Driving Torque

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Volvo V40 D2 Powershift SE LUX – Driven and Reviewed

Volvo's V40

Volvo’s V40

Volvo built their envied reputation on two things; safety and boxy, set-square inspired design features. Today, only one of these aspects remains true and a solitary glance at this V40 model will expose just which one it is.

With this mid-sized, 5 door hatch, Volvo are making a play for a highly sought after segment and are going for the jugular of some pretty stiff competition – including the Golf and 1 Series at one end of the spectrum and the Astra and the Focus, to name but a few, at the other.

Volvo V40 SidePriced at £23,870 (£28,095 as tested), this D2 Powershift SE LUX model is undoubtedly aiming its sights at the higher end of the market. The 1 Series BMW and Audi‘s A3 are already major players at this level and Mercedes’ complete rethink of where it’s A Class should sit has brought that into the fray too. Tough crowd.

Light clusters and piano- black panel add an individuality

Light clusters and piano- black panel add an individuality

Styling wise, it’s classy and understated, after-all, shouty just wouldn’t do on a Volvo. There are some natty features such as the rear light clusters and piano black boot panel which attempt to set it out from the crowd but the rest of the car shares many lines with Vauxhall’s Astra. I’m not saying that this is a particularly bad thing, I just like my Volvos to be unmistakably Volvos.

Floating console and squircles (it is a word) are all very pleasing on the eye

Floating console and squircles (it is a word) are all very pleasing on the eye

Get inside the V40 though, and the sheer emphasis on creating a class-leading cabin is blindingly obvious. There’s a recurring theme in here, stemming from Volvo’s characteristically rounded font and then translated into a smattering of squircles around the cabin. Themes have a habit of becoming tacky and irritating but the way Volvo have gone about utilising this most pleasing of shapes allows the V40’s living space to be both quirky and elegant, all in the same breath.

The quality of materials inside the V40 is also second to none. From the soft, faultless leather to the grade of plastics used, even the famously commendable Audi could learn a thing or two about automotive interiors. The story’s the same at way-below eye level – usually where attention to detail is found lacking. Not so in the V40 – even one’s knees are lucky enough to be treated to a pleasing view.

Volvo V40 noseThat’s not to say there’s no room for improvement inside the V40 – no-one’s perfect. The hand brake, for one, appears to have been designed for left hand drive cars, with the budget for right-hand-drive translation being unfortunately lost down the back of the sofa. It is seriously so close to the left hand seat that a few odd looks can ensue from any unsuspecting passenger as they could easily assume that their leg has become the object of your affections and that you’re brazenly going for a feel.

Safety is still a by-word for Volvos and the levels of standard equipment on the V40 are impressive. Euro 5 NCAP ratings are obviously a prerequisite for any of the brand’s models but Volvo are understandably keen to push the boundaries and leave potential customers in no doubt as to their continuing priorities.

Some safety features work on cars, and some just don’t. I admit that when cornering headlights were resurrected from Citroen’s original DS, I was initially cynical. I was wrong to be. The SE Lux package comes complete with these clever lights and if you take the V40 down a poorly lit B-road, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them as they intuitively illuminate your way. Couple this with the car’s optional active high beam system, which are so superior to previous models I’ve tried due to their ability to alternate between main beam and high beam at appropriate moments, and where once was dark, is light.

One safety element which is worthy of special mention is the collision avoidance system. These units are in their relative infancy and it’s no surprise that Volvo have grabbed the bull by the horns and started to utilise this potentially life-saving technology. It isn’t infallible though. Head into certain bends, in certain conditions and the system triggers, assuming that you’re continuing straight on into a car or tree. The result is all manner of warning lights – some fine tuning required here I feel.

Due to the inherent shape of the V40 and it’s oversized D pillars which are presumably packed full of safety, rearward visibility isn’t great. This is kind-of strange for a company such as Volvo who’s mantra is safety but, either way, it makes the V40’s blind spot sensors invaluable and also makes a good case for the £850 Park Assist Pilot option.

Volvo V40 frontOn the move, the V40 feels extremely planted and solid, more similar to a large saloon car than a mid-size hatch. This particular model was obviously made more for long-distance cruising than country-road attacks as this relatively small 1.6 Diesel tackles high-speed motorways with aplomb, yet can come unstuck when pushed around bends. The steering is highly assisted and, although it WILL find grip at the limits, there is a slight vagueness and lack of feedback through the wheel. That said, it is absolutely effortless when cruising at 60mph + and has an air of sophistication that you’d not really expect in this segment.

