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Volvo S40 and V50

Test venue: Caithness, Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland

Volvo chose the stunning location of Ackergill Tower, near Wick, to launch its facelifted S40 and new V50 estate models. Both cars are now on sale across the UK dealer network with a wide range of engine options, although both the 1.6-litre petrol and diesel units will follow in early 2005.

Built at Ghent in Belgium, the S40 is a compact and compelling saloon in a fierce market sector, where it lines up against the BMW 1-Series, Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3. You can choose from the 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, a 2.0-litre turbodiesel unit, the 2.4-litre five-cylinder or the punchy range-topping T5. I managed to drive all available options over a wide variety of roads in the north of Scotland and there are two obvious favourites, the T5 and the diesel.

The common rail diesel unit boasts similar torque of 320 Nm figures to the turbo-chanrged T5, although it loses out on top end speed and acceleration. Both cars are a delight to drive quickly, where overtaking slow moving traffic is an effortless and casual experience. The 1.8-litre is a little underpowered and the fuel consumption of the 2.4 and flat profile at lower revs detracts somewhat from its desirability.

The 1.8 is good for a top speed of 124 mph and will reach the legal limit in just under 11 seconds. The diesel unit is claimed to reach 130 mph, but for a really punchy drive you would need the 149 mph manual T5, which would be motoring in illegal territory in under seven seconds.

Volvo claims that the new S40 has an extended track and wheelbase, although it is slightly shorter than the older model. There is no disputing its excellent handling characteristics, especially when put to the test in torrential rain on the upper reaches of the sinuous A9 in Scotland. Each model is now fitted with a new central instrument stack with easy-to-read dials, an excellent entertainment system and climate control unit.

Volvo's stability and traction control system (DSTC) is now fitted as standard and this is a must with the T5 and the diesel model, where the massive available torque can induce wheelspin in wet and slippery conditions. Emergency Brake Assist and EBD are also available across the range and the adaptive five-speed automatic transmission is an option on al petrol models. The T5 and diesel model are fitted with a standard six-speed gearbox, which offers excellent ratios and enables the driver to make rapid and enjoyable progress. There have been no shortcuts on safety and the new S40 features Volvo's very latest safety technology.

An S40 Sport will be available in late 2004 and this will be offered with additional front and rear spoilers and side skirts, a lowered sports chassis, 18-inch Medusa alloy wheels, front fog lights and an increased price tag of around 1,500.

The company's marketing department is aiming to increase sales of the new S40 from an average of 9,200 per annum since the model first went on sale in 1996. The target market is mainly Volvo first-time buyers and married men between 25 and 34 years of age. The leading competitor in the sector is currently the Mercedes A-Class, although Volvo's Product Affairs Manager John Rawlings insists that Mercedes average figures of 15,200 per annum have been boosted by rental company sales.

Prices for the S40 range from 15,921 for the 1.8 S to 21,915 for the 2.4 iSE Auto. The 2.0-litre diesel is available from 17,501 and the range-topping T5 weighs in at 23,565 for the SE manual and 24,815 for the SE Auto. Insurance group ratings vary between nine and 13 and Volvo claims average fuel comsumption figures of between 30 and 48 mpg, depending upon the chosen engine.

The company's Swedish-themed 'Midsommar Night' at Ackergill was also a chance for the UK press to drive the V50, the company's new 'sportswagon'. This, like the S40, has an extended track and wheelbase and the new Volvo interior instrument stack. The rear end has been redesigned to distinguish it from a traditional Volvo estate car and Volvo management hopes to attract customers of the Audi A4 Avant, BMW 3-Series Touring and, perhaps, more mainstream estate cars such as the Vauxhall Vectra.

The V50 is available with the same range of engines as the S40, although the diesel 2.0-litre and the T5 stand out from the crowd in terms of performance and driving enjoyment. It features many of the technological advances of the S40 and similar safety and security improvements. Like the S40, Volvo hopes to attract the younger, more outgoing customer, who prefers an estate car version of a similar product. The company plans to sell 8,000 units this year.

Prices for the 1.8S start at 17.171, rising to 26,015 for the automatic T5. The Euro IV-compliant diesel is available in dealer showrooms from 18,746, although there are a number of add-ons which can easily push the price through the 20K barrier. A V50 Sport will be available in late 2004.

Ends

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