Recommended. At last - Volvo delivers a compact hatch that is able to compete with the best: it neatly slots into the gap between mainstream models like the Astra and premium ones like the A3.
Volvo has a tradition of making good big estates and poor small cars. From the dire (but popular) 340 which lingered in production until 1991, through the mediocre 440 and two generations of the so-so S40, expectations of new small Volvos have been justifiably low.
However, the latest V40 finally marks a break with the past. It is positioned as a mainstream hatchback competing with the VW Golf - a bit above an Astra, a bit below a 1-Series or A3. And the big news is that it is actually a good car and a credible alternative to German premium brands.
It is clearly closely related to the Ford Focus, but that is no bad thing. The Focus has an excellent chassis, and the Audi A3 is based on a VW Golf, after all. The last S40/V50 was also based on a Focus, but Volvo hired a bunch of Nordic trolls to retune the suspension, despite Ford warning them not to mess with things they clearly did not understand. This time, Volvo has learned its lesson, and the chassis feels like a Ford intelligently modified to suit Volvo's calm, upmarket character, rather than a Focus ruined with the wrong springs and dampers.
The majority of sales will come from the diesel versions. The mainstream engine is Ford's familiar 1.6 litre 115 bhp unit, but there is an optional 2.0 five-cylinder unit of Volvo's own design. The trademark warble of a five-cylinder makes a very pleasant change to the usual diesel thrum, but most people will still plump for the cheaper, more economical Ford-based engine.
The driving experience is a pleasant surprise to anyone who tried a previous small Volvo. The ride is generally good, unless you go for the largest wheels. The suspension feels refined and properly engineered - as good as the Ford Focus, which is a major step forward. The atmosphere in the cabin is also very attractive. It is calm and sensible, but it has a touch of class provided by the liquid-crystal instruments. It does feel a cut above mainstream family hatchbacks. The handling is neutral - not neutral in the sense of neither understeer nor oversteer, but neutral in the sense it neither gives the impression it really likes being thrown around, nor that it hates the idea. It can be hustled along without being frustrating - or inspiring.
If you stretch all the way to the £30K plus T5 (not that many buyers will), you will also get a car which actually feels fast and eager on a backroad. This seems like a bit of a revelation until you remember the price and think what else you could get for £30K (including a more engaging Focus ST and a lot of change).
Next: ratings and breakdown