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Cheeky Volvo shakes its booty at German rivals

MOTORING 

What does it mean when a company says its strength is in offering a product that’s “different” from the collective competition?

It might be a self-soothing way of admitting that it’s simply not as successful. Volvo likes to think of itself as different; an alternative to established premium marques. A smart choice rather than an obvious one.

If that’s the theory, then there aren’t as many smart people out there as you might think. Year to date, Volvo has sold 200 cars in New Zealand. That’s a quarter of Peugeot sales and one-sixth the tally of top-ranked premium brand BMW.

The problem cannot be the cars: most current Volvos are great-looking, beautifully built and well-priced.

Perhaps it’s the staid image of Volvo that some people still hang on to. It might also have something to do with the awkward market/price position the brand finds itself in: in no-man’s-land just above mainstream European makes like Peugeot/Volkswagen but just below the top level to which it aspires, alongside BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

The hatch match

Into this awkward silence comes the new V40, which is Volvo’s entrant into the small-car class: a five-door hatchback rival for the Audi A3, BMW 1 series and Mercedes-Benz B-class.

In fact, Scandinavian Vehicle Distributors argues that 80% of V40 buyers will be conquests from other brands and it is the brand’s global directive that it now competes with the established (mostly German) premium marques rather than the more mainstream Europeans. It wants to be in the club.

I wouldn’t normally talk about how a new car is being marketed, as it is generally the job of the motoring writer to ignore such things and see into the heart of a new product.

But I am intrigued to see that SVD is undertaking an advertising campaign for the V40 that gently but explicitly pokes fun at its German rivals, suggesting they are dull and predictable compared with this new entrant from China/Sweden.

I won’t explain the advertisements here. If SVD would like you to see them, it can buy a page in the National Business Review. But they are beautifully simple, clever and undeniably funny. That may be their saving grace but I don’t know they’d do a lot to convince me that the V40 is a better car than its rivals.

“All we are trying to do is pique people’s interest,” SVD general manager Steve Kenchington says. “If we can get bums on seats with this car, then we’re halfway there.”

I can see the point. Maybe sophisticated sarcasm will appeal to the New Zealand psyche after all. But what a shame that has to be the message ahead of the V40’s fashion-forward style and safety credentials, both of which are so obviously at the top of its class.

Those ads are funny, though.

Compressing the range

Don’t get me wrong: Volvo is not planning to take the premium-hatchback market by storm here. The V40 has been launched in D4 2.0-litre diesel form first, with T4 and T5 R-Design petrol models to follow in February. There are just 30 cars available for the rest of this year.

The V40 is very Volvo in its design and packaging, and that’s a good thing. It has soft cabin materials, superb seats and great ergonomics. It also introduces a few new things to the brand, like completely virtual instrumentation on a high-resolution TFT screen, with three different selectable layouts.

It is definitely not derivative, save a few details: some cabin bling that seems inspired by Audi, a BMW-like asymmetrical gearlever and the choice of seven different interior mood-lighting colours, a bit like a Mini.

It’s new-generation but the V40 is old-school in one important way. It’s the last Volvo to be based on a Ford platform, a hangover from the Blue Oval’s ownership of the marque (which it sold to Chinese maker Geeley in 2010).

That’s a good thing, too, because, underneath, the V40 shares its basic architecture with the highly acclaimed Ford Focus. It drives in the same fluid manner over demanding New Zealand back roads and is arguably now the most engaging model in Volvo’s lineup.

Volvos have never been known for steering feel. The move to electric power assistance for the V40 has actually given it a more responsive character, which is the opposite of what you’d expect.

The 2.0-litre diesel engine is an uprated version of the powerplant used in Volvo’s S60 and V60 D3 models. The six-speed manual version is especially sprightly and a price leader at $49,990, although nobody will buy that one. The six-speed automatic is smooth and quick, too, which is much more relevant.

The V40 is an impressive and desirable little car. It’s only the presence of minor rattles in two of the three examples I have driven so far that serves as a reminder of how even premium hatchbacks have to be built down to a price.

A good alternative to the German establishment then? There is a school of thought in advertising that says if you reference the competition too much, you’re simply underlining to potential buyers that your rivals provide the benchmark.

I really hope that doesn’t happen with the V40. It’s too good to be thought of as merely different.

Volvo v40 D4

What exactly is it? The first Volvo five-door hatchback for two decades and a rival for Audi A3, BMW 1 series and Volkswagen Golf. With the arrival of V40, Volvo’s small/medium car cupboard is cleaned out: it replaces the C30 three-door, S40 sedan and V50 wagon.

Powertrain: 2.0-litre turbo-diesel five-cylinder producing 130kW/400Nm. Six-speed automatic transmission, front-drive. Combined fuel consumption 5.2 litres per 100km, 0-100km/h 8.3 seconds.

Anything interesting in the equipment list? Volvo still believes safety sells: the V40 boasts the highest score ever recorded in European NCAP crash testing, with five stars and an adult occupant protection rating of 98%.

All models have a pedestrian airbag and the City Safety automatic braking system, which works from 50km/h and below (20km/h higher than other Volvo models). A pedestrian detection function for City Safety is also available.

Many of the more advanced active safety systems are high-cost options: for example, if you want adaptive cruise control with collision warning and automatic braking you have to spend $4590 – but only in conjunction with the $4100 Driver Support Pack (which includes blind-spot warning and automatic parking).

The list of options is complicated but it would be laughably easy to specify a $70,000 V40.

Price: $54,990

More by David Linklater

Comments and questions
1

Well if the C30 is replaced that is a bit sad. Our family has had two of these NZ new and they are quite 'sporty' for want of a better word with three doors and a turboed 5 cylinder engine but still affording all the built-in safety the brand offers. Will miss the C30.