By Alisdair Suttie 11 July 2012
Wednesday 11 July 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
The Volkswagen Golf has been the default choice for anyone looking for a classy, and classless, upmarket small hatch. For the greater part of its near four decade lifespan so far, the Golf had it all its own way. Sure, some rivals appeared that were as popular or reliable, but none captured the magic of that badge.
Then competition arrived from within VW Group’s very own ranks in the shape of the Audi A3, while the slightly dumpy looking BMW 3 Series Compact tried to offer a more sporting choice. A3 begat next generation A3, which brought us the optimistically named Sportback five-door model as well as the more than decent S3.
BMW dropped the 3 Series tag from its second iteration of the Compact, perhaps fearing it might sully the appeal of its new 3 Series model that pitched up in 1998. Luckily, all this changed when the 1 Series came on the scene, though it was far from the most practical of small hatches, but hey, it’s got a BMW badge and that proved more than enough for many.
Here was a premium-badged small hatch that wasn’t a small hatch.
It was more MPV and was widely heralded as the new way for car design thanks to its sandwich construction floor that created a large, spacious cabin while keeping exterior dimensions to a minimum.
As you may have gathered, the first A-Class sold well and its subsequent replacement did not set the sales charts alight. Nor did the A-Class sweep all before it and convince all drivers to ditch their hatchbacks and change into a tall-sided MPV with a ride so harsh you could use it make milk-shakes.
Recognising this, Mercedes has stopped trying to reinvent the small hatch and got with the programme with its all-new third generation A-Class. Here we have a great looking car with a Merc badge on the front, so it’s pretty much job done on a sales front, with help from some very frugal, low emissions engines. The fact the A-Class is not especially good to drive is neither here nor there as it will still sell by the barrel-load.
Lexus has had a pop at the svelte small hatch title with its CT200h [pictured]. A good idea in many ways, you may have gathered from the lack of CT200hs you see on the roads it has not been a soaraway success, largely down to being bland to the point of anaesthesia.
Now, we have the Volvo V40, which replaces the Ford-era S40 and V50 models with one five-door hatch model. It’s certainly the right way for the Swedes to go with this new model as it pitches the V40 right into the heart of this class.
Volvo says it expects to sell 12,500 V40s in a full year in the UK, although it also ’fesses up that these projections are deliberately modest in the faces of 320,000 small hatch sales per year in the UK.
Why so moderate in its forecast? Well, no one wants egg on their Ikea kitchen’s face and it also gives Volvo plenty of room to manoeuvre with residual values and leasing rates, which have not always been the most affordable when compared the Swedish firm’s key rivals.
While the V70 and XC60, and XCs 70 and 90, tempt buyers away from their illustrious German competitors with a near-Wallander-like blend of simplicity and functional appeal, the V40 feels more caught in the crack between two very clearly defined sectors of the small hatch world.
On the one side of the street, you have the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class, plus the snore-a-second Lexus CT200h. Over on the more cost-conscious side of the street are the likes of the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Hyundai i30. Yup, Volvo mentions the i30 in the same breath as all of the above rivals, which says a great deal about both Volvo and Hyundai and how the world has changed a great deal in the past few years.
In among all of these motors, one car happily glides down the centre of the avenue with imperious nonchalance: the Volkswagen Golf. It has the everyman appeal that keeps sales volumes seriously high, yet it also has the gravitas that lets premium-minded buyers choose it without feeling they’re slumming or wandering away from their marble-floored showroom comfort zone.
Granted, the difference between mainstream and premium hatch experiences is about more than just the quality of the coffee beans in the dealer’s showroom, but this all has a bearing. The interesting point here is that Volkswagen is the only company so far to pull off the feat of selling low, medium and high price vehicles side by side in the same showroom without any party feeling out of place.
If you don’t think this is relevant, ask all those buyers who stayed away from Citroen, Renault and Peugeot showrooms when they could have been seduced into a C6, Avantime or 607.
Okay, the 607 was a step too far in this theory, but you get the gist: premium-minded buyers want a premium experience and it’s why BMW sells MINIs from dedicated showrooms rather than in the same block as its propeller-badged models.
This is where Volvo could have a chance to rival Volkswagen. Premium buyers will be reassured by all of the blond wood and curiously designed furniture that turns out to be eminently comfortable to sit in. Those buyers trading up from more mainstream models will be wooed and soothed by the plushness of a Volvo showroom, so the overall effect works on every level for Volvo.
For company drivers who rarely see the inside of a showroom and are more likely to presented with a list of available choices for their next set of wheels, the experience has to work beyond the reaches of the showroom’s pot plants and piped music.
Certainly, the Volvo V40 has kerb appeal thanks to its looks that are distinctly Volvo yet also have a foot in the style department. It’s same inside and those old Volvo values of comfort and cabin quality are clear to feel and see.
Where the V40 is going to struggle, even with the 94g/km D2 version of the V40, is the way it drives. It’s just a little too bland, unmemorable even.
The ride isn’t as cushy as the new 1 Series’ and the company driver-friendly D2 turbodiesel with manual transmission has some oddly chosen gear ratios to help it achieve such impressive economy and emissions stats. Sadly, they don’t help it to be an easy car to plot around town in.
However, the decisive blow for the Volvo V40 will be taken out of the hands of the Swedes, and by none other than the Volkswagen Golf. An all-new Golf will be unveiled at the Paris motor show in September and be on sale in the UK by the turn of the year.
Early indicators are the new Golf will be one sharp dresser and very good to drive, as well as offering all the usual benefits of comfort, space and plenty of perceived quality – all of the elements the V40 is keen to get across. To paraphrase VW’s own advert, the Volvo V40 is like a Golf but it’s not a Golf.
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