Back at its launch in 2012, we were big fans of the Volvo V40. It was a leftfield choice, but smart, comfortable and above all packed with safety features and technologies.
Since then the diminutive Volvo has gained numerous fresh challengers. Volkswagen has unveiled a brand new Golf, Audi an A3, Mercedes a reformatted A-Class and we've had our hands on new, improved powertrain and trim level options from the BMW 1-Series and Alfa Guilietta.
We wanted to try out the recently added R-Design trim level and sample the V40 in petrol-powered form. Does that R-Design trim inject a welcome twist of "Swedish techno" as the accompanying adverts imply, or add an unwelcome dose of aggression to a car that should be the perfect antidote to a motoring world already brimming with macho German style?
Where Volvo cars have always looked a bit vanilla, the R-Design trim adds a dash of aggression and stylistic adornment that we'd normally expect from a BMW M-Sport or Audi S-Line model.
READ: BMW 435i M-Sport review
We're talking gloss accents, large wheels with black contrast elements, satin finish mirror casings, darkened glass and a spattering of blue R-Design badges. We can't help thinking it's a bit try hard. Should a Volvo look aggressive? It doesn't quite fit with the brand if you ask us.
Step inside and the story continues. You get R-Design embossed seats, kick-plates and even a branded welcome greeting on the digital gauge pack. The look is completed with some interesting purple mood lighting, which is projected down from the roof onto the centre console at night. It's a trim level which really will come down to your personal taste, but at least you can see where Volvo has spent the extra money you'll pay over a regular ES or SE model.
Still a Volvo at heart
Inside, it's the same V40 we found back on launch in 2011. The means you get one of the more interesting small car cabins, a comparatively tight rear seat space and a boot that's a good few litres short of what the Audi A3 Sportback or Honda Civic offers in this class.
READ: Volvo V40 review
Still, if you're sat in the driving seat, you're unlikely to care because this is really quite a special place to sit and, for the money, one of the best cabins in its class.
In the V40, Volvo seems to have finally resolved the "floating centre console" design with good oddments storage. There's an anti-slip lined space behind the console, which is good for sunglasses and wallets, while you still get two cupholders rear of the gear stick and a deep centre bin topped by an armrest too.
A digital Volvo?
The plastics quality is good, but fire up the V40 and your eyes are drawn to the super-high-quality digital gauge pack, which can be configured into one of three modes - Eco, Elegance and Performance.
Sad petrolheads that we are, we left it in the performance mode most of the time. This mode gives you a predominantly red colour scheme, with the central area containing an outer rev-counter display and a large digital speedo appears in its centre. Underneath this a small icon of the V40 is displayed. Other markers surround this as the context around the car changes. A tell-tale sign for a car in front comes up when the cruise control is switched on and you are trailing a vehilcle in front; lane marking signs illuminate red if you veer out of lane.
It's a great display. High quality, full of colour and yet not too distracting - we like the attention to detail, like the moving bar graph in performance mode, which shows you how much of available engine power you're using. Or the fact that the centre screen zooms in the scale of the car to highlight elements of the interior should, say, anyone on board remove a seatbelt or open a door.
An old fashioned interface
We just wish we could say the same about the centre display and the way it is controlled. The Concept Coupe Volvo showed at the Frankfurt motor show previews the company's intention to move to touchscreen interfaces and do away with hundreds of interior buttons. While we're not always touchscreen fans, for Volvo this move can't come soon enough, because interacting with the current system which in our car featured Sat Nav can be a tortuous and long-winded game that often ends in great frustration. Although it will accept full postcode entires, unlike some systems.
Rather like Citroen's interface, using knobs and buttons and a number pad on the centre console - which often perform other tasks - proves no substitute for the dedicated rotary controller set up with short-cut buttons favoured by Mercedes, Audi and BMW.
Furthermore, the quality of the digital gauge pack display throws the clunky, old-school central Sat Nav graphics into stark relief. Three days in and we were running Google Maps in parallel on our phone when driving the V40 - and it proved to do a better job than the on-board system of getting us places and showing where the traffic was.
