While bigger and better are often written together, the reality is they often pass each other on the highway. But Volvo seems to have merged them nicely with its 2005 V50 wagon. Re-designed and re-engineered for 2005, the compact and elegant 5-door Volvo V50 hatch replaces last generation's V40 wagon. It's available with a choice of two 5-cyl engines with either front or all-wheel-drive. MSRP (for T5 AWD): $29,385; Warranty: 4/50,000.
With its rounded front and rear ends, V-shaped hood and pronounced, muscular arches above the wheel wells, this may be the best looking Volvo ever. But with all its exterior design changes it still easily recognizable as a Volvo. The V50's most distinctive exterior feature may, however, be the design of the comely hindquarters with its extremely abrupt tail. Even still, the V50 is about two inches longer than the sedan version of this model, the S40. The track and wheelbase have also been extended and this puts a wheel virtually at each corner. This wheel-at-each-corner design has a great deal of appeal to the current generation of car buyers, which combines buff athleticism with sensuality. The terrific chassis is shared with the new Mazda3 and the C-Max, a European version of the 2005 Focus. Both of these are at least $10K cheaper than a comparably equipped V50. Know what? Even though the other two are terrific automobiles, the V50 looks, feels and drives like it's worth the extra coin. Class leading safety and environmental features come standard with every Volvo.
In the Driver's Seat
The V50's interior offers a revolutionary new design, highlighted by the ultra-slim floating center console. While I loved the extra-thick wood rim steering wheel with leather grips at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions, high performance drivers would probably prefer a full leather wheel. But forget performance, this interior design is for the stylish transport of the mid-level exec types who want to exhibit just a soupcon of environmental awareness. The rear doors of the V50 wagon have a square cut out that allow much easier access than sloped cut outs of the S40 variation. Thanks to its extended roof line, the rear seat passengers have more headroom and better visibility than in the S40. If adults will be riding in the back seat, they'll be happier in the V50. I found the fold down mechanism for the second row seats in the V50 a bit awkward because the seat cushion must be folded forward before the seat back can be lowered. Also, one frets in a way totally foreign to a Japanese car owner when the power mirror briefly refuses to move (it was frozen). But, quality control concerns that plagued recent Volvos seem finally to be in the past. So now the V50's interior is a first-rate place to spend time whether as a driver or a passenger.
On the Road
I was fortunate enough to test the T5 all-wheel-drive (AWD) over two weeks where there were measurable amounts of real snow on the ground. With the V50 delivering power to all four wheels, I had a real hoot tooling around in the white stuff. I actually drove around looking for steep hills with deep snow and ice in order to stop on the steepest section and then floor the gas pedal. The V50 would take off like it was on dry gravel -- it was a great feeling of control! The electronic stability and traction control (DSTC, standard on the T5 AWD) was almost impossible to beat. The new V50 and its sister S40 sedan are powered by the first of a new generation of low-friction 5-cylinder engines that are considerably lighter and more compact than previous engines of the same displacement. My V50 T5 AWD came with the turbocharged 2.5L (putting out 218hp and 236 ft-lbs of torque) and a 6-speed manual shifter. I'm not normally a fan of 6-speed manuals but in combination with the T5's huge torque, this one was a delight to play with. Nor am I always a fan of turbos, but the T5 came on so subtly and seemed never to lag. A purist would, however, expect the steering to be more on center since the V50 T5 is, after all, a sporty automobile.
The interior of the V50 is a joy to spend time in. The seats are superb and the elegantly spare dash and center console remind one of those high-end electronics shops that specialize in Bang & Olufsen. My snow experience really sold me on the benefits of AWD (and good tires). If I lived in a place that gets lots of snow I'd consider buying AWD even though the extra weight and friction exacts a considerable fuel economy penalty in normal driving conditions. As always, Volvo has made occupant safety and conservation a priority. However, even with the sophisticated T5 engine, it does not offer the rocket-like performance of some of its similarly priced competitors. Volvo intends to sell only 10,000 V50s per year in the U.S. So while Volvo managed to successfully combine bigger and better, they're being careful with more. So if you manage to get your hands on a V50 you'll probably be the only V50 owner in your neighborhood. And it'll be up to you to show that the V50 is a delightful, completely contemporary, even luxurious automobile.