I KNOW I have said this before, but it really is astonishing how Volvo has evolved as a brand in recent years. In its early days it created elegant, sporty coupes like the P1800 but then it all went a bit square, literally. In the movie Crazy People, advertising executives decided honesty was the best policy and created a campaign around the slogan: "Volvos, they're boxy but they're good." Safety was the biggest thing for the company and it was no surprise because they were built like tanks and I wonder if even truck drivers decided that playing chicken against a Volvo was a bad idea.
In the late 1980s everything changed with the advent of the 850 T5, a performance sedan that is superb even today. It made Volvos cool, although with the exception of the 480ES, they remained boxy.
Then the S40, with its slippery lines, came along and with it the company changed tack altogether. The company was suddenly able to talk about aerodynamics while its low pressure turbocharged engines provided great performance combined with good economy.
Last week I travelled to Shakespeare's "fairest Verona" to drive the latest model in the brand's evolution, the new V40. First I should clarify that unlike in the past, V40 does not designate that this is a station wagon, as it is actually a hatchback. Chatting with Lennart Odhner, senior product manager, I asked him whether a sedan was in the pipeline and with a wry smile, he simply said: "No comment." I received the same answer to the question of whether a C40 will replace the C30 and also to whether there will be a convertible to replace the C70. No comment is usually code for "these products are in the planning stage and we will announce them later".
The marketing people at Volvo say that the V40 has been designed to adapt to the driver, not the other way around. It has a totally redesigned interior to complement the sexy external styling and of course also features a number of firsts for the industry.
This includes the availability of a pedestrian airbag. Sensors in the front bumper can detect an impact with a human leg and while the bonnet raises slightly this massive airbag deploys to cover the bottom half of the windscreen to cushion the pedestrian. I was a little concerned that the bag remains inflated for up to 30 seconds and therefore impedes your visibility during this time. It will not be standard equipment when the cars are launched in South Africa in November though, but will be available as part of a number of optional trim levels and packs.
There is also Cross Traffic Alert, which detects vehicles within 30m when you are reversing and gives you an audible warning to stop and wait. The Blind Lane Info Assist system has been upgraded to warn you not just of someone in your blind spot, but of a fast approaching car. as well.
Also new is the digital instrument panel, to be standard in South Africa. It features three driving modes, economy, standard and sports. The screen changes for each and in economy mode it advises you how well you are driving and tells you of the optimum points to change gear. In sports mode it glows red and makes the rev counter the central instrument.
However, it was on the twisty roads around Verona where the new V40 showed just how much the brand wants to take on the likes of the BMW 1 Series, Audi A3 and upcoming new Mercedes-Benz A-Class. With such things as a reinforcing strut across the engine bay, advances in chassis dynamics and some potent petrol and diesel engines, the V40 is a surprisingly dynamic package. In town it was relaxed and composed but push hard in a mountain pass and it takes on a different persona, wanting to be driven eagerly as it hunkers down on the tarmac.
It remains to be seen whether this more sporty character will make it a little bumpy on our poor South African roads but we will check that out at launch.
We got to drive four of the models heading our way. The D2 diesel and the T3 and T4 petrol models will launch first in November, with the T5 petrol and D3 diesel being launched in January 2013. There will also be R-Design models and a Polestar performance upgrade available too.
The D2 emerged as one of the stars of the show, with its claimed fuel economy of just 3.8l /100km and CO2 emissions of 94g/km, dodging that ridiculous CO2 tax threshold. In reality I battled to get to the economy figure as low as claimed and in South Africa with our poor quality fuel, high altitudes and varying geography, it will be even harder, but the engine worked well and while plenty of gearchanges were required, it looks set to make many a hybrid run for the trees.
Full pricing will be announced ahead of the local launch in August, but the SA marketing team advised that the range will start from below R300000 rising to below R400000, thus taking direct aim at its major rivals.
It should be a strong contender when it arrives, and as people look for more uniqueness and individuality in the cars they buy, it could well prove to be a gold-winning athlete for the Swedish brand.