Possibly the best £100 option ever - Volvo's flexible load floor. It allows bags to be hung up safely - no more nasty takeaway stains

Possibly the best £100 option ever – Volvo’s flexible load floor. It allows bags to be hung up safely – no more nasty takeaway stains

One aspect of the V40 which must be specced properly is the gearbox. Our test car came complete with Volvo’s auto ‘box (Powershift) and it’s highly disappointing to say the least. Gear changes are sluggish and often occur at the most inopportune moments, with ‘Sport’ mode doing precisely nothing to alleviate the problem. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution and that’s to opt for changing gear oneself. Not only will it be a more satisfying drive, but the manual is quicker to 62mph, gains 11mpg over the auto and saves you a full £20 per annum due to it pulling the V40 below the magical 100g/km CO2 barrier (88g compared to 102g).

Volvo’s V40 is a highly competent hatch and if it’s safety and interior luxury that float your boat, it’s hard to beat. Just be careful when speccing your V40 though and tick the right boxes, as there’s a whole world of difference between making some wise choices and making some not-so-wise.

By Ben Harrington

Specifications; Volvo V40 D2 SE Lux Powershift, Transmission – 6 spd automatic, LayoutFront engine, FWD, Power – 115bhp, Torque – 270Nm, Emissions – 102g/km CO2, Economy – 72.4 mpg combined, Maximum Speed – 118mph, Acceleration – 12.1s 0-62mph, Price – £23,870 OTR, £28,095 as tested.

My own MINI Adventure – how I rediscovered my idenity

No man is an island, as they say. Neither is any man a T-junction or dual carriageway, as no-one says. I’ve waxed lyrical in the past about the inextricable link between man and machine, in particular his/her chosen mode of transport and what this choice says about us to the onlooking world.

Audi A6 Avant

Audi A6 Avant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since selling my excellent Audi A6 Avant in June 2011, I’ve been without a ‘car’ of my own, but a couple of weeks ago I came in out of the cold (literally) and rejoined the rat-race – I bought a bona fide automobile. The effect this has had on my life is infinitely more than the mere convenience of owning another car, it’s had a huge impact in a more spiritual sense.

Some may argue that I never really went cold-turkey on the transport front as I would never sell Matilda, our beloved VW Type 2, I own a Vespa which I classed as my everyday transport and ultimately, I could use my wife’s Citroen whenever the need arose. So why the tangible shift in attitude, just what can a humble car bring to aid one’s wellbeing?

My Vespa - Not so useful in winter

My Vespa – Not so useful in winter

As a hopeless car addict who’s owned one in some shape or form since he was 16, through thick or thin, in good times and bad, I couldn’t possibly have predicted the effect that non-ownership would have on my life. As handy and, in many ways, more convenient as it is to switch from car to scooter, I just couldn’t bring myself to jump whole-heartedly into the two-wheeled camp. The sensation could only be described as treachery, as many people would ask ‘So, what’s replaced the Audi?’ and I’d point sheepishly at my pretty Vespa, quickly uttering some pathetic excuse, like ‘I’m in-between cars at the moment’ or ‘It’s so I can save up for something’. Like someone who’s covering up for recently being sacked, I just couldn’t face the fact that I didn’t actually possess an everyday car to call my own.

A huge part of how we view and judge each other is based on what we do, both professionally and for pleasure. It generally doesn’t take too long for perfect strangers to realise that cars are of substantial importance in my life, usually because I’ve bored them to death about it within half an hour of introduction. It was therefore acutely alien, not only to me, but to my friends and family, when I was without an automobile, like a yin without its yang, like Ant without Dec – you get the idea.

My dream car - temporarily put on hold

My dream car – temporarily put on hold

So, just what vehicle has brought me in from the wilderness, what’s ended the drought? Well, having made no secret of my desire to own a late 80’s Porsche 911, that was the plan, but then our Victorian house started falling down so that budget literally went up in smoke. An Oak Green 16v Mk2 Golf Gti was a slightly cheaper proposition, but they were mostly going the same was as my house – crumbly. The highly desirable E36 M3 Convertible in Estoril Blue was my next target but I was told one too many tales of astronomical running costs for one of those and the idea lost its appeal.

