Thursday, November 14, 2013

VOLVO V40: Let's roll....

Volvo V40 T2 R-Design

I once had a pretty heavy Volvo habit. It started in a small way, when I fell in love at the age of 12 with the old 145. I knew enough Latin by then to know that Volvo means "I roll". You have to remember that this was 1971, a time when Volvo was relentlessly Swedish and seemed, by comparison to normal cars, to have been carved out of a single metal ingot. Solid is not an adequate word.
One of my early loves...
Hard as it may be for younger folk to understand, Volvo had a certain coolness. And then they ruined it all with the introduction of the 244 which looked like a slab with a kind of snowplough stuck on the front. Even as a child, I felt that this was the antithesis of aerodynamicism. And it was ugly.
See what they did?
But this was a mere lovers’ tiff. By the time I reached man’s estate I returned to Volvo with a vengeance. First there was a 244DL maroon saloon that nearly dislocated both of my shoulders thanks to an absence of PAS (hard to imagine these days). In time, this car gave me biceps like I’ve never had before or since.

In time, I graduated to a 240GL estate in the kind of blue favoured by the Legion of Mary. I wasn’t choosy; I just felt (and I think I still do) that God created Volvos to be estates. Saloons have never looked quite right to me.

I hope you will forgive a digression here. Speaking of the saloon/estate issue can anyone honestly say that an Audi A4 looks as good as an Audi A4 Avant? And, while we’re on the subject of Audis, just think of the A5. See what I mean? Cars that are, essentially, a big box sandwiched by two smaller boxes are struggle against all the odds to be elegant. Even the Maserati Quattroporte. Now, there’s a car I’d like to see in a “shooting brake” (nothing so utilitarian as an estate) version.

Anyway, where was I? Yes. Then there was the 240 GLT estate in silver with as many bells and whistles as you could hope for in a 1987 car; I loved it. And after a flirtation with Land Rover, it was back to Volvo, a saloon admittedly but a rather attractive 850 GLT that got me my first speeding ticket and which eventually threatened to drain my pockets dry with the fuel bill.

I’d been away from Volvo for quite a while when I sat into this bright red V40 T2 R-Design, a modestly proportioned car that is aimed, essentially, at the same part of the market as the Audi A3.
Nice. The car. Not my ghostly finger tip.
Hang on, a moment. Let’s step out of it, for a moment. The Volvo V40 is a very lovely car in appearance. It has more than a dash of the supremely elegant, almost futuristic P1800 that even those whose veins are not filled with four star unleaded will recall as the car that Simon Templar drove in The Saint. Yes, that’s how old poor Roger Moore really is.

The legendary P1800. Estate version looks a little like a Reliant Scimitar. But better.

Anyway, back inside. As soon as I did sit in, I realised that some things don’t change about Volvo. Their seats are always excellent and these ones seemed to have maximum lumbar support and a rather comforting embrace.
The V40's cabin.
Other things don’t change either, and they are not immediately obvious. Safety is every car producer’s concern these days but Volvo remains out front, well ahead of the posse. Back in 1944 when most of Europe thought about safety in terms of bombproof shelters, Volvo introduced the world’s first safety cage. They did the same with the 3-point seat belt in the year of my birth (and that’s more years ago than I care to remember, as the late Harry Moore used to say). 

When people used to dress up to show off the latest seat belt.

The innovation goes on: there was the first side air-bag in 1994 and now, invisible beneath the bonnet of the bright red V40 which I was about to drive, the world’s first pedestrian air-bag. Volvo is careful and considerate.
The world's first pedestrian air-bag.
To misquote Stephen Fry (who was speaking of a different Scandinavian car brand), “Has anyone ever said ‘Look at that lunatic in the Volvo!’”

There are still people who think that Volvos are boring, either because they last drove one when most of them actually were, or because of all this talk of safety. I mean, Lamborghini don’t talk up the safety features, do they? And even BMW tend to apply the soft pedal when rehearsing such characteristics.

It’s rather a double-edged sword. I found the combination of Volvo solidity (with all due respect to Ford, the V40 didn’t feel Focus-derived), cocoon-like cabin (as far as the driver is concerned, at any rate) and the world-leading safety features all very comforting and reassuring.

The car itself, however, looked like a little beast. Red, as I say, and given the R-Design trim which, to be brutally honest, looks a touch boy-racerish. And in a slightly aggressive style. That just seemed rather out of Volvo’s innate character. A Volvo might be a beast (remember the old T5 which used to be nicked for so many bank heists?) but in its outward demeanour it should drop only the subtlest of hints about the fact.
T5. The beast.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I liked this car. It had an essential Volvoness that spoke directly to my inner Volvo owner and it was comfortable, refined, impeccably well mannered. But, dear reader, it was a little disappointing in terms of performance.

