DRIVING THE Volvo V40 R-Design reminds me of the day I found out the Green Cross Code Man led a double life as Darth Vader. Dave Prowse was the actor’s name and – when he wasn’t teaching kids to stop, look and listen – he was stomping around the big screen, thinking up new ways to crush the rebel alliance. I was only seven and it all came as a bit of a shock.
Like the 1970s kerbside superhero Prowse, the V40 will do everything in its power to keep you from harm – it’s a Volvo after all, with a list of safety features as long as a lightsaber – but, like Darth Prowse, there’s a dark side to it.
That shape, for a start. It’s so… un-Volvo. Like the Audi A3 Sportback, the five-door V40 sits somewhere between hatchback and estate, so it’s roomy enough to cut it as a practical family car/Millennium Falcon. But, where the Audi is soberly styled, the Volvo is made of sleeker stuff, a Tie Fighter to the A3’s Snow Speeder.
Next, the engine. In our test car’s D3 spec, the V40 is powered by a five-cylinder, 2.0-litre diesel engine that’s smooth and economical, yet potent with a characterful exhaust note. Granted, this 150bhp V40 won’t make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, but a 0-60 time of nine seconds and a top speed of 130mph are not too shabby.
The dark cherry on the cake, however, is Volvo’s R-Design package, a series of interior and exterior upgrades that would surely find favour with the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet. Outside, charcoal grey alloy wheels, twin exhaust pipes, a spoiler on the front bumper and a diffuser at the back give the V40 “presence”, as Darth might say. Inside, you’ll find black leather on the seats, the steering wheel and the gearknob. The carpets, roof panels and sun visors are also finished in black.
Volvo’s trademark “floating centre stack” – the panel that houses the multimedia and heater controls – looks suitably space age. Although the V40 seats five, the outer rear seats are set quite far in from the doors. This boosts elbow room and gives passengers in the back better forward visibility, but doesn’t leave much room for the middle-seat passenger. C-3PO might squeeze his slender shiny hips in there, but R2-D2 will have to go in the boot.
And wouldn’t you know it, the V40 even packs a laser in its nose. Not a gigawatt ray with enough juice to blast rebel ships out of the sky (that’s not even listed as an option), but a gentle beam that detects obstacles and triggers the brakes if a low-speed shunt looks likely. Other safety kit includes a radar at the front that scans the road for errant pedestrians, radars at the side to look out for traffic in your blind spots, radars at the back to sense traffic when you’re reversing out of a space and a pedestrian airbag which inflates over part of the bonnet and windscreen should the Green Cross Code Man’s advice go unheeded.
Driving the V40 is rewarding enough, if not quite the interstellar ride that the twin tailpipes and stealth black highlights hint at. The engine lacks a little urge at low revs, so the V40’s not the nippiest away from a junction, but, once above 1,500rpm, the fat band of torque makes progress painless. The steering is well weighted and the V40 follows a predictable path through the corners, aided by good grip and well-controlled body roll. It shares its chassis with the Ford Focus, and that’s one of the sharpest-handling cars in the class. The 17-inch wheels and low-profile tyres that come as part of the R-Design package add a slightly firm edge to the ride.
Egged on by the almost-sporty thrum of the five-cylinder motor, I quickly abandoned all notion of subjecting the V40 to a week-long economy drive. Volvo claims 65.7mpg is possible if you’re gentle with the right foot. I managed high-40s, which was enough to let me cover almost 500 miles without having to visit a forecourt.
Gripes? I had a couple. The electrically- adjusted driver’s seat (a £600 option) didn’t go low enough and I whacked my head off the driver’s side grab-handle a couple of times. Anyone over six feet tall might want to try a V40 with a manual seat, to see if that makes a difference.
Secondly, the alarm that sounds to warn the driver of an impending collision is a) loud enough to trigger an avalanche and b) keeps thinking I’m going to crash into traffic islands and keep-left bollards in the middle of the road. It also makes a din like a 1970s cordless phone, when a laser-like “pew-pew” would be much more in keeping with the car’s character.
CAR Volvo V40 D3 R-Design Nav
PRICE £24,475 (£29,750 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 130mph; 0-60 9.1secs
MPG (combined) 65.7mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 114g/km