Estates, or station wagons as they’re more commonly known here, appeal to a very small segment of buyers in Malaysia. Most associate them with hearses, but there are fans. I for one, love the idea of wagons even though I’m not married with kids or involved in business that requires lugging around goods; favourites include the B5 Audi RS4 Avant and Alfa 156 Sportwagon, cars which shapes I admire more than their saloon sisters.

Not many choices in this market if you’re after one, so the locally assembled Volvo V50 stands out as a sporty and classy European estate that’s relatively affordable. New for 2010 is a 2.0-litre engine and Powershift double-clutch gearbox replacing the old 2.4-litre five-pot. No change in price, but your RM185,950 will buy you more equipment than before. We see if it’s a compelling package.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

The S40 sedan had always looked awkward to these eyes; its compact and stunted dimensions didn’t bring out sleekness from the basic design like its big brothers did. The V50 wagon is a different story, with nice proportions and a sporty look as opposed to the brick like Volvo wagons of old. It’s almost as if the designers had the wagon in mind before adapting the design to make the saloon.

The 2008 facelift gave it a more dynamic looking face, and the V50 doesn’t look like the seven-year old car it is. Fitted with an optional (and very subtle) bodykit and the bicycle rack, I must have gave off the impression of a fit, adventerous, outdoor person, which is at odds with my growing waistline! If this car was mine, the first thing will be to chuck the 16-inch rims for bigger R design alloys to complete the image.

The V50 appears compact, and studying the dimensions reveal that it’s shorter than a Honda Civic. The Volvo is about the length of a 3-Series Touring, although the Swede’s 2,640 mm wheelbase is a good 120 mm shorter than the BMW’s. That doesn’t sound promising, since the current E90 isn’t exactly what one would call spacious at the back; in practice, legroom is far from generous but not constricting either, and there’s room under the front seats for you to tuck your feet into. Typical of Volvo, seats are comfy and the rear bench features built-in child booster seats that pop up. The V50’s boot is capable of holding 417 litres of cargo (expandable to 1,307 litres with rear seats down), not outstanding compared to today’s B-segment sedans, but this is no traditional Volvo wagon, remember?

Now let’s go into what’s new. The discontinued 2.4-litre five-cylinder engine and five-speed auto pairing was quite enjoyable – pokey enough and the unique five-pot warble sounded special – but the drivetrain was old and thirsty. Volvo’s solution is similar to what many European manufacturers are doing today – downsizing. In comes a 2.0-litre four-pot and a twin-clutch Powershift gearbox. Both are from parent Ford, and the engine is similar to the one in the Focus.

Twin clutch boxes are more efficient than torque converter autos – that’s a fact – but the lowering of engine capacity is normally compensated by direct injection and forced induction, neither of which is present here. How does a 145 bhp/185 Nm 2.0-litre fare in hauling a 1.5-tonne car that when loaded should weigh about two tonnes?

Not very well. Acceleration is merely adequate with just the driver onboard and sluggish with a family of four and luggage. You really need to be heavy with the throttle to build momentum from rest, and the process feels slower than the official 0-100 km/h time of 9.9 seconds. This comes as no surprise as I found the same engine to be the weak point in the lighter and nimbler Ford Focus, but it must be noted that Volvo grade insulation means it’s more mild mannered here. Although the engine is working its socks off, it’s quite serene this side of the firewall save for some boominess around 5000 rpm. It’s quite lively at the top end, just that it takes awhile to reach there. Been awhile since we’ve driven a slow Volvo – this car badly needs a turbo.

How about the Powershift? Very good, but just short of the DSG’s brilliance. At crawl speeds in D, there are hints of jerk, with a tendency to hold on to a gear too low. At this point the engine is revving higher than ideal instead of just easing its way along. Don’t get us wrong though, Powershift (in this application) does very well 95% of the time and is a great replacement for the conventional auto, just not as slick as DSG, even if its miles ahead of Italian robotised manuals.

I did have an issue with changing gears manually though. You tap the gear lever to the left (to the passenger’s side), which is more ideal for left-hand drive, and the shift action requires serious effort because it’s rather sticky. Could do with steering paddles or a lighter up/down movement. When self shifting, the engine revs till 7000 rpm, a couple of hundred revs more than in D.

The fuel consumption isn’t fantastic either. Now, we’re being realistic and do not expect a fully loaded, super safe Volvo wagon achieving Vios economy, not with the poor engine working so hard. But we dried the 62-litre tank in 400 kilometres. That distance included my daily routine (mostly highway, with some city driving) and a solo B-road blast to Ipoh. In the latter, although I extended the engine fully when possible, there were plenty of 90 km/h cruising too. Topping up with RM50 of RON95 gave me 300 km of gentle driving, which equates to about 10.8 km/l and nearer to the 12.3 km/l official claim. Any V50 2.4 owners out there who want to share your figures?

Engine and economy aside, the V50 provided an enjoyable drive. It may sound cliched, but the Volvo feels very solid on the move. The controls are all relatively hefty, and the steering would be downright heavy for those used to Japanese levels of effort, but it suited me fine. Sharing a chassis with the Ford Focus means that the V50 has a good foundation, and it displays good stability, body control and agility – although you’re always conscious of the extra weight over a Focus, body roll is not an issue. However, the slightly fidgety ride over patchy roads wasn’t expected by yours truly, so think twice before upsizing the wheels!

Also enjoyable is the cabin, which is minimalist yet very functional. The Swedes are experts in ergonomics, and I wouldn’t want the V50 to work any other way. The “floating console” with its neatly arranged layout still looks good, but the green text displays look very dated with their dot matrix style fonts. The blue-faced dials you see here is optional, and worth it, as they serve as a focus point in an otherwise dark cabin. It’s not colour coded to the exterior, but just a coincidence. Another option worth ticking is the sports pedals with rubber inserts.

I love the idea of the Volvo V50, a classy, sporty looking wagon that’s solid and safe. Even the price is palatable, given the amount of equipment that’s standard (brilliant 8-speaker stereo, electric memory seats, six airbags, DSTC, BLIS blind spot assist, bi-xenons and keyless entry/start – the latter three weren’t previously available on the 2.4), but it’s not completely satisfying. All major issues can be traced back to one source – the underwhelming engine, which is a case study of downsizing not done right.

A modern direct-injection turbocharged engine (such as Volvo’s latest 2.0 GTDi with 203 bhp/300 Nm) or a diesel is what the V50 needs. Volvo Car Malaysia launched the XC90 D5 even before our country switched to Euro 2M, and maintains that none of those cars have issues with local fuel, so that’s a possible solution we’re looking at, or even the 2.0 lump from the Focus TDCi.

Optional equipment (promotion price shown is valid till 31 March, 2010)
Roof spoiler RM1,231
Body kit RM4,575
Sports pedals RM554
Aluminium bicycle carrier RM574
Blue instrument panel RM1,998
Portable navigation system (inc mounting kit) RM2,266

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