Like a Focus, but not quite as good
In the short time that has elapsed since the V40's development and launch, Volvo has become quite a different company - with new owners and new faces in most of its senior positions. The V40 was partly developed during the time Volvo was owned by Ford and thus shares large parts of its platforms and technological systems - namely the Focus. That's perhaps why the Volvo's rear quarters aren't as commodious as we'd come to expect from a company famed for estate cars.
But it's also frustrating that the V40 isn't a fantastic drive, in the way the Focus manages to be. It's perfectly fine in many ways, but the ride tends to patter away constantly, it doesn't feel particularly keen to turn in and the steering is lifeless. It's not really one for driver entertainment, but it is solid and refined. Yet the standard of competition - the Golf and A3 in particular - is so high, we feel the Volvo falls short.
And it's a shame the ride isn't a bit better, as otherwise the Volvo could carve out more of a niche for itself as a comfy, refined cruiser. We tested the entry petrol engine - the "T2" - which offers up a 1.6-litre with 120bhp. Consider it's not a shouty whizz-bang modern like some competition, and it performs perfectly well. It gets along quickly enough, is super-refined and we got about 40mpg. But you might want to consider an upgrade to the 150 bhp T3 model - as it doesn't harm the CO2 output, meaning you won't pay higher tax.
A safe steer
Yet above all, Volvo always gives you one thing a step above its competitors - and that's safety. Never mind that it's festooned with airbags and a clever crash structure, the V40 - equipped as our test car was - will do everything it can to prevent you having a crash in the first place.
As we've found out with other cars like the Volvo S60, which comes equipped with the "City Safety" system, the Volvo system will warn you if you're travelling too close to the car in front by illuminating what looks like a small electric bar fire at the base of the windscreen. It'll flash and audible alert if it detects you're closing on something too fast and not responding. And as a last resort, it'll slam on the brakes for you if you don't react, at least lessening the impact - but below 30mph potentially bringing you to a dead stop.
And should you achieve the seeming impossible and still manage to mow down a pedestrian, there's the world's first outside airbag, which inflates to cushion the unfortunate recipient's impact with the car. If we ever get run over, could we arrange it to be by a V40 please?
Yet there's much more than just this. You get lane keep assist too, which tugs the steering wheel to guide you should you stray out of your lane. And the Volvo calls the emergency services for you, should the worst happen. It's all very reassuring, but for the easily irritated, also mostly deactivatable.
Even in a world where every new car seems to get a five-star safety rating, you just know Volvo has gone one step further. Drive a V40 - or any of the company’s recent efforts for that matter - and you can easily believe in the company's laudable aim, to ensure that no-one is killed or seriously injured in a Volvo by 2020.
It's hard to dislike the Volvo V40. Witness the behaviour of the drivers of certain German-branded vehicles on our roads, and you can understand why a section of society just profoundly dislikes Audi and BMW. But Volvos? They're driven by nice people. The sort of people you'd like as your neighbours.
In R-Design trim the V40 is a slightly confusing beast though and - unless you want your Volvo with some bling - we feel the car is better in a standard ES or SE trim. It has some lovely design elements, such as the backlit gearstick, the bezel-less rear view mirror and digital gauge pack. But you get those in pretty much every trim. And R-Design whacks up the price. It's also a bit aggressive, and its try-hard tone sits uneasily with Volvo's typically more relaxed, calm manner.
Back on its launch, and in diesel guise, the V40 was a four-and-a-half star car. Two years on, and with a host of new, super-talented rivals and in petrol form, its shines less brightly. We wish its technology worked as well as a BMW's, but it doesn't. We wish it drove as well as the new Golf, but it doesn't either.
What the company has showed off in concept form and what should arrive in the form of the new XC90 next year may prove a better answer to the question of what Volvo stands for. But for now, if you want to look and be different, a Volvo V40 is the safe choice. And let's not forget, in a world where safety is now taken for granted, Volvo still goes further than anyone - it's hard not to admire that.