An Entry-Level Wagon With Flair
Sunday, September 5, 2004
Imagine yourself a teacher on the opening day of school. Sitting in front of you is the sibling of several excellent students you taught in years past. Of course, the new kid may be completely different. But you automatically feel good about her. She comes from good stock.
Now, imagine yourself the owner of a 2005 Volvo V50 T5 Sport Wagon. It is small, tight, crisply styled. It is unpretentious, absent anything in exterior or interior design that does not contribute to road performance or basic creature comfort. Yet there is nothing cheap or half-done about it. It feels rich.
It is a motorized conundrum, reminiscent of the compact Mazda3 wagon and the more-sophisticated-than-U.S.-market European edition of the Ford Focus. The similarities are not accidental.
Ford Motor Co. owns Sweden's Volvo Cars and its U.S. subsidiary, Volvo Cars of North America. Ford also holds a controlling interest in Japan's Mazda Motor Corp. That's family. Families share genes and other things, and the V50 T5 shares the best of what is offered by the Mazda3 and the European Focus -- plus something else.
The V50 T5 is a Volvo; and Ford has been smart enough not to tamper with Volvo's essence -- its historical dedication to occupant crash protection and overall vehicle safety.
In the past, that single-minded focus on safety yielded secure but ugly Volvo cars. Typical of the genre was the old 240 DL, a tank masquerading as a sedan. It had a loyal following, but that following was not big enough to keep Volvo Cars alive, which partly is why the company is owned by Ford today.
Ford's mission has been to give Volvo sex appeal without destroying its reputation for upwardly mobile common sense and safety, an especially difficult task in creating a small, entry-level Volvo such as the V50 T5 wagon.
Entry level? Yes. Look at the automotive landscape. High-end car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are adding entry-level cars. Once exclusively low-end companies such as South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. are adding high-end models. It's hard to get buyers at the top without planting them at the bottom. It's hard to hold on to those you've planted if you give them no room to grow. Thus, survival in the car business now means getting customers at both ends of the price spectrum.
Volvo's first foray into the entry-level market in 1999 was disappointing. The company launched the V40 wagon and S40 sedan. Those cars honored Volvo's reputation for safety. But there was something discernibly cheap-feeling about them. That approach didn't sit well with entry-level Volvo buyers, who want relatively cheap prices, but not cheap cars.
The new V50 wagon replaces the V40. The S40 name continues on the sedan. But like the V50 wagon, the new S40 sedan borrows heavily from the very successful Mazda3 and European Focus, and that is a good thing.
I found out why during a 700-mile East Coast trip in a front-wheel-drive version of the V50 T5 wagon, which also is available as an all-wheel-drive model.
I prefer small, sporty cars on those heavy-traffic runs. But I also want an automobile that can carry a couple of large pieces of luggage and odd-size packages, and that can get down and boogie with that load -- accelerate without hesitation -- when it has to. And it certainly helps if the car in question looks good and feels nice to sit in for nearly 10 hours of driving (lots of traffic jams) over a two-day period.
The tested V50 T5, equipped with a standard six-speed manual transmission, did an admirable job of meeting all of those criteria. In both loaded and unloaded modes, the little wagon ran fast, braked decisively and handled with aplomb in some pretty dicey situations along the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 95. (Please, someone, tell me why some drivers insist on cutting in front of you only to slam on their brakes.) The V50 T5's list of specifications said the wagon was equipped with a turbocharged 2.5-liter, 218-horsepower, five-cylinder engine. But I never, ever felt the turbocharger. There was no turbo lag -- zilch, none, nada. That had to be the smoothest turbocharged car I've ever driven.
The power just flowed -- simply, evenly, without artifice (no loud, chest-thumping exhaust notes, like some motorized Tarzan running through the urban jungle). It was all just wonderfully clean and unaffected, in keeping with the overall design theme of the wagon, which also is reflected in the V50 T5's elegantly simple center-stack console.
Put it all together -- maximum small-car safety, spirited performance, utility, excellent styling, all available at what now passes for an affordable price -- and you get a vehicle that easily moves to the front of the current compact wagon class. In fact, considering its pricing and standard list of safety equipment, the V50 T5 moves ahead of the highly respectable 2005 Subaru Outback 3.0R/L.L. Bean Edition. That is no small accomplishment. Congratulations, Volvo.