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Volvo moves up the design ladder with V40 R-Design

Swedish marque’s new model has a distinct racing car look about it without being too flashy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 9:01pm

Roads are congested. Parking is difficult. The climate is in crisis. No wonder smaller cars are in demand. But imagine, if you will, the kind of car wash that did more than just scrub your car clean, but which – as the combination of washing machines and ignored care labels often do – shrank your car. This then, is precisely what it feels like to drive Volvo’s new V40 T4 R-Design: it is the neatly proportioned hatchback that wants to be a full-on family saloon.

It tries really hard, too. You can just about get a family of four and a dog into the V40 without feeling too crammed, which from the outside you would not imagine possible. There just does not seem enough metal to go around. But to enjoy a real sense of spaciousness, perhaps this car is more for the couple thinking about starting a family, or getting a dog, than one that actually has these encumbrances to stylish driving. Then, said couple can nip about with the nimbleness that leaves the average saloon looking roomy but ungainly.

The V40 is certainly a stylish car, too, without being a show stopper. In large part this is because it is now available with the company’s R Design package of factory-fitted options for those customers tempted by the V40 but who are really looking for something more akin to a V40 . Some get carried away and you can quickly whack up the on the road price. You still won’t get an answer as to what the R in R Design stands for, though.

Ready? Rakish? Roaming? Rapid could be one option: the new V40’s four-cylinder, low friction Drive-E power train is not only economical – the petrol dial barely seemed to move off the full mark after a week of hard driving – and offers the low emissions one might expect of the small car this is not. But it has poke, too, once you get going, that sense of speed underscored by the still-forgiving sports suspension.

There is more to suggest, however, that the word we are looking for is ‘refined’. And there are plenty of details that speak to this: diamond-cut alloy wheels, a fancier grille mesh than your average Volvo, matt silver door mirrors, keyless ignition, sports seats and sports pedals – all of which fall into the “nice to have” rather than “changing my idea of driving” category. It also has what the company is calling “stealth” aluminium interior trim, which sounds like some marketing manager’s euphemistic means of saying there it’s so discreet you can’t actually see it; but which probably just means its use is subtle rather than all over the place. It has that racing car air about it, which is certainly not something one can say about many Volvos. It is all in very good taste, which is something one can say about Scandinavians.

Volvo’s unique selling proposition – to use more marketing speak – is, of course, its safety. In this the V40 doesn’t disappoint either: in this it’s a five-star-rated car, according to the crash safety organisation Euro NCAP. There are air bags all over the place, including one just for the driver’s knees, also including some “inflatable curtain air bags”, a relief no doubt to anyone on their way home from the haberdashers. There is the pedestrian airbag as well – the V40 was the first car to have this device fitted as standard – though Volvo drivers are well known for their consideration and sedate manner, so collision with someone on the street is surely more in theory than anything the company ever expects to happen in reality.

There is automatic braking and cyclist detection and blind sport information and all the rest. But, taking this emphasis on safety to extremes, the R-Design version even has an illuminated gear knob – though, as my driving instructor used to tell me, anyone who really has to look for the gear knob in order to find it is not someone you want on the road.

Unlike most Volvo interiors – masterworks of intuitive, ergonomic layout – the centre console here is so festooned with buttons that it takes a while to work out what is what.

Don’t let this stop you taking one out on the road, though. Or, heck, even buying one. The basic Volvo V40 may be rather humdrum, but the R-Design – raunchy? rebel? – offers serious competition in a sector long dominated by German makers the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, while easily trumping the likes of the Renault Megane RS265 or the Ford Focus ST, both cars equally dipping into this demand for the sporty without actually having to be, well, properly sporty.

It even gives the Audi A3 a run for its money – this having become the benchmark in this category. At least, so far.

Indeed, if you don’t have a growing family, like your small comforts, want more to look as though you might drive really fast without ever intending to actually do so, appreciate your build quality as much as you don’t appreciate flashiness and don’t, at the end of the day, much care what the R in R-Design stands for, then this could be top of your hit list.

That said, despite all of its many benefits, despite that aggressively sloping roofline, despite the classy finishing, the Volvo V40 R-Design is not love at first sight. It’s just too sensible. But perhaps that is asking too much of it. Certainly, as one would expect from Volvo – and at a price of HK$32,900 – it’s in the premier league for its category, for its solidity and its design’s clear thinking.

Some of that clear thinking might be better shared with the people working in the naming department. Volvo reveals that apparently the R in R-Design doesn’t stand for anything at all. This little-big car deserves to get that little lack addressed pronto.