The V40 hatchback might be Volvo's entry-level model, but it's also the newest, most modern model and it can be specified with a mind-boggling array of cutting-edge active safety gear.
It's an unfortunate compliment to the character of the car that New Zealand buyers aren't necessarily splashing out on that high-tech equipment.
They are still splashing out, mind. Just on different stuff. About 70 per cent spend up large on option packages, although the emphasis is on extras that enhance comfort and convenience. The $6000 Teknik Pack is particularly popular, apparently: it hedges its bets with some safety stuff (bending lights, parking camera) and a lot more luxury, with goodies like special alloys, upgraded audio, leather upholstery and satellite navigation.
Apparently, this new breed of Volvo buyers feel that's money better spent than, say, $5490 on adaptive cruise control with collision warning, automatic braking and driver alert system (which includes active high-beam lights and lane-keeping assistance).
It would be easy to go "tsk, tsk" at this point, but can you blame them? Even in showroom-standard form, the V40 is already the safest car ever tested by the European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP). It has City Safety, which will automatically stop the car to prevent a low-speed nose-to-tail.
It even has a pedestrian airbag on the outside of the car.
More to the point, the V40 is not a car you buy simply for its safety.
It also happens to be a premium hatch with sex appeal and sharp driving dynamics, not to mention strong value for money.
Our entry-level D4 manual test car gives you $10 change from $50k.
Finding our D4 test car had a three-pedal gearbox was a pleasant surprise, as it provided easier access to the 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine's healthy 130kW/400Nm. Fun, although the shift quality is not great and I wouldn't be surprised if this car was one of the only manuals in the country, because people who buy these kinds of cars buy automatics. The D4 manual exists only as a price leader and to provide a headline fuel-economy figure, achieving 4.3 litres per 100km.
The automatic costs $5000 more, is 0.3 seconds quicker to 100km/h and returns 5.2 litres.
My advice would be to buy that one; yes, I know you were going to anyway.
The V40 is still not as sharp as the Ford Focus (with which it shares its platform) on the road, but that's deliberate. Volvo has always favoured lots of grip and an early transition to understeer in its cars, and that's exactly how the V40 is set up. It's still an entertaining machine - easily the most nimble Volvo in the range, but still very much a Volvo.
You could say the same of the interior, which has some forward-thinking touches but will still be very familiar to Volvo's faithful, with its soft-touch textured plastics and absurdly good ergonomics. In fact, it's some of those avant garde touches that let the side down a bit. The virtual instrument panel, for example, which can be configured to focus on economy, normal or sports driving. It's the sort of thing that you play with once and then leave alone; bit gimmicky for a brand that usually impresses with the elegant functionality of its driving environments.
The D4 diesel (which is a five-cylinder despite the name) is brilliant, but if you don't fancy the oil-burner Volvo has just launched the V40 in petrol form. The T4 is $52,990 (so $2k cheaper than the D4 automatic) and serves up 132kW/300Nm.
The T4 also has a five-cylinder engine. No, we're not sure why. But it confirms Volvo is way past being completely sensible. That's good.
The bottom line:
Entry-level, but the best Volvo you can buy. A worthy competitor for Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz - full of character, very desirable.By David Linklater Email David