo competes with the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes but does away with sporting pretensions – you don’t need a million horsepower and nine different suspension settings, the company says, you need a car that’s been intelligently designed to offer a pleasant owning experience.
And that strategy has paid dividends. In this region, the company’s best sellers are from the XC range of SUVs. And these aren’t performance off-road SUVs – they’re school-run cars designed to comfortably, practically and safely transport families from A to B.
You might wonder, then, what came over Volvo when it signed off the V40 T5 R-Design. It’s a family-sized, four-door hatchback with a 2.0-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, good for 245 bhp. That means that this sensible, small family runabout will do the 0-100 km/h dash in 6.4 seconds, and go on to a top speed of 240 km/h. That’s not sensible, that’s bonkers.
From the looks alone – those 17-inch alloys, that R-Design front grille, and those twin tailpipes – you get the impression that this car sets out to be a pretty serious hot hatchback. And the performance figures confirm it. This is Volvo taunting the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST, beckoning them, telling them to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough.
Funnily enough, the V40 R-Design shares plenty of its components with the Focus ST. Ford used a Volvo five-cylinder engine in the old Focus ST, and since then the two companies have been happy to sell parts to each other. Nowadays, the Focus ST is one of the most entertaining machines going, meaning that, if it shares the same components, the V40 should be pretty special, too.
Certainly you get that impression from the interior. The seats are body-hugging R-Design sport seats, clad in nubuck leather. There are streaks of aluminum around the cabin, and R-Design logos pop out in various places. The steering wheel is chunky and sporty, with purposeful, tactile paddle-shifters nestled behind it. This car wants you to know that it’s a sporty car – don’t let the Volvo badge at the centre of the steering wheel fool you.
That said, there are plenty of nice Volvo touches on the interior that make it a really wonderful place to be. The ‘floating’ centre console is the party piece – it’s a single, flatscreen-thin panel containing all of the AC and radio controls. It looks fabulous, and there’s the added practicality of there being a little stowing area behind it. Likewise, the ergonomics of the entire cabin are extremely well thought-out. If you want to change anything about the cabin environment, from the position of your seat to the music on the radio, it’s extremely easy to work out how to do so.
The instrument cluster is entirely digital, displaying the R-Design logo when you climb in. You can set it to three different ‘themes’, which offer various takes on the designs and colour schemes of the read-outs. The themes also stretch to the screen nestled above the centre console, so everything matches up perfectly. If you want to get your boy-racer on, you’ll be opting for the ‘Performance’ theme, which serves up an enormous, red digital speedometer, just like the one on a Lamborghini Huracan, along with a gauge illustrating how much of the 245 bhp you’re using at any one time. Personally, I preferred ‘Elegance’, a classically styled theme that bathes the cabin in a relaxing, deep-blue hue.
Cabin tour over, it’s time to fire the engine up and see what the V40 is made of. Press the start/stop button and the four-cylinder growls into life, its tone deep and menacing. It’s linked to an eight-speed automatic gearbox, which you can change manually by pulling on one of the paddle shifters. We’ll get to how that works later.
First, though, let’s go into how the car feels in its normal mode. As is compulsory for any car with sporting aspects to it, there is a sport mode, which you can activate by sliding the gear stick left from the D position. That said, most of the time, you shouldn’t feel too pressured to explore sport mode, because the V40 performs extremely well straight from the off.
Find an open piece of road, and the V40 will simply devour it. The 0-100 km/h time doesn’t do justice to how the car feels when you’re actually accelerating. It’s savage. The front tyres tug at the steering wheel, compelling you to grip hard as if you’re hanging on for dear life atop a rodeo bull. The revs build incessantly, the gearbox smashing through larger and larger numbers. And the 350 Nm of torque propels you forward like a freight train at full speed. Step on the accelerator, and it instantly feels like your stomach has been drop-kicked half-a-kilometre down the road.
Good thing, then, that the brakes are pretty serious. Even in normal mode, they take a little getting used to – because they slow the vehicle with such force, you only need a light touch on the brakes at normal speeds.
So far, so sporty, and things only get better when you flick the gear lever towards the big ‘S’. As is the case with most cars of this type, sport mode is supposed to sharpen up the throttle response, make the steering heavier, and firm up the suspension. But in most cars, while you do get improved throttle response, sport mode ruins the steering and ride. Not so in the V40, which certainly benefits from increased grunt in sport mode, but otherwise remains largely the same. This means that you get even more brutal acceleration, but the whole package is just so composed because the suspension and steering remain relatively soft.
Don’t think, though, that this means the V40 is a wallowy pudding through the corners. Take a bend at high speed, and you’ll note the absence of any body roll whatsoever. There’s also an astonishing amount of grip – you really have to be going very quickly to find even a hint of understeer. Push towards those limits, and you’ll eventually find yourself running wide around a corner, which is the car essentially telling you that you’re being an idiot. The steering, meanwhile, is light and accurate. The front wheels do tug at you when you put your foot down, but it’s totally manageable, adding to the excitement factor more than anything else. Otherwise, you can steer this thing extremely smoothly through any bend.
And the noise is something to behold. It isn’t bad at all in normal mode, evoking an angry swarm of bees buzzing furiously around the engine bay. In sport, though, the swarm morphs into the growl of a great hound, teeth bared, ready to attack. There’s a little turbo whizz on the downshifts, and every now and then, the exhaust emits little crackles, which send shivers down the spine. It’s a bruiser, this thing.
The one thing letting down the V40’s sporting credentials is the gearbox. In automatic mode, it’s flawless – smooth, quick and easy – but flick it to manual, and things don’t go so well. Upshifts are slow and dim-witted – you’ll pull the right paddle and it’ll feel like an age before you’re in the next gear. It’s not a dealbreaker, because the automatic mode is so good, but if you like to be more involved in gear shifts, it could become frustrating.
Aside from the gearbox issue, Volvo does seem to have ticked all of the hot hatchback boxes with the V40. And it’s still a practical car – there’s plenty of space in the back, which is able to accommodate two adults comfortably. The rear armrest adds a touch of class to the whole experience, too. The boot isn’t the deepest in the business, but given it’s quite long, you could fit two suitcases in there no problem. This is a Volvo, after all.
And though the V40 R-Design has been out for a while, the gadgets on board provide an extremely modern feel – the car is very nicely equipped. You’ve got two-zone climate control, automatic wipers, automatic headlights, and an extremely good reversing camera with park assist. Pairing your phone to the car via Bluetooth is a cinch, and you can even stream music wirelessly from your device.
Indeed, using the V40 R-Design as a daily driver for just under a week, I struggled to find many faults at all. It’s exactly what a hot hatchback should be – practical, comfortable but, when the mood takes you, exciting. Forget what you think you know about Volvos – the V40 delivers in spades on all counts, and, to my eyes, it looks great. I’m genuinely trying (and failing) to find reasons not to buy one. It’s that good.
And with that in mind, have a think about what this package might cost. If you compare it to a Volkswagen Golf GTI (and you really can), you might think that the Volvo is just another lovely, but expensive, European hot hatch. But you’d be wrong. Al Futtaim Trading Enterprises, the Volvo dealer in Dubai, is currently offering this car for AED 99,900, fully loaded, no questions asked. They’ll even throw in a five-year warranty and a three-year service contract.
Considering how capable this car is, that’s the deal of the decade.