So……. just what ended up fitting the bill? Well, it’s built beautifully by BMW, it’s a very hot hatch with some of the usual practicalities this brings and it’s roughly as quick as an ’87 911…….. It’s a MINI!!! Not just any MINI though, it’s a Cooper S. Not just any Cooper S though, it’s a JCW Cooper S. Pushing out 210bhp through the front wheels, courtesy of a supercharger and various engine upgrades, performance is, shall we say, spirited, especially in this treacherous icy weather we’re currently enjoying.

2003 Mini JCW Cooper S

Our new baby – a JCW Cooper S

If anyone’s considering a Works MINI, just bear in mind that it’s fairly uncompromising in many ways. The suspension upgrades, coupled with 17” wheels make for a ride that eventually forces you to weave across your lane, avoiding the many pot-holes in an effort to preserve one’s spine. The trade-off is obviously limpet-like handling characteristics, just don’t expect to waft to one’s destination, it’s more of a trial than a waft.

By far the most characterful part of an early Cooper S is the supercharger and its unmistakable whine. To say this scream is addictive would be an understatement and the faster you go, the louder and more satisfying it gets. I’m currently achieving an average of 30mpg in my Works but if you suffer from a particularly addictive personality, or a heavy right foot, those economy figures could easily tumble, along with your bank balance as you constantly top up the tank with the 98 RON petrol it demands.

I seem to be painting a fairly negative picture of my new pocket rocket so far but I’m just getting the potentially bad bits out-of-the-way first. Having sorted the fiddly seating position to my liking, this car is evidently serious quality and gravely serious fun. It is so obviously a 0.5 series BMW, they just refused to put their moniker on it, partly because it’s front wheel drive, partly to preserve the MINI identity without linking it to the far more grown-up BMW range. Space inside is a lot more reasonable than I envisaged and my daughters find the rear seats palatial. One word of warning though, whichever way you look at it, THE BOOT IS SMALL. I presumed that a spindly single Maclaren buggy would squeeze in – I was wrong.

Having been generously specced at the factory, my MINI wants for nothing, neither do it’s occupants. Everything’s either heated or electric which gives the sensation of sitting in a little M3. The extra weight added by these luxuries may detract from the go-kart sensation a Works offers but they’re more than welcome if you like your creature comforts.

Like every good relationship, any initial doubts I may have harboured about my new acquisition are rapidly dissipating as the satisfaction of MINI ownership shines through. Perhaps more importantly though, I feel complete again.

By Ben Harrington

Cööl βritannia – Jaguar, Aston Martin and Bentley fly the flag

Jaguar F-Type rear light cluster

A close up snapshot of the upcoming Jaguar F-Type

For a city with a reputation for nose-to-tail gridlocked traffic, the New York 2012 Motorshow has yet again given us some interesting focal points, not least of which are the Land Rover DC100 and the Jaguar F-Type – undoubtedly the highlight of the show. The attention lavished on both of these cars confirmed something for me that I’ve suspected has been emerging of late, British automobilia is once again leading the way in the ‘cool’ stakes. For a while I feared that I was allowing myself to be swept away on the wave of hype surrounding the Olympics and the Jubilee but now I’m not so sure. Think about it, Bentley and Rolls-Royce can’t produce cars quickly enough, especially to satisfy the demand in the cash-rich Asian and Middle-Eastern markets. Jaguar and Land Rover have well and truly disposed of their stuffy, tweed jacket images and seemingly have the Midas touch with every new model they conjure up and Aston Martin are regular victors of the coolest brand in Britain competition – that’s not just automotive brands by the way, it’s every brand on the planet!

Rear view of the BMW 5 Series GT

BMW 5 Series GT

Contrarily and for the first time that I can remember, the previously untouchable über-cool German marques look a bit lost. Their pedestal looks shaky at best and they appear to have resorted to attention grabbing party tricks in an attempt to regain some of the limelight. Top of this list of tricks is undoubtedly the ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ niche market trick. BMW and Porsche seem to have followed Mercedes down this well trodden path, apparently working on the theory that if you make enough variations on a model, there must be one to suit every need.

Now I know what you’re thinking, the only reason that many British car brands still exist is due to massive inputs from across the globe, even Germany and you’d be right. It took our friends from the Fatherland to show us how to build Rollers and Bentleys properly but they seem to have been so preoccupied with rebuilding our houses, their own have been sorely neglected. The same can hardly be said of Jaguar Land Rover‘s new owners though can it? Their owners –  Tata  seem to have revolutionised the management procedures of the company but left the important bits like how the cars look and feel up to us Brits.

