New Volvo bursting out in a blaze of modesty

 

ROADTEST VOLVO V40:RULE NUMBER one: “Don’t think you’re anything special.” To understand Volvo you need to understand the Nordics. And to get a grasp of their character, it’s worth trying to understand the Nordic Jante laws.

The Jantelagen, as they are known in Sweden (or Janteloven in Denmark) date back to the 1930s and the author Aksel Sandemose. With apologies to any Nordic readers, these rules or social mores can be summarised into the principle of socially enforced modesty. Under the Jante laws, individual self-aggrandisement is unworthy and inappropriate. Instead, in the social democratic ethos, success is about the collective improvement of all in society.

It can smack of old-school begrudgery and is similar in ways to the Irish mentality that likes to knock high-fliers off their perch. Yet the overriding ethos is not to deny success, merely to respect a social equality, regardless of bank balance. For good or ill, the Jante laws define certain societal traits in Nordic life. “Flashing the cash” is regarded with disdain. Even the wealthy founder of Ikea is known for his relatively frugal lifestyle.

While it all might sound socially harmonious – and it seems to work well for the Swedes when you consider their high positions in the various global lifestyle and social rankings – it clearly poses a major challenge for a Swedish premium car brand hoping to lure sales away from more ego-conscious rival brands.

In a globalised consumer society more influenced by the bling of Hollywood than the modesty of Malmo, brands such as Volvo must balance the need to match the pomp of the Germans with the constraints of its homeland. And that’s where it has often struggled.

Premium-brand buyers outside Scandinavia love a bit of bling in their motoring diet. They want to lord it over their neighbours in ways that would breach every one of the Jante laws. And yet there remains a market for discretion, particularly in the current climate. These days there’s an air of recessionary restraint that might just blow some opportunities Volvo’s way. Out of adversity comes opportunity, and so forth.

And that’s where the new V40 could cut its niche. It’s up against some heavyweight names in the form of the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series, not to mention the likes of the VW Golf and Ford Focus, both of which have loaded their latest offerings with so many features they are justifiably tempting hatchback buyers away from the premium badges.

Volvo has a smart family styling these days, and the V40 reflects the look in a way that catches attention. It’s a look that might breach the principles of Jante but it’s something no brand with premium intentions can ignore.

There’s the distinctive big grille up front, while inside the look resembles the current S40, although they have attempted to “bling up” the cabin with an underlit gear knob and frameless rearview mirror. This perhaps reflects the desire to appeal to a wider audience, but in a way they detract from the traditional Volvo DNA that loyal followers have come to admire.

A new digital dashboard – offered as an option – is yet another electronic trinket that serves little purpose. You can choose “performance mode” which turns the background red, or “eco mode”, which turns it green. But, apart from the colour changes, nothing else is adjusted – so it’s little more than a gimmick.

During our time with the car we also encountered an electronic glitch with the central console. Occasionally, after starting the car, the radio and air-con controls locked up and the lights flashed for about three minutes before returning back to normal. Given that these are the first cars off the production line, it’s hopefully just a teething problem .

Far more impressive – and in keeping with what we expect from a Swedish brand – are the new seats, improved once more to retain Volvo’s reputation as one of the most comfortable cars on the road. Rear-seat legroom seems better than rivals, on a par with the likes of the mainstream Ford Focus or VW Golf; although, with two sculpted rear seats and a booster, rather than a bench, it’s more of a 4+1 format than an outright five-seater.

At the back, the boot offers 335 litres (615 litres with the rear seats dropped), which is slightly less than the mainstream offerings. However it does have an optional folding floor with hooks for shopping bags that’s quite smart.

Under the bonnet, three engines are being offered initially in Ireland: a 115bhp four-cylinder 1.6-litre and a 177bhp five-cylinder two-litre diesel, and a 150bhp four-cylinder 1.6-litre petrol. The big news for Irish buyers is that the entry-level diesel boasts emissions of just 94g/km and official fuel consumption of 3.6L/100km (78.4mpg). For that it has a credible 0-100km/h time of 12.3 seconds.

On the road the best performer by far is the diminutive 115bhp diesel. Despite being lower-powered than the others, it makes the car feel nimble. In contrast, the more powerful engines make the car feel lumpy and leaden, particularly when paired with automatic transmissions.

Perhaps the most impressive features on the new V40 are its attempts to maintain Volvo’s reputation for safety. Volvo has made a bold claim. It promises that, by 2020, no one will be killed in or by a new Volvo. It’s an amazingly bold commitment, yet Volvo executives remain earnest in their efforts to achieve this goal – and with every new model, a new advance in safety comes on stream. Hence the introduction of an acclaimed new world-first on the V40: a pedestrian airbag. It sounds as outlandish as the 2020 commitment, but on the new V40, which heralds a return by the brand to the mid-sized hatchback market, there’s an airbag fitted to the bonnet specifically to save pedestrian lives.

Volvo already offers a city braking system as an option, using radars and a camera to scan the road ahead and apply the brakes when it detects a collision is imminent. Fitted as standard in the V40, it will bring the car to a stop before impact up to speeds of 50km/h – even without the driver’s intervention.

If, despite these precautions, you still collide with a pedestrian, then the difference between life and death, it seems, is often down to preventing head wounds. When the new airbag deploys it also pushes the bonnet up to partially cushion the fall of the pedestrian. Seven sensors on the front identify that it is a pedestrian and not a regular rear-end shunt.

This is the sort of feature that fits perfectly with the Nordic character of the brand, a socially responsible effort to protect not just occupants but other road users. And it’s this, far more than the gaudy electronics or faux attempts to turn the car into a mock performance model, which warms us to the V40. It’s what makes it a credible alternative to the badge-conscious German brands. At €26,995 it’s not a cheap alternative in the hatchback market, so you’re paying premium league prices. But it’s a competitive price.

In the long term Volvo should stop trying to mimic its rivals’ electronic fripperies. Instead it should work on reflecting its Scandinavian roots and securing it’s laudable, if seemingly wildly ambitious safety mission. These are the traits that will make Volvo something special.

Factfile

ENGINEOptions: 115bhp four-cylinder 1.6-litre and a 177bhp five-cylinder two-litre diesel, and a 150bhp four-cylinder 1.6-litre petrol.

PERFORMANCE1.6-litre diesel: 0-100km/h - 12.3 secs; L/100km (mpg): 1.6-litre diesel: - 3.6 (78.5)

FEATURESCity Safety system; Dual stage driver’s side knee airbag; dual front, side and curtain airbags; ABS with emergency brake assist; dynamic stability and traction control; tinted windscreen; Intelligent Driver Information System; 16 alloys (17” optional); heated windscreen washer nozzles; LED daytime running lights; 5” Colour Display Screen; radio/CD with six speakers

EMISSIONS(motor tax) 94 g/km (€160) for 115bhp diesel

PRICE€26,995 for the 1.6-litre diesel ES version

OUR RATING:7/10

A worthy premium contender, but Volvo needs to go back to its Nordic roots

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