An all new Volvo is always a big event for students of motoring sociology. Few marques make a stronger statement, read by most people as one of rationality, affluence and maturity. There could just be a trace of arrogance too.
But Volvos are changing, and the best new ones have moved ahead of popular perception. The Volvo 850 looks square, but is anything but square to drive. Now we have the next stage of Volvo's coming-out process, the Mondeo-sized S40 and V40. These are dynamic-looking cars, wedge-profiled with the corners filed off, yet still recognisably Volvo. Volvo's design chief, Northumberland-born Peter Horbury, wants to make Volvos sleek and sexy, but he realises he can't rewrite history. The new pair, he says, are an intermediate stage.
Of the two, the V40 is the more intriguing. It's a cross between a conventional estate and a five-door hatchback. The V denotes "versatility', so while its rounded roofline and rear loading lip won't appeal to the antiques trade (that most cliched of Volvo-driving stereotypes), the V40 can take its place among the growing breed of "lifestyle estates" such as the BMW 3-series Touring and Audi A4 Avant.
A lot of care and original thought has gone into this car. Most versions have the simplest-to-use trip computer and information display I've ever encountered, contained within a segmented dial; all have a terrific throughput of air through the heating and ventilation system, an increasingly rare commodity. What I was less prepared for was how good the V40 I tested, a 2.0-litre SE with optional "sports" suspension and six-spoke alloy wheels, would be to drive. The engine was smooth and sweet enough not to intrude, yet still able to deliver a strong pull and easy cruising with disciplined, reassuring handling and none of the harshness over bumps you might expect.
The V40 range begins at pounds 14,300 for a 1.8-litre engine, pounds 500 more with a 2.0. To this you can add SE or posher CD packs, or choose from several smaller packs to tailor the car to your needs.
Specifications: Price: pounds 16,050. Engine: 1948cc, four cylinders, 16-valves, 137bhp at 6,1OOrpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed: 131mph, 0-60 in 9.1sec (manual). Fuel consumption: 27-32mpg.
For people who like the idea of an estate car, but don't really need the space, Audi's A4 Avant has been the smart solution. But the new Volvo changes the game...
There's a stack of upmarket load carriers to line up against the Volvo V40, three of which are German and none of which has quite the voluminous roadability of a Mondeo estate or, soon to be announced, a Vauxhall Vectra estate. So the V40 is in good company.
But as long as they are capacious enough to justify their shape and their existence, this doesn't really matter. And if you're going down this particular load-lugging road, the car most likely to tempt you away from the new Volvo is Audi's A4 Avant. In 1.8-litre, 125bhp, basic-trim form, which equates most neatly with the V40 featured here, it costs pounds 18,513. So already the Volvo is looking good value. But what you get with the Audi is a sense of sculpted solidity and durability that even the Volvo can't quite equal.
The Audi is a good-looking car with delightful detailing but it can't match the cabin space of the Swedish-badged, Dutch-built car, with less rear legroom and a higher boot floor. Against that, the Avant's tailgate extends lower down, so there's no loading lip, and you get a removable safety net to stop objects piled high from hurtling forwards under braking.
To drive, the Audi proves less lively than the Volvo, but its five-valves- per-cylinder engine is smooth and uses less fuel. Roadholding is similarly tenacious, while the suspension cushions road bumps effectively. The brakes, however, are less pleasing, with an over-sensitive response which makes it difficult to stop smoothly.
Specification: Price: pounds l8,513. Engine: 1781cc, four cylinders, 20 valves, 125bhp at 5,800rpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed: 125mph, 0-60 in 10.3sec (manual). Fuel consumption: 31-36mpg.
The Volvo looks good, is fun and fuss-free to drive, has more room than its German rivals and is laden with practical niceties. Ultimately the Audi, best of the Germans, might cut more of a dash, but the V40 owner has the pleasure of a larger residual bank balance. It is also the best- looking Volvo for a long time. The best of the lifestyle estates, the V40 is an Audi alternative for Mondeo money. Sounds like a winner to me.