Bentley Continental Convertible with roof down

Bentley Continental Convertible

The USP of the German marques for years was, of course their build quality and I’m not saying for a minute that they’ve forgotten which end of a screwdriver is which but it was somehow inevitable that, given enough time, money and help from VW and BMW we were going to catch on eventually. The problem the likes of Audi have now is that their USP is no longer unique and, worse still, the lowly British brands that they used to deride have re-discovered their USP in abundance. Amongst other things, its called style; it simply oozes from every pore of the current crop of British marques. From Astons to Range Rovers, from their interiors to their wheel nuts, British cars have once again got that certain something that makes them stand out from the crowd and the Germans seem to be floundering in their attempts to recreate it.

Unfortunately, one plucky Brit appears to be stuck in the stalls and that’s Lotus. It’s still early days in their master- plan and I really hope that everything comes into fruition but as it stands, they’re really lagging behind the competition. They undoubtedly make some of the best driver’s cars on the road but in these days of frugality, that simply isn’t enough. When people spend tens of thousands of pounds on top-quality items, they demand just that – quality, a car must not only get them from A-B in style but be able to recreate that feat on a daily basis. Without some serious re-jigging of their priorities, Lotus will continue to be a flashback to the days of British car manufacturing when the notion of quality-control was a mere pipe dream.

By Ben Harrington

Geneva Motor Show 2011

Well, the doors haven’t yet been opened and already we have a fair idea of some of the new models set to wow us at next month’s Geneva motor show. Below are a few titbits I’ve selected which may be of interest.

BMW alpina b5 in white

Alpina B5

Alpina B5 Touring. This 500bhp, 188mph monster may possibly be the quickest way to ferry four adults and a large dog around in sumptuous comfort. Alpina may well be onto a winner here as BMW have already announced that the next gen M5 will not be available in estate guise. Something tells me this may change if the B5’s sales figures rocket!

Subaru coupe

New Subaru Concept

Subaru have used a clear, plastic body shell to showcase their ‘Boxer Sports Car Architecture’ concept. This will be a rear drive coupe which will undoubtedly be beautifully built, handle like a dream and be capable of embarrassing some expensive exotica. If some of Subaru’s recent designs are anything to go by (Impreza, Tribeca etc, etc), they may be wise to consider offering this new model with the concept’s transparent panels as standard.

aston martin virage in orange

Aston Martin Virage

Aston Martin have revived a name not seen since the ‘90s – the Virage. Looking suspiciously like every other Aston in the range, it will be available as either a coupe or a convertible and will be priced from about 150k to £160k. Aston Martin hope the Virage will fill the ‘huge’ gap between the DB9 and DBS models.

Lotus Elise Club Race in blue

Elise ‘Club Racer’

Geneva will see the launch of a new, track day orientated Lotus Elise, the Club Racer. Boosting power output by 5bhp and stripping the Elise of its few creature comforts will make the car even more focused, even more precise. It may also transform a car that already offered an uncompromising ride into the world’s fastest iron maiden.

Jaguar XKR-S in blue

Jaguar XKR-S

Jaguar have fired another warning shot across Aston Martin’s bow with the XKR-S, the latest hardcore version of the XK. With 542bhp and 0-60mph time of 4.2 secs, it is the quickest XK yet but at £85-90k, also the most expensive. Purely for comparison’s sake of course, Aston’s V12 Vantage achieves 0-60mph in 4.1 secs but would set you back £140k.

Rolls Royce 120EX Powered by lithium ion batteries

Rolls Royce 120EX

Rolls-Royce are displaying an all electric Phantom, codenamed the 102EX, the world’s first electric ultra-luxury model. Sources at Rolls-Royce are apparently unsure whether the Phantom could achieve an acceptable range in extreme weather conditions using electrical power only. Surely in a car as powerful as this, uranium rods would be a more appropriate power source than lithium-ion batteries.

mini rocketman concept in gray

The Mini ‘Rocketman’ concept

Finally, a Mini that isn’t in danger of contradicting its own name. This ‘Rocketman’(!!!) concept is highly likely to see production in the upcoming 2013 range of new Minis. Whether neat styling touches such as the Union Flag etched roof and retro exterior door hinges make the final cut is anyone’s guess.

