The V50 rides on the same basic chassis set up as the Ford Focus C-MAX, the Mazda3 and the Volvo XC50 compact 4x4, as well as Land Rover's latest sub-Freelander baby. That's not to say the V50 is simply a rebodied Focus. Although the underbody, subframes and suspension layouts are the same on all these models, there's vast scope for tuning of individual aspects, so all will drive differently.
Volvo haven't skimped when it comes to safety, and they claim that the V50 is as good to crash in as the flagship S80 saloon. Making a small car as safe as a big 'un takes some doing and it's only when you look at some of the finer points of how Volvo have achieved this that you realise quite what this commitment means. It involves casting the turbo housing as one with the exhaust manifold so that the engine is more compact when mounted transversely, giving more space for crush zones. It means developing the Intelligent Driver Information System which monitors how hard you're using the throttle, brakes and steering and will hold incoming telephone calls or satellite navigation instructions until things have calmed down so as not to distract you in the middle of a manoeuvre. It means using four different grades of high tensile steel for crash protection. Would the V50 look a little sexier with BMW-style flame-surfaced concave flanks? Probably. But side impact protection involves having as much deformation space as possible which is why it's slab-sided to keep its occupants looking good.
All too often, we hear about innovations in car design and what we really get is moderately incremental changes. In contrast, the V50, like the S40 model that spawned it, featured a number of styling touches which we'd genuinely never seen before. The exterior won't get too many pulses racing, effectively resembling a shrunken version of the larger S60 saloon, but the cabin is a delight. Volvo interiors are traditionally odd things. Although they work supremely well, they are often clunkily designed with scant regard for the sort of slickness that separates them from rivals. Little of the design flair we usually associate with the Scandinavians has traditionally seemed to translate into their cars. Here, it's different.
The 'spaceball' gear selector in the S60 showed that Volvo could come up with some neat ideas and the V50 takes the spaceball and runs with it. The key design feature is a centre console that's a softly contoured moulding featuring supremely easy to use controls and fresh air behind it. Original buyers could specify wood, aluminium, plastic or semi-transparent plastic finishes and everybody who gets in will notice the resulting choice. Overall, the V50's cabin still kind of feels like it's just rolled off a motor show stand. Not what you'd expect from a Volvo estate.
The V50 is impeccably built and owners report few significant problems. Even in the hands of motoring journalists - traditionally some of the most neglectful drivers around - the V50 has proven a doughty counterpart. Look for worn tyres and brakes on the T5 model as these may have been driven hard. If you wear jewellery, it's worth bearing in mind that some of the interior plastics scratch fairly easily.
(approx based on a 2004 T5) A clutch assembly is around £175, whilst an exhaust system is in the region of £350. Front brake pads will require the thick end of £55, whilst rears are £45 a pair. A new alternator will be £165, but a new starter motor is a fairly reasonable £110.
The undemanding lower powered models are the ones to go for. If you must have something like a T5, then don't expect a BMW 3 Series driving experience. This variant feels recognisably Volvo at the wheel with a strong, characterful engine and handling that's safe rather than spine-tingling. The turbocharger runs at a modest level of compression, which means that torque is spread widely across the rev band. Drop the throttle at 1,500rpm in almost any gear and you'll get clean acceleration without bogging, hiccupping or any unseemly lunging. The only clue that it is a turbocharged engine comes in the form of a mild underbonnet whistle in the midrange and a slight mushiness to the accelerator pedal when you blip the throttle.
The T5 will notch off the sprint to 60mph in just 6.5 seconds and run on to 150mph. This would seem to promise great things if Volvo ever created a V50R, although recent experience with the underwhelming S60R tempers the enthusiasm a little. Fast Volvos rarely hit the mark and after sampling the 170bhp 2.4-litre model, there's little to modify that opinion. This engine will still get to 60mph in 7.9 seconds but needs a bit more work to do so. Despite this, with taller tyres and less torque steer to contend with, the 170bhp car feels a good deal more composed and unruffled than its slingshot sibling.
Although a small Volvo estate doesn't sound instantly appetising, the V50 is a very enjoyable package, offering a little more utility than its S40 saloon sibling without becoming stodgy. A lively chassis, reliable engines and a surprising dose of design flair makes it a very attractive buy. Residual values are still holding up very well, so don't waste too much time looking for that screaming deal.