In some ways, Volvo is starting to resemble this schooldays phenomenon, with its seemingly relentless programme of successful launches, new engine developments and strong performance in crash tests.
In just a few years, Volvo has revamped its entire image, most recently updating the S60, V70 and XC70.
Last month, in a bid for the mother of all gold stars from the great automotive headteacher, Volvo revealed its new S40 had come top of the class in no less than four crash tests.
It got the maximum five stars in the European New Car Assessment Programme crash tests, five stars in the US NCAP tests, was awarded Best Pick in the IIHS front impact tests and had best whiplash protection in the Folksam/SNRA tests.
But in a bid to be named head boy, or girl, over rivals including Audi and BMW, its relentless pace continues, this time with the launch of additional engines in the UK for the new S40 saloon and the launch of the V50 estate range.
The S40 range, currently offering the 2.0-litre diesel and 2.4-litre petrol engine, is being expanded to include a base model 1.8-litre 125bhp petrol engine, sourced from the Ford family. At the top end of the range, a 220bhp T5 version is also available.
Additionally, a 1.6-litre petrol unit offering 100bhp is set for an early 2005 launch alongside a 1.6-litre 110bhp diesel from a Ford/PSA joint venture, which should go on sale at the same time. Both will only be available for the S40.
This autumn, those preferring speed to economy will be offered a T5 with all-wheel drive, this time in estate form only.
The all-new V50 Sportswagon, which goes on sale now, will be offered with the 1.8-litre and 2.4-litre petrol units, mated to five-speed gearboxes, alongside the six-speed manual 2.0-litre diesel.
Both versions of the T5 are also on offer, with a six-speed gearbox.
The Sportswagon is 2mm shorter than the old Volvo V40, but the wheelbase has grown by 78mm and the car is 54mm wider and 27mm taller than before. It is also 46mm longer than the new Volvo S40.
With the rear seats in place, there is 417 litres of cargo space and this can be extended to a maximum of 1,307 litres by folding flat the 60/40 split/fold rear seats, for which you need to lift the split rear seat base.
The new V50 competes against premium compact estate rivals including the Audi A4 Avant and BMW 3-series Touring, in a market that has grown from less than 25,000 units in 2000 to almost 35,000 in 2003.
Volvo expects customers to upgrade from the current V40, but also aims to achieve conquest sales, either from rival brands, or from drivers upgrading or downsizing.
There are two trim levels, S and SE.
Members of the S-club get electronic climate control, dynamic stability and traction control, 16-inch alloy wheels, radio/cd, electric windows front and rear, height/reach adjustable steering, twin front and curtain airbags, whiplash protection, anti-lock brakes and emergency brake assist, remote locking and roofrails on the V50.
Drivers also have an intelligent driver information system, which can be programmed to lock all the doors on setting off and leave the lights on for a set time after locking to light the way to your door.
SE models, which raise prices by £2,250, get leather upholstery, 17-inch alloys, rain sensing wipers, cruise control, fog lights, six-cd autochanger and trip computer.
The S40 1.8 range starts at £16,098, with the T5 costing £23,085. Pricing for the V50 starts at £17,348 for the 1.8S, which Volvo points out comfortably beats the Audi A4 Avant and BMW 3-series Touring. The 2.4 S is £19,838 and the 2.0 DS is £18,913. Add £2,250 for SE models. The T5 is only available in SE spec and costs £24,963, with the all-wheel drive version set to cost £25,963. Geartronic automatic transmission costs £1,250 extra.
CO2 emissions for the S40 and V50 vary slightly, but put them in the same tax band of 16% for the diesel, 20% for the 1.8, 26% for the 2.4 and 27% for the T5.
Sales aspirations for the two ranges are not aggressive, designed to protect residual values.
For the S40, UK volumes are expected to average 7,000 a year over its lifecycle, compared to 9,200 for the outgoing model, while the V50 should sell 8,000 compared to the 9,100 average for the outgoing V40.
For 2004, of 3,600 S40 sales, 52% should be fleet sales, while 54%of the predicted 4,200 V50 sales will go to fleets. This should help overall sales for Volvo hit 42,000 this year while fleet will be about 22,000.
The 1.8-litre and diesel models should account for at least 50% of all sales, with the diesel likely to take the highest proportion.
Behind the wheel
THE difficulty for prestige models when producing smaller cars is ensuring they retain their family look without making them look like rather odd Dinky toys.
The bold face of the S80 and S60 risks looking a bit silly on the S40 and V50 but clever design means it looks handsome and purposeful. The rear tailgate of the V50 looks very good.
The V50 pitches itself against tough competition from Audi’s A4 and BMW’s 3-series Touring, but in space terms it performs well. Clever touches include the choice of a reversible mat in the rear which is fabric on one side and plastic on the other, depending on what you are carrying.
However, the black plastic on the internal sides of the boot looks as if it could become quite scratched over its lifetime.
The rear seats fold easily and lie completely flat once you have removed the rear headrests, which is an easy job.
Rear space feels unaffected and on the road, the addition of more space in the back hasn’t added any more road noise, although wind noise at motorway speeds in both the S40 and V50 is quite high.
The 2.4-litre petrol and 2.0-litre diesel are already available in the S40 saloon and are capable performers, although the six-speed gearbox in the diesel can be baulky and you can end up searching for the right gear, particularly when engaging reverse, or moving from reverse to first. The clutch is much heavier as well compared to the petrol models.
However, handling is unaffected by the changes to the body or engine, with the chassis more than capable of dealing with the performance of the diesel or petrol.
The car remains remarkably flat and composed in sharp cornering, despite the suspension being supple enough to soak up anything from potholes to cat’s-eyes with ease. Although the steering provides little feedback about what the front wheels are doing, it is precise enough to give you the confidence to press on through corners, knowing any eventual understeer will be gradual and easily controllable.
As with the S40, with manual versions of the V50 there is no space for your left foot, unless you slide it under the clutch, which isn’t the safest option. The 1.8-litre petrol unit was only available to test in the S40 and because of a late delivery, the engines weren’t run in.
With 125bhp, it might struggle to pull a full V50 with a boot full of luggage, but in the S40 it felt more than up to the job, pulling well when it got going, although its progress to 60mph was relatively sedate.
Cruising at 70mph, the engine ran at 3,100rpm and was quiet, particularly compared to the wind noise.
The only question is whether its 20% tax band will put off drivers who might opt for the 2.0 D, particularly higher rate tax payers, as the diesel’s 16% bill means they would pay less to the Inland Revenue (£1,273 against £1,120 for the S), despite the diesel’s much higher P11d price.
Moving to the T5, the engine pulled hard from low revs and the chassis felt secure in fast cornering, but steering lacked the feedback to feel confident at speed when taking sharp corners.
S40 FACT FILE
Max power (bhp/rpm): 125/6,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 121/4,000
Max speed (mph): 124
0-62mph (secs): 10.9
Fuel consumption (mpg): 39.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): 172
Fuel tanks capacity (l/gal): 62/13.6
Service intervals (miles): 12,000/one year
On sale: Now
Price (OTR): £16,098 - £18,348
V50 FACT FILE
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||125/6,000||170/6,000||220/5,000||136/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||121/4,000||170/4,400||236/1,500-4,800||236/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||124||138 (134)||149 (146)||130|
|0-62mph (secs):||11||8.3 (9.0)||6.9 (7.3)||9.6|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||38.7||32.8 (30.7)||32.1 (29.4)||48.7|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||174||204 (220)||209 (229)||154|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||62/13.6|
|Service intervals (miles):||12,000|
|Price (OTR):||£17,348 - £25,963|
|Auto figures in brackets|