And most pointless exhibit on display goes to……

smart forspeed in white

Smart Forspeed

morgan threewheeler in green

Morgan Three Wheeler

The Smart Forspeed. I was originally going to give this award to the Morgan Threewheeler but the order books are full for this little oddity so, who am I to argue? The all electric Forspeed however, has no windscreen or roof, no rear seats and very little range. It is essentially the lovechild of an Ipod and a mobility scooter. Oh dear!

By Ben Harrington

Jaguar’s 12 Year Plan

mg3 in yellow


Anyone who’s seen the press shots of the new models from MG – the 6 and the 3 may possibly be as under whelmed as I am with them. My fears seem to be confirmed, leaving this once great British marque a minority brand with seemingly no hope of regaining their status on the World stage. The designs mainly merge pitiful rip offs of genuinely inventive cars with a blandness not seen since, well, the last MGs. This coupled with engine technology from when Noah was a lad really makes me wish MG had been left to rest in peace with its friends who had already passed, the likes of Triumph and Austin.

This tenuously brings me onto an unreserved apology to Jaguar’s spectacular owners, Tata. When this Indian owned firm assumed control in 2008, I genuinely thought that any misgivings I saw in Ford era Jags would pale into insignificance once Tata’s influence had taken hold on this most historic of car makers. The XK was always good but it was inherited so credit couldn’t be given to Tata for this. Just wait for their first true car I thought, it’ll be amusing if nothing else.

First came the XF with its designer clothes, aimed squarely at the likes of BMW and Mercedes. I admit I’m still not too sure about the exterior but I seem to be in a very small minority on that one and the interior appears to have even fewer detractors. The motoring press also love this car, a point proven by the XF recently winning What Car’s executive car of the year award. For the fourth year running.

Ok, so the XF’s not that bad but surely this was just a flash in the pan, a stroke of luck and the unravelling of the Jaguar brand would definitely begin with the next release. Then along came the new XJ. I’ve made no secret of my unbridled passion for this car, I adore it from every angle, including underneath and I would sell my granny to own one. For me, the XJ is the yardstick by which every other large saloon is now measured and so far, nothing comes close.


Jaguar XF

This was beginning to look like the real deal to me, I was in genuine danger of being proven emphatically wrong and then, just this week, I was. The plans for Jaguar’s next twelve years were unveiled, focusing on a 3 series competitor that once again shoots straight to the top of its class in the looks department. Other future releases include a new XF, a crossover model and most thrillingly for me – an XJ Coupe. I can only see a bright future for Jaguar now, a future that has truly dragged them into public view and out of the golf club car park.

On that note then, I would like to publicly apologise to Tata for ever doubting them and also to thank this Indian company for once again giving us a British automotive manufacturer to be proud of.

By Ben Harrington

Preaching to the non converted

audi-R8-spyder in red

Audi R8 Spyder

In a recent episode of BBC’s Top Gear, Jeremy tested two of my favourite cars on sale at the moment, the Porsche 911 Turbo and the Audi R8 V10. They are both frighteningly fast, extremely expensive and combine exotic looks with build quality typical of the Fatherland. Unfortunately, both cars had been ruined before they even left the factory by one common problem – no roofs. Let me make myself clear here, I’m not against convertibles per se. I just feel that there is a certain type of car which lends itself beautifully to being scalped and others which, well, don’t.

I appreciate that the sensation of open top driving is pleasant, with the wind in your hair, the sun on your back and generally feeling closer to nature. But let’s be honest, a large proportion of convertible buyers are simply wanting to be seen by as many people as possible in their status symbol, posers in a word. One car which fits the bill for these people is the BMW 320Ci. It’s certainly not made to break records at the Nurburgring yet the image and the badge combine to make the perfect ‘look at me, I’ve got expendable income’ mobile.

This brings me on to my issue with the likes of the 911 Turbo cab and R8 cab. They are both designed in hard top form in order to push the boundaries. They must be the quickest, nimblest and shoutiest in their class otherwise they have failed miserably. Engineers work tirelessly to push output higher, weight lower and chassis’ stiffer. We adore seeing covert spy shots of the new models being pushed to their limits around ‘the Ring’, talking in hushed tones about rumoured performance figures. Buying the likes of these cars will hopefully provide a driving experience like no other, setting us aside as a true admirer of automotive engineering.

So what do you think it says about the person who opts for one of these exquisite cars and then chooses the one with no roof? I’ll tell you what it says, it says that the owner would like everyone to think that they are a driving god but when it actually comes down to the nitty gritty, they care more about being seen in the car than actually driving it. This therefore makes them not only a poser but a poser and a fake.

By Ben Harrington

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