These days it can be hard for even the keenest anorak-wearing enthusiast to tell cars apart.

The number of models on the market has expanded enormously, while safety regulations and the dictates of aerodynamics, an important factor in fuel consumption, have reduced the scope car-makers have to distinguish their products from the competition in visual terms.

And yet there are still a few cars which are universally recognised. Just about everyone has a picture in their mind of what, say, a Mini, a Beetle, a Land Rover or a Porsche 911 looks like. You just can't buy that sort of recognition, which is why such cars are often reinvented within the same external silhouette, rather than replaced with something completely different.

But another of these wheeled icons is undergoing something of a transformation. We all know what the words "Volvo estate" mean; the problem is that the image they convey is rather a mixed one. Safe, solid and sensible certainly, but boxy, and perhaps boring and barge-like as well.

Volvo is trying to change all that with the new V60, the five-door version of the S60 saloon. When the latest S60 was introduced earlier this year, it was presented as a younger, sportier sort of Volvo, but it is the V60 that represents the greater break with the past. In fact, Volvo describes it as a sport-wagon, a term often applied to a five-door model that emphasises style rather than load-carrying capacity. According to Volvo, the difference between such a car and one of its traditional estates is whether or not you can get a washing machine into it.

And the result of all this effort is pretty impressive; the on-road behaviour of the V60 is similar to that of the S60, which is to say that it is rather sharper and sweeter than what came before. It works particularly well with the smooth, free-revving two-litre, five-cylinder D3 diesel engine option. With its sloping rear roof-line, the V60 looks good too – it's even got curves, a bit of a novelty where Volvo station wagons are concerned.

Volvo hopes that the S60 and V60 will worry the established German brands, but I suspect that their impact will be felt even more strongly closer to home. Groovier cars from Volvo, traditionally the staider of Sweden's two automotive brands, will put the squeeze on poor old Saab as it fights to re-establish itself after escaping General Motors' ownership earlier this year.

Price: from £24,500
Top speed: 136mph
0-60mph: 9.4 seconds
Consumption: 51mpg
CO2 emissions: 144g/km
Best for: cool Swedes
Also worth considering? Audi A4 Avant, BMW 3 Series Touring, Mercedes C Class estate

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