The premium hatchback market appears to have grown like Topsy. We've been expecting the all-new A-class and the third generation Audi A3, and BMW's year-old series II 1-series is doing well, but out of left field comes a new, surprisingly competent newcomer. It not only looks the part, it appears to be built like a bank vault, has a huge array of engines, and its maker's reputation is as synonymous with safety as a mother's wish.
It's Volvo's new V40, a car that appears to have confused its maker a tad too, because the Swedish carmaker normally uses V-prefix for its wagons.
My photography fails miserably to depict just how good-looking this posh new Volvo five-door is. The distinctive, low-slung, chiselled look seems nothing like the Focus III that provides its base. The usual Volvo "shoulders" are there, but on the V40 there's a delightful flourish, called the "P1800 hook". It's a subtle upwards crease in the waistline that links the car's shoulder plane with the closure line of the rear door glass.
The resulting curve is inspired, says Volvo, by its P1800 Saint coupe of the 1960s.
As a fully fledged member of the premium hatch segment, the V40 has to look and feel good inside too.
No worries there. Volvo delivers its expected disarmingly clever and simple ergonomics, exemplified by its flying console and pictographic air-con controls, while it's a given that the car's seats will be the best you can get. Those occupants in the rear are a tad less fortunate if they're especially tall.
The rear seats offer adequate legroom, and they're as supportive against side forces as the front pair, but you pay for the swoopy coupe-ish design by losing headroom, while the rising waistline makes the rear slightly less airy than in the front.
The V40's airiness is created by linking the top fold lines on the inner door ledges through to the same point on the dash, the flow stretching the perceived width of the whole fascia, and this is accentuated by the wide round- cornered indentation into which the instrument cluster is mounted. The instruments offer different colours and graphics depending on the drive mode you have selected.
As far as luggage is concerned, the hatch has a high opening and ultimate volume is 335 litres, which doesn't sound like much, but it's almost 20 litres up on the Focus III. However, the load lip is too high for comfort when lifting heavy loads. A nice touch is the way the load floor folds like an iPad case, to enable different or loose loads to be separated over what is effectively a double-floored space.
The Volvo's dark-tinted roof helps give it its low-slung look. Models without it look a little naked, truth be known, though not disastrously so.
Along with safety-belt pre-tensioners that everyone has these days, the V40 adds whiplash protection, a driver's knee airbag, rollover protection with inflatable curtains and a pre-crash preparation set-up that cinches you tautly in position if sensors deem it prudent to do so. The new model also uses Volvo's laser-sensored city safety system which can stop the car at speeds up to 50kmh if an impact is predicted.
Further to that, a radar and camera- based system detects wandering pedestrians, warns the driver and if required, will apply the brakes. If a contact does occur, the V40 deploys an airbag under the bonnet to generate a crush zone that could save the life of a jaywalker. There is also a rear cross- traffic detector, which alerts you when you are reversing out into traffic, and a new "intelligent" cruise control, that will brake the car if required when behind a car that's changing speed right down to a halt, if necessary.
The V40 petrol engines consist of 110-kilowatt T3 and 133kW T4 versions of Ford's 1.6-litre EcoBoost turbo unit, as well as two of its own fives, a 2.0-litre making 133kW T4 and a 2.5-litre T5 with 188kW on tap. The diesel range is made up of a 84kW D2, 1.6-litre four and 110kW D4 and 130kW D5 2.0-litre fives.
Volvo says this front-drive range could gain all-wheel-drive in the future as well as Ford's World Engine of the Year EcoBoost one-litre triple. When our lineup arrives in October we'll have an initial batch of D4 automatics and manuals, with petrol engines arriving some time next year.
With only the D5 and D2 engines available at launch in Europe, the turbodiesel six-speed automatic was the obvious star, emitting a delightful five- cylinder gurgle and feeling every bit as quick as its factory sprint times would suggest. The smaller D2 unit was not well-suited to its manual-only transmission, being peaky and lethargic at lower revolutions. A powershift electronic double clutch transmission would be a good move here and though it's not available just yet, the chances are it will be in the near future. I was a little vexed that the European market's 1.6-litre EcoBoost four isn't available yet with an automatic or powershift yet either, though it has been promised and Volvo New Zealand will have it as a range-starter when it becomes available.
Using the Focus III's MacPherson- strut front and control-blade independent rear underpinnings as a starting point, Volvo couldn't go wrong for handling. However, the whole car feels better insulated and quiet than the Ford, through using more advanced damping units and extra-stiff location around the steering column.
It's the car's chassis that really impresses, whether it's with the low- powered four or the charismatic five. The implacable nature of the suspension over broken roads, shattered surfaces and wicked changes of camber are to be celebrated. It appears that Volvo has taken what is acknowledged as one of the best handling chassis in the business and made it into something that I can't imagine the Audi and BMW getting close to - especially in terms of ride quality.
The electrically assisted steering can be set with three different weights, with the middle "normal" setting offering just the right heft for me. The adjustment is an option, and because you have to stop the car to switch between modes, it's unlikely to get as much use as Fiat's systems which can be changed while driving. It's not a box I'd tick, anyway.
Many will suggest that Volvo has a cheek aiming itself directly at the incumbent Germans in the posh hatch segment, but they'd be wrong. With an amazingly good chassis - Volvo's best ever - and levels of refinement and poise that almost makes it feel like a limo, the Volvo manages to combine comfort, class and safety into a very compelling package indeed.
I'm a tad disappointed that the initial batch of manual and auto five-cylinder diesels will probably place the range's pricing a little high, though if they can start the D4 below $50,000 it will be compelling value and worth every cent.
My wishlist would be for a D2 and T3 entry-point diesel and petrol fours with automatic options so that the V40 can kick-start the game change here that the range is capable of.
The V40 is huge achievement, and shoppers for the usual German suspects in the premium hatch sector should include the Swedish brand on their checklist as a safe bet too.
Drivetrain: Transverse front-mounted FWD four and five cylinder turbo diesel and turbo petrol engines, with six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
Performance (as driven): D2 - 4cyl 1560cc manual, 84kW at 3500rpm, 270Nm at 1750-2500rpm, max 185kmh, 0-100kmh 12.3secs, 3.8 litres/ 100km, 99g/km CO2 D4 - 5cyl 1984cc automatic, 130kW at 3500rpm, 400Nm at 1750-2750rpm, max 215kmh, 0-100kmh 8.3secs, 5.2 litres/ 100km, 136g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear independent. Electric power assisted steering.
Safety: Pedestrian airbag, pedestrian detection, ABS, ESP, seven airbags, collision warning system, city safety system, road sign information system, adaptive cruise control, active high beam lane keeping aid, enhanced blind spot information system, cross traffic alert, driver alert control.
Dimensions: L 4369mm, H 1445mm, W 2041mm, W/base 2647mm, F/track 1559mm, R/track 1546mm, Fuel 52-62 litres, Weight 1357-1498kg.
Pricing: To be announced closer to the range's October launch.
Hot: Pretty styling; solid cabin; five-cylinder performance; D2 carbon footprint; implacable chassis; sound insulation.
Not: Looks less impressive without glass roof; no petrol unit for New Zealand until 2013; likely to be expensive, as it is in Europe.
Verdict: Watch out Audi, this Swede has the new A3 in its sights, and it has the build and drive quality to convince buyers, and a safety set up second to none.