Volvo is one of those brands that’s tricky to position. There are distinctly polarised views on what Volvo ownership entails; for the most part, the traditional cliché endures: they’re rugged, dependable boxes for people who just want transport – Henry Hill’s wife in Goodfellas has one, it’s what they drive in Zack & Miri Make A Porno to cope with the harsh Pennsylvania snow, apparently Edward drives a Volvo in the Twilight movies (I have no idea, I haven’t seen them, they look awful).
They’re cars for people who want to know that it’ll always start, that it’ll protect them if they spang it into a tree, that basically is an appliance rather than anything emotive.
Conversely, there’s a more excitable group of Volvo drivers that shuffle about in the shadows, chuckling at how the uninitiated adhere to the aforementioned stereotype and have no idea that these Swedish sensiboxes can actually be rather scintillating. These are the kind of people who stick those comedy Ferrari-esque badges on the wings – y’know, the ones with the dancing moose.
They fondly remember the old BTCC 850 estates, they love the stealth attack of forcing a massive turbo under the bonnet of their mum’s shopping car and taking it out to annoy teenagers in Saxos at the traffic lights. It is for these people that the Volvo V40 T5 exists.
Well, sort of. It’s a bit of an awkward fit into the hot hatch market, the T5. You see, the headline-grabbers of the modern hot hatch oeuvre are all designed with one primary target in mind – people who spent their teens and early twenties tearing about the place like their hair was on fire in 205 GTIs, AX GTs and what-have-you, and have now grown up into some kind of pastiche of a sensible, functional adult with a wife and kids to ferry about.
They want a rapid point-to-point machine, but they also need a sizeable boot, ISOFIX points in the back, and a smorgasbord of airbags and that kind of thing to keep everyone feeling secure. So we find on the market a variety of cars to fulfil these various demands, which are basically weaponised variants of sensible family hatches – the 208 GTI, the Fiesta ST, the Astra VXR.
They all have their own USP – the Peugeot trades heavily on its heritage, the Ford is a cheeky Essex upstart, the Astra chases mind-warping bhp figures – and it’s perhaps unfair to lump the Volvo V40 T5 in with them (not least, admittedly, because they’re a sector below – but we’re talking in terms of spirit and approach more than size, otherwise we’d be looking at the Golf GTI and whatever).
For starters, their prices all begin with a ‘2’. The base price of the T5 is around £31k… and with various options, the one we’re driving here – the V40 T5 R-Design Lux Nav, to give it its full name – would lighten your chequebook to the eye-watering amount of £38,455. That’s a spicy meatball.
It’s probably best, then, to look at it not as a car for ageing boy racers, but one for petrolhead family folk. People who don’t want to admit that they’ve lost control of their lives by buying an SUV. People who are happy to bridge the small-car/big-car gap, and want something a bit quick that’s also a bit premium – soft leather, doors that go ‘thunk’. At this price point it’s arguably tricky to justify one over, say, a used Mercedes C63 AMG or something equally silly, although if you’re able to briefly glance beyond the sticker price, the V40 does make a rather compelling case for itself…
For starters, my wife loved it. Now, you probably don’t care what my wife thinks (and she didn’t actually drive it), but it does have relevance here. She’s an important part of the road-testing dynamic; she’s sitting in the passenger seat pushing buttons, fiddling with the stereo and mucking about with the seat adjustment. She thought the Astra had far too many buttons on the dash. She reckoned the Fiesta’s side bolsters were absurdly large. But she felt that the Volvo was something she could happily live with on a daily basis. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘but this racy version is only available with an automatic gearbox…’ She hates automatics. I thought that would be the killer blow. But no, the car was so good overall that the self-shifter didn’t dampen her enthusiasm any. This is a revelation.
My two year-old daughter loved it as well. It’s easy to tell when she likes things, because she won’t be saying that she doesn’t like them, if that makes sense. And when I pressed the button to retract the roof blind, exposing the full-length glass roof and the splishy-splashy raindrops beyond, she laughed and clapped. Universal approval, then.
Daddy liked it too. Daddy likes fast cars, and this one really is rather quick. The fun part about it is that it’s so utterly stealthy. (Or at least it would be, were it not Rebel Blue – a shade more usually found in Stabilo highlighters. Imagine if it was black or grey, that’d work.) If you were to prise off the T5 badge, nobody would suspect a thing – you’d just look like another school-run dad, cheerfully fitting into that ‘I’ve got a sensible car, I think it’s a Volvo or something’ stereotype. But when you find yourself on an open road with a generous speed limit and bury the throttle into the bulkhead, something hilarious happens: the autobox gives it a moment’s thought – ‘he did that on purpose, didn’t he? Right, I’d better shuffle some ratios about’ – and then the car gathers up its skirts and launches you toward the horizon.
It’s like finding Linford Christie in heavy disguise, competing in a church fête egg-and-spoon race. By the time you realise what’s happened, he’s collecting a jar of home-made marmalade from the vicar’s wife while you’re still lacing up your running shoes.
How does this happen? Because there’s a lot of engine in there. Like, loads. This apparently sensible family hatch is packing a 2.5-litre turbocharged five-pot (hence the T5 name, obvs). It offers 254bhp. That’s about as much as a Ferrari 308 GTB, a Chevelle SS 454, a V12 E-Type, and a number of other irrelevant comparisons. So it’s quick. It’ll hit 60mph in a time that begins with a five. Crivens.
It’s a proper tech-fest inside, which pleases me. Being a dyed-in-the-wool retro kind of a guy I’m generally impressed to find any kind of gadgetry at all in a car (I’m still blown away by electric windows – what a labour-saver!), but even I can see that the V40 takes things up a notch. I mean, the damn thing PARKS ITSELF. Seriously, there’s a button on the dash that, once pressed, will monitor the street for an appropriate space, then parallel park you into it automatically. Crap parkers of the world rejoice, you need never fear the ignominy of scuffed alloys again.
It’s got sensors all around that warn you when there’s a cyclist in your blind spot, or when there’s something overtaking you when you indicate to pull out, to stop you driving straight into it if you’re too thick to check your mirrors. It’s got a DAB radio that’s actually easy to use, it has stop-start (turned that off straight away, I hate stop-start), there’s a big-ass subwoofer right in the middle of the dash to tantalise your inner teenager… and yet you’re not overwhelmed by buttons and dials. It all just makes sense.
The instruments are glorious too – having grown up in the Gran Turismo era, I’m a massive fan of digital displays, dynamic readouts and, let’s face it, the gamification of the driving experience. Sure, my inner skinflint is always concerned by dashes like this (how much will it cost the owner to replace when it breaks in 2034? And how will they know how much fuel they’ve got as they drive it to the garage to get fixed?), but it really is a marvel to behold. Putting a little red marker on the appropriate part of the speedo to show the limit on the road you’re currently driving along is a neat touch too. Handy in Wandsworth, where the limits change from 30mph to 20mph and back willy-nilly.
The thing I really like about this car, however, is the way it looks. Volvo styling of the eighties, nineties and noughties was like a millpond – all straight lines, all about the surface. The V40 tosses a pebble into that millpond and luxuriates in the myriad curves and swooping arcs that radiate out. Look at it from the rear three-quarters, drink in the sheer complexity of it. Beautifully done, isn’t it?
Wait, no, the thing I really like is that’s got a whacking great turbo and it blurs the scenery like that bit in Spaceballs when they go to Ludicrous Speed. It’s good, that.
All photos © Daniel Bevis