A person looking for a small station wagon with sports car like performance
Comparable cars in this class:
Audi A3, Saab 9-3, Subaru Impreza
There is a perception among many automobile manufacturers, no doubt acquired through focus groups, that the term station wagon immediately poisons the vehicle in the eyes of many United States consumers.
The common belief is that Americas baby boomers, a prime target of the marketing mavens, will turn and run from anything that reminds them of their parents Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser or Ford Country Squire.
So, as the time has come to start moving away from the big, bulky sport-utility vehicles, the companies have come up with terms like Sports Tourer, Avant, Sportwagon, and even Grand Sports Tourer in an effort to disguise their steady move back to the station wagon design..
And that, I guess, is the why Volvo a station wagon company if there ever was one chooses to call its year-old V50 a premium compact Activity Sportswagon.
Fellow consumers, the eyes do not deceive. The V50 is a station wagon, complete with a hatchback, rear cargo area and fold-down rear seats. But, to be fair, that is only a small part of the story.
This entry-level Volvo wagon is also good looking, peppy, agile, fun to drive and, frankly, way too small for a Griswold family vacation or even a trip to the Home Depot to pick up paneling for that rec room project.
It is aimed at the young and young at heart, something the Swedish manufacturer could not have claimed for its cars only a decade ago as it lured legions of loyal consumers to its less-than-exciting larger wagons for their core values of safety, rugged reliability and relentless practicality.
Those core values certainly have not disappeared Volvo could never abandon the virtues on which the company has built its reputation.
But it could build on them, and that is what has been happening. Slowly and carefully, the company has been reshaping its lineup from angular to attractive and adding to its appeal by factoring in something for the driver, too. The newest wagon bears a strong family resemblance to the larger V70 wagons.
The V50 replaces the V40, a wagon of similar size and practicality that was developed in a partnership with Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi. The V40 never made it big in the U.S., at least in part because of its darty steering and a stiff suspension that turned jittery on rough roads.
But back to the present. The V50 is a partnership car, too. It shares its chassis and some of its hardware with the Mazda 3 sold in the U.S. and Ford Focus models now being sold in Europe. Thats easy to understand, since Ford has owned Volvo for the better part of a decade and has a controlling interest in Mazda.
Whatever its roots, the V50 not only looks and feels all Volvo, it has eliminated everything that could have been considered objectionable in its predecessor. The electro-hydraulic rack-and-pinion power steering is accurate and nicely weighted, the independent suspension handles the twin responsibilities of a comfortable ride and predictable stability on all road surfaces and the power-assisted disc brakes are strong and well modulated.
Two five-cylinder engines are offered - a 2.4-liter unit that develops 168 horsepower and sends power through the front wheels only and a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine that puts out 218 horsepower and is available with front- or all-wheel drive. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic with the smaller powerplant and a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic with the more powerful car.
The wagon I drove was the V50 T5 AWD, a top-of-the-line model which deciphers to turbo engine power and four-wheel traction. The transmission was the six-speed manual.
If youre stuck in crowded commuter country, youll probably want to opt for the automatic shifter, but if you like to drive and your travels take you beyond the outskirts of gridlock, youll definitely want the six-speed.
Do-it-yourself gear changes are easily managed and gear spacing makes excellent use of the turbo engines power band. If you want to get playful on the back roads, theres always a gear available to help maximize the Volvos handling ability.
And, if you want to surprise or impress your friends, you can power the 3,400-pound Volvo from a stop to 60 mph in well under 7 seconds. Theres also plenty of torque (236 pound-feet), so its not necessary to race back and forth through the gears every time traffic slows down or the roadway turns upward.
On the dry roads of summer, the all-wheel-drive is completely unobtrusive and did not extract much of a fuel penalty. In a week of mixed urban, suburban and highway driving I averaged between 19 and 28 miles per gallon of regular unleaded fuel, which is just about what the EPA predicted.
I also got to sample the all-wheel-drive V50 during the harshest part of last winter in and around Quebec City, Canada. The temperature never rose to anywhere near the freezing point, many of the roads were snow-covered and, to make matters worse, there was a breeze.
It was not a day to venture outside the Volvos warm confines. Thanks to the electronically controlled Haldex system, we didnt have to. When the road got slick, it shifted some power from the front wheels to the rear wheels and we never were close to getting stuck. If things would have gotten really dicey, the system would have transferred up to 95 percent of power to the rear wheels.
For the ultimate demonstration of its capability, we drove the V50 around a frozen lake. Obviously, this maneuvering called for a feather foot on the accelerator because all-wheel drive cannot stop centrifugal force from throwing the car into a spin. But, the point was made. With careful driving, we never lost traction completely.
On the inside, the V50 is handsome in a Swedish-modern way, with a unique, thin center console to house sound-system and climate controls. If the front-seat passengers are more than average height, the rear-seat riders will be pinched. Also, the cabin is short on storage space. The front door pockets, for example, are not good for much more than Kleenex storage.
The rear hatch opens to 27.4 cubic feet of cargo space, and that can be increased to 62.9 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded forward. Be warned, though, that folding the seats is a three-step operation. Also, removing the cargo cover to maximize usable space is an awkward operation.
To be fair, though, it should be mentioned that usable space in the V50 is comparable to what is offered in the competition say the Audi A4 Avant and BMW 325 XI.
Volvo secured its reputation with safety features, so there was no chance it would scrimp on the V50. In addition to the wagons high-strength steel construction, it comes with dual-stage front airbags, side-curtain airbags, side-impact protection system, collapsible steering column and a whiplash protection system in the drivers and front passengers seats. Stability and traction control are a $695 option.
Base price of the V50 T5 AWD is $29,615. Adding the cold-weather package, premium sound system, stability/traction controls and a special trim package designed to emphasize the cars sportiness raises the tariff to $34,470, including delivery charge.
Thats not cheap, for sure, but this Volvo serves as an additional reminder that good things can and do come in small packages.