If you want a safe, good-looking and compact wagon that has accessible power and excellent handling, look no further. The Volvo V50 2.4 will answer your every need. But on the other hand, if you want a wagon to carry children and prams and clothes and all the rest of the stuff that a young family needs, forget the V50. It simply doesn’t have enough space or ease of use.
The current crop of Volvos handle very well and have excellent engines... quite a change from the recent past. But they also have poor interior design that leaves them much smaller inside than out and makes using what room they do have rather awkward.
The V50 (that’s Volvo-speak for the wagon version of the S40 sedan) with 5-speed auto trans tips the scales at AUD$52,950. However, our SE press car had the high performance sound system ($1350), sunroof ($2150) and ‘aluminium interior inlays’ ($245) options, bringing the total up to $56,695. That’s great value – you get as standard full leather, extensive airbag protection that includes side curtain bags, Stability Traction Control, dual climate control, Volvo’s excellent trip computer/information system and an electric driver’s seat.
But what the features list doesn’t tell you is that you also get a superb road car. The engine is a 2.4-litre 5-cylinder transverse design developing 125kW at 6000 rpm and 230Nm at 4400 rpm. It has a gruff (though not unpleasant) note and bags of torque everywhere: the standard traction control system is needed when booting it away from a standstill. Together with brilliant trans logic, there is always accessible power and response.
Volvo claim a 0-100 km/h time of 9 seconds but such is the sheer spread of power, on the road often the car often feels faster than that. Take into account the standard tiptronic-style function on the auto (pulling backwards causes a downchange), and the driveline is an excellent match for the sporty on-road feel.
And the performance isn’t at the expense of fuel economy, either. Despite being driven quite hard in hilly conditions, the S50 returned fuel figures in the mid-high Nines (litres/100km). The combined figure for the official test cycle is 9.2 itres/100 km.
The ride is firm but the handling easily makes this trade-off worthwhile: we’d say that the S50 wagon is a sweeter handler than the high-power, much more stiffly suspended S40 T5 that we recently sampled. Unlike the T5, the S50 has pretty well zero evidence that engine torque is passing through the front wheels. In addition, the reduced power means understeer provoked by the right foot is less likely to occur. In short, the 205/55 Pirellia P7’s go pretty well where they’re pointed, with the nose able to be tucked-in (and the rear brought out) in really enthusiastic cornering by a simple throttle-lift. However, it’s all very confidence-inspiring: this is a car that feels immensely secure on the road.
So, good features list, tractable and economical engine, great handling.... No, where were we? Ahhh, yes – the carrying capacity.
For a brand new design, the interior space in the S50 is lousy. And to make matters worse, what space there is present is poorly utilized. The glovebox is a deep hole buried in the lower dash (it’s impossible to see what’s at the back of it without craning your head down); the door pockets are tiny; the rear passenger space (in all directions, with the exception of headroom) is tight; and lift the tailgate and even in the wagon section of the car, there’s not a helluva lot of room. It’s shallow in height and narrow between the intrusive wheel-arches.
In fact, to give you an interior design comparison, we’d suggest a Holden Camira wagon – a smaller car from 20 years ago – has much better space utilisation.
Ah, but you can fold the rear seat, can’t you? Well, yes, you can – if you can be bothered. Firstly, the front seats need to be moved forward. Next, the rear head restraints must be removed. Then the rear squabs need to be lifted and folded against the back of the front seats. Then one side of the seat back must be first folded. Then – finally – you can do the other side of the seat back. That still leaves a beam carrying the cargo blind stretched across from wheel-arch to wheel-arch – and removing this is a struggle.
Reversing the process is an even greater hassle. The seat backs are heavy and access through the narrow-opening rear doors is poor. In fact, we had a pregnant woman try to lift the seatback into place – and she couldn’t do it. Too heavy, access too awkward. And even if she had been able to raise the seat back, she’d have had to do it with one hand as the other is needed to avoid a tangle of seatbelts.
It’s best to think of the V50 wagon as simply having the boot space that is so laughably lacking in the V40 sedan....
The controls are a mixed bag. Those on the steering wheel (cruise and sound system) are clear and easy to use, as are the column stalks. However, the sharp-edged centre console has a multitude of tiny buttons which – even with familiarity – defy intuitive use. Volvo makes much of the ‘floating’ console panel but the only practical advantage gained from this design is the presence of a hard-to-access oddments space placed directly behind it.
The front pillars are very thick and the rear vision mirror is connected to the roof by a black moulding – tall drivers will need to peer under it to see traffic approaching from the front-left position. As with the T5 sedan, we also found the ventilation poor. It was helped in the test car by the optional sunroof – with the rear popped up, there was decent airflow through the car. Close the sunroof, though, and the aircon needed to be on – even on a 20-degree C sunny day. Oh, and to direct air at front faces, the central vents need to angled so that they appear to be pointed at the ceiling...
Car design is done by a large team of people. In the case of the S50, it’s clear that whoever was directing the engine and chassis teams gave instructions that included words like ‘class-leading’, ‘practical’ and ‘useable’. But in the case of the interior, the directions obviously became muffled...