Story and photos by Paul Williams March 29, 2004 Estapona, Spain - Judging from recent introductions by several automakers, you could say that the sport wagon is making a comeback. But in Volvo’s case, it never really went away. Long known for its wagons, even sporty ones, Volvo’s redesigned and re-engineered V50 sport wagon and S40 sedan arrive later this year in Canadian showrooms. Built in Ghent, Belgium, these are the smallest cars in Volvo’s range, and replace the current V40/S40 line. Now with bigger wheels and a sleeker appearance, they are the final Volvos to receive the company’s current, broad-shouldered look as seen on its larger sedans, wagons and crossover vehicles. Still classified as compacts, they will be slightly bigger in all dimensions except length than the models they replace, and according to Volvo executives, will provide a level of safety equivalent to that found in the S80 sedan or XC90 crossover. “The core values for Volvo are safety and performance,” said Larry Futers, vice-president of marketing for Volvo Canada. “We’re targeting these vehicles to younger buyers (under 40, with children) who want a good handling car with style, but don’t want to sacrifice safety.” The V50 wagon (wagons and crossovers have odd-numbers: 50, 70, 90; sedans have even numbers: 40, 60, 80) was recently introduced to auto writers at an event in Estapona, Spain, where S40 sedans were on hand for comparison. The cars, due this July, will be available with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and 2.4-litre, five-cylinder non-turbo engines making 168-horsepower (2.4i), or 2.5-litre turbocharged engines making 218-horsepower (T5). Three transmissions are available: five-speed manual or five-speed automatic with sequential (Geartronic) shifting for the non-turbo vehicles, or six-speed manual with the same automatic transmission for the T5 vehicles, which also feature a more performance-oriented suspension and handling system. Although the V50 and S40 unify the look of Volvos across the range, the exterior of the V50 especially, has a softer, more rounded rear design than the larger V70 wagon. The roofline tapers to the rear and the front features a short hood and a pronounced cab-forward design. This is particularly evident from the front seats, where the angle of the A-pillar is notably acute, and its base is situated well ahead of the driver. Externally at the front, there are subtle differences between wagon and the sedan in the grille and foglamp treatment. The standard 16-inch and optional 17-inch wheels are located at the extreme corners of these vehicles, permitting a long wheelbase and wide rear doors to facilitate entry and exit. Other external features (lack of sharp angles, energy absorbing surfaces) are designed to reduce the severity of injuries to pedestrians if the car is involved in an accident, and anticipate future European legislation in this area. Volvo executives are very proud of the interior, which features clean lines and simple forms inspired by classic Scandinavian furniture. The dashboard is a large, single element that sweeps across the front of the car. The centre stack, which contains radio, climate and minor controls, is particularly clever, comprising a module that appears very much like a television remote, flanked by four rotary knobs. These are embedded in a unique, curved, free-floating panel that extends from the centre of the dashboard to the floor. You can put your hand behind this panel, which designer Guy Burgoyne explains is inspired by a combination of cell phone/digital camera utility and the classic bent wood forms from mid-twentieth century Swedish and Danish design. “I was also thinking of handsets like those found on the Sony Playstation,” said Mr. Burgoyne. “This is the kind of device that you quickly learn to operate by touch, and that’s what I wanted with this centre stack: you’d be able to operate the car’s controls without looking; it becomes that familiar.” Instruments are simple, big and easy to read, and remind one of watch or clock faces, especially at night when illuminated. Interior materials include a choice of cloth, leather or “T-Tec” a fabric inspired by luggage and sports equipment. The latter may be offered as a no-cost option in Canada and should prove more popular among the target market than cloth. Interior trim can be ordered in real aluminum, painted aluminum and wood effect. The tasteful and practical interior features a thoughtfully low floor in the rear cargo area, which is helpful when loading and unloading items. The seats are comfortable and supportive. The rear seat is large, but rear-seat legroom is in short supply when the front seats are set for taller drivers. In fact, there is an overall shortage of storage space in the passenger cabin for small items; the tiny glovebox and the bin in the armrest being obvious culprits. That’s not to say that space is tight for occupants, however. Inside it feels bright and roomy. On the road the V50 and S40 are willing performers, especially in T5 trim. The uprated motor is very quick, and the chassis and suspension permit spirited driving and provide sharp steering response. The design of the rear suspension contributes a degree of passive steering, which adds to the feeling of stability and predictable tracking through corners. Although Volvo’s version of electronic stability control (Dynamic Stability and Traction Contol, or DTSC) is standard on these models in most markets, it’s not in Canada. Here, the less sophisticated stability traction control is standard on the T5 and optional on the 2.4i. DTSC optional on both. Brakes are four-wheel discs, with ABS and electronic brake force distribution. Safety continues to be Volvo’s forte, especially crash protection, even though much work has been done to provide excellent performance and a stylish product. The body shell consists of four grades of steel, from soft to super hard, which create predictable deformation responses in an accident and maximize occupant protection. Volvo’s Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) uses reinforced tubular steel beams in the doors and pillars to spread and dissipate impact, plus side air bags and side curtain bags. Similarly, its Whiplash Protection system (WHIPS) works to lessen injuries from a rear-end collision. The focus on safety, in fact, explains why the door storage compartments are small. Mr. Burgoyne says that the car has the strongest door in its market segment, and that strength takes precedence over details like the size of a storage bin. That philosophy resonates throughout the car. Other notable safety and environmental features include an increase fuel economy from the compact, aluminum, engines; lower emission levels; 85% of the car by weight is recyclable; the structure of the body and interior safety systems are designed and dimensioned to help protect children as well as adults; the body is 34% stiffer than its predecessor; the track is wider for improved stability. This is a very modern car, both technically and conceptually. In Europe, 50% of V50s and S40s will be sold with a 2.4-litre, 138-horsepower diesel engine. We had an opportunity to drive cars of this specification, and found it to be powerful and fast. Equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox, it possessed generous torque in the lower gears, and delivered quiet high-speed cruising in 5th and 6th. Under most conditions there were no indications that you were driving a diesel-powered car, except that the engine r.p.m. tops out at around 4,500 as opposed to 6,000. There are no immediate plans to bring this motor to Canada. Pricing for the V50 and S40 has not yet been determined, but indications are that the price of the base wagon will not exceed the current model’s MSRP of $31,495. The price of the AWD T5 wagon is expected to come in slightly under $40,000. According to Volvo, the cars will be available in May for test drives only; and in July for purchase.