Motoring: Look at the estate we're in

Want style? Want speed? Want sassiness? You might not realise it, but what you're looking for is a Volvo. John Fordham is surprised by two new models
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The Independent Culture
WONDER if they know about Jekyll and Hyde up there in Sweden? Well of course they do, all those movies about voracious appetites lurking deep within the viscera of solid bearded types who say nothing, but eat their meals very loudly. This divided self can be clearly detected at the heart of Volvo's current marketing strategy.

Consider the evidence. Volvo spends years telling you how secure and environmentally enlightened its cars are, safety cages more impenetrable than Fort Knox, estate design that easily transforms into a hearse to cut out the unhygienic in-between-time in the event of the unthinkable, and all that. Then, with the customers lulled into an utterly unfalse sense of security, it starts putting out a horde of Mr Hyde cars, unsuccessfully attempting to hide their teeth behind the same old badge. Spoilers! Growly engines! Overtaking capacity! Suspension that doesn't feel like you're crossing the Channel on a barge! What can it all mean?

It means that Volvo has had a makeover, one that began around 1992 when the company presented its 850 series - which at first looked comfortingly like the same old lumbering wardrobe-shifters but on closer inspection was smaller, leaner, faster, and actually handled like you could get it round a corner some time today. It was this honourable and steadfast company's acknowledgement that - after years of occupying a niche serving family and professional big- estate users without Mercedes buying-power or much interest in gizmos or high performance - the world's motor manufacturers were moving in on its patch. With the rise of the utility-vehicle-as-fashion-accessory, it was no longer enough for a car to be simply practical and have an upstanding pedigree, it had to have attitude as well.

Last year Volvo put out two new machines that confirmed how style-conscious the bottom line had forced them to become. The smaller of the two, the S40 T4, is the contender in the sparky mid-sized saloon field occupied by everything from higher-spec Ford Mondeos to the BMW 3-series; the larger one, the V70 AWD is the real wolf in thin disguise, a big, spacious superficially traditional Volvo estate but with a turbo-charged 250 brake horsepower version of the company's regular five-cylinder engine and all-wheel-drive. This took Volvo into a world of high-performance flexibility not famously explored by estate cars except for Audi's legendary Quattro, and otherwise belonging to jeep-makers such as Land Rover and Chrysler. The V70 AWD perched outside my house, with its roofline spoiler and skinny, brake- revealing alloy wheels, was jet-black. I stopped taking in the hearse joke after the first 20 wags who trotted it out, and though I had to admit they had a point, it could be countered with the contention that anyone carrying the deceased in this vehicle would have to be ready for them banging on the lid and asking for a turn at the wheel.

So what is the V70 AWD like to drive? Well for a start it doesn't wallow like traditional Volvo estates and its feel on the road is positive adhesion to the point of knobbliness, with the rumble over bumps the more pronounced the slower it's travelling - but that's the price of its security on quick bends, and its immense grip. The five-cylinder power unit is coupled to a permanent four-wheel drive system, in which most of the effort is transmitted to the front wheels in decent conditions, and is distributed increasingly evenly between front and rear wheels for better grip when the going gets slippy. (Volvo's traction control system - TRACS - also helps the process at the front end at lower speeds.) Fuel consumption is surprisingly good for the class at an average 25mpg, the product of good plumbing and electronic management, and it comes close to its full clout even when turning over at below 2,000 revs, so the car has flexibility as well as pace.

Volvo are charging a lot for this model, up in Merc territory - and for what's obviously intended to be a collector's piece, the exclusive "R" series version still has a rather drab and sombre interior which isn't cheered up much by the patterned aluminium inlays on the dash, transmission tunnel and glovebox, or the cool blue-toned instruments. But the specification levels are as high as they should be for the outlay, with electronic air-con, full information display, cruise control, remote alarm and immobiliser, and a three-disc, eight-speaker CD player. Safety features are up to traditional Volvo scratch, and the storage capacity is voluminous. In some quarters of the motoring press the AWD has been dubbed the best-ever Volvo, and of course a less fancy version than the "R" series is available with all the fundamental virtues for a rather lower price.

Volvo have long produced smaller cars too, and though they have appeared to be built from the reworked body-panels of tanks, they have generally been a good deal less interesting than a tank to behold, and rather less agile to drive. With the Mondeo-challenging S40 series however, a smaller Volvo arrived that had gracefully contemporary looks and performance to match, and the top-end T4 version is supposed to be the liveliest and most eager contender of the lot. So far the snag with the S40s has been seeing quite where they fit into the marketplace - not so different or appealing as to se- duce customers away from the perennially desirable BMW-3 or small Mercedes, and not so unmistakably Volvo-like (Volvo's link with Renault is more evident here) as to be a must for old Volvo hands.

But the T4 is undoubtedly something else - though it's the something else that probably presents the biggest paradox in Volvo's positioning of its image. It's meant to be fast, that's its sales pitch, along with the attractive come-on that it will set its customers back several thousand pounds less than the opposition from Mercedes, BMW and Audi. The engine comes from a Renault Laguna, but modified with enough pipework and wire to give it 200 brake-horsepower, set in a bodyshell that's remarkably light by Volvo standards, but still up to the company's rigorous safety demands. The suspension, steering and brakes have been modified to handle this level of performance, and the car feels immensely secure under pressure on corners - it's only while travelling over even modestly bumpy roads that it doesn't, and the steering feels nervous and twitchy in such conditions too.

The T4 is a perfectly amenable machine to live with, as roomy as its Mercedes C-series and certainly more spacious than a BMW. But the fittings and furniture lack class - while the cabin is light and airy, it suggests that most of the output of the petrochemical industry has gone into fitting it out. But since Volvo has provided the customer who probably does a lot of driving for work a little extra margin for enjoying it, plus a state-of-the-art safety package, at a price that significantly undercuts rivals, costs have to be shaved off somewhere.

It will be fascinating to see whether Mr Hyde brings Volvo as strong a place in the market as Dr Jekyll did, and still does, for so many years. The former gentleman shows signs of still finding the part a little unfamiliar, but he's getting there. !