All-wheel drive, turbo 5 cylinder, compact wagon body, well equipped – and $57,950. Sounds like a killer practical package. And, to an extent, it is. But it takes only a few hours for the deficiencies to start sinking in. Nope, not in performance and not in handling, but in the day-to-day practicalities of living with a car.
Firstly, the interior space in the V50 is lousy. And to make matters worse, the space that’s 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.
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.
The controls are also 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 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. And, as with all of this series of Volvos, the ventilation poor. There’s more bad design in this area too - directing air at front faces requires that the central vents are angled so that they appear to be pointed at the ceiling...
Other ergonomic downers include a climate control panel so close to the gear lever that in first and third and fifth gears some of the buttons are obscured, and sharp-edged console positioned so the driver gets a sore left knee from resting against it.
But what’s the car like to drive? Well, there the story takes a change of direction. The engine is a turbocharged, intercooled 2.5-litre five-cylinder with excellent performance. It might not feel as strong as the FWD T5 we previously tested, but it’s the accessibility of performance which is so impressive. Happy to rev to its 6500 rpm redline, the engine is, however, designed to be short-changed at the 5000 rpm at which it develops 162kW. Sound a bit disappointing? Don’t you believe it – the impressive peak torque of 320Nm is available from just 1500 rpm and stretches flat as a board at this value to 4400 rpm.
That’s a stunning torque curve, one that gives instant and strong response in any of the six forward gears. When driving around town it’s natural to change at about 2000 rpm, effortlessly keeping up with the traffic without ever feeling that the car is trying. And of course, when you really do put your foot down, the Volvo-claimed 7.2 second 0-100 is within reach. Those characteristics alone would be enough for us to award very high marks to the driveline, but bolt it to a sweet, light six-speed and you have a match made in heaven. This is a gearbox that can be changed literally with one finger and the absolute lack of driveline snatch is a revelation. Reversing up a steep driveway with the engine dead cold is incredibly easy – unusual in a high performance manual gearbox car.
The engine also has the ability to turn-in very good fuel economy figures. In previous drives we’ve seen open-road touring economy in the mid-Sevens (in litres/100 km) and even with a fair swag of urban driving and the extra weight/drag of the all-wheel drive system, economy on test was still good at 10.1 litres/100 km. Volvo’s figure is 9.7 litres/100 km.
The all-wheel drive system is electronically controlled and stability control (DSTC in Volvo speak) is standard. In dry conditions the car is generally neutral, pushing into understeer at the limit but still being amenable to a throttle-lift to flow that into oversteer. Yep, even with the stability system left switched on. But it’s at its best in quick switch-backs, where the chassis feels absolutely planted. Body roll is well controlled and you could be forgiven for thinking that in wet conditions the car would be a little skatey – but that’s far from the truth. The grip on a wet road is startling – corners that would see a rear-wheel drive car spin are not perceived as being even slightly slippery. When being driven quickly for fun, or in an emergency swerve-and-recover, the Volvo is very well sorted.
But the steering is dead – there’s little feel of the road and, paradoxically, when going really hard, it can kick back.
The equipment level is good. The CD player is a 6-stacker built into the dash and the system packs plenty of power and bass; however, it’s a rather blunt instrument that misses out on some of the sound subtleties you’d expect. Leather can be found on the seats, steering wheel and gear knob; the trip computer is Volvo’s excellent stalk-scroll design; very good HID headlights are fitted; and there’s dual climate control. However, while the driver’s seat is electric with three memories, the passenger gets only a manual seat.
Both passive and active safety are well up to Volvo’s exemplary reputation: in addition to standard DSTC, there are also large ABS and EBD-controlled brakes, lots of airbags including side curtain designs, whiplash protection head restraints and excellent structural crashworthiness.
We wanted to love the V50 T5 AWD. In fact, I fit the buyer profile almost perfectly: early 40s; wife and young son; have owned plenty of turbo cars; like the sleeper status of the Volvo combined with real road grip and performance; would enjoy the good safety and fuel economy. But the interior design is just irritatingly poor – put a child-seat in the back and you can only be amazed at how little space the designers have created.
Go hard and it’s enormously impressive; do the weekly shopping and it’s a pain in the butt. Sadly, we were happy to give it back.