And I don’t mean that I wanted it behave like it looked. It’s just that the 1.6 litre 120bhp petrol engine seemed, at times, to flag at the task of hauling around quite a lot of car (despite its category). It wasn’t seriously underpowered; it’s just that the performance fell a little below what would make the car feel absolutely right.

Not quite me.

I’d imagine that the diesel D3 with 148bhp would sort out that little problem and, if I were going for one of them (which is tempting in theory), I’d pass on the R-Design. I had to switch the dash display to something less games-console themed within minutes of sitting in to the car – but, to be fair, the clarity of display was first class. Other controls were, to be honest, a little fiddly at first but after a week I had the hang of them.

This is a thing I have noticed about proper, professional car writers (Sam Wollaston excepted, as always, bless him; he rarely gets down to details). They seem to whinge, to some extent, about all controls, touchscreens and what have you except those in BMW, Mercedes and Audi models. I reckon it’s because most of them have the car for only a week and don’t get used to them.
Looks quite straightforward to me.

I might well be wrong, though. The last BMW I drove was from the early noughties, the Mercedes was probably from the Berlin Wall era and the Audi was somewhere in-between.

The more anorakish amongst my few readers here may have noticed that I didn’t dwell much on the Swedish thing. Look, I know that this car is made in Belgium and I know that Volvo has trodden a complex path in terms of the automotive industry but it remains for me, at heart, Scandinavian.

It’s a personal thing. A matter of faith. Perhaps you never lose it. Perhaps I’m just a lapsed Volvo owner who will eventually embrace the faith again. I just might.

Monday, October 7, 2013


When I was a teenager a lot of my schoolfriends were ferried about in the car that was the epitome of middle-class family transport in the leafy suburbs: the vast and rugged Peugeot 504 estate which, in the days when seatbelts were effectively optional, could fit an entire under-12s rugby team.

It entered the world as far back as 1968 and morphed into the 505 to greet the 1980’s – with an even longer wheelbase in the estate. Like the Volvo 240 series of around the same time, both the 504 and 505 looked much better as estates. They seemed to have been conceived that way.

The rugged (and relatively inexpensive) theme had started, of course, with the 403 in the 1950s. The slideshows given by African missionaries in my childhood always seemed to feature one.

Anyway, it’s interesting that the 504 estate was such a family favourite way back in the ‘seventies. It was, in a sense, the precursor, by a very long way, of the MPV.

Driving the Peugeot 3008 recently, I could sense some of the old 504 in the genes. Not in the engineering or the handling, of course, but in the sheer practicality of the thing.

Now, I never got to drive a 505, the only Peugeot that I piloted in the 1970s being one of their excellent pushbikes which was nicked from outside the 1937 Reading Room in TCD. But I have had Volvo estates, various Land Rovers and a Range Rover. I like my space.

The 3008’s split tailgate was a nostalgic reminder of the Range Rover's and how we used to sit on it during picnics or even when just changing boots. The Peugeot’s version is designed to support two adults or numerous children.

And that tailgate opens to reveal a fine load space with considerate details such as hooks to stop the shopping going all over the place and a tilt-and-pull platform which can be used to give the boot a false bottom or variable height shelf. It’s immensely family-friendly.

Storage space is remarkable. Lift the armrest between driver and front-seat passenger and there’s an area capacious enough to fit a ten year old although it’s clearly not intended for that purpose. So huge is it that I can imagine losing things in it.

Rear leg room might be a little tight for me, but I’m 6 foot two inches. As for the driving position, I loved the way controls wrap around in a rather cocoon like style, properly ergonomic.

So far, so pleasing. But the real surprise was the ride quality. Apart from a conspicuous absence of pitch and roll which belies the car’s height the ride is outstandingly smooth. Even eating up hills in high gear there was a sense of being wafted.

In contrast to the VW Passat Bluemotion, another 1.6 turbodiesel, the 3008’s long-legged gearbox doesn’t need a whole lot of attention when nipping about. On the other hand, the distance between gears when shifting is quite long and at first I found sixth rather elusive.

It being a crossover and I being still an occasional 4x4 driver, it was easy to forget that the 3008 is a two-wheel-drive vehicle. However, the version I drove had a clever traction control system which was difficult to sample as I was driving it during a lengthy spell of dry weather.

However, I twiddled the appropriate knob and took it off road into one my rather hilly fields when the grass was pretty wet and put it, with some trepidation, through its paces. I have to say it was remarkably sure-footed. I’d imagine it would be pretty reassuring in snow.

The 3008 looks pretty conventional at the back while the front has one of the more extreme versions of what has been described as Peugeot’s “rictus grin”. Did it bother me? Not really, especially when I was behind it. Anyway, I like a car that doesn’t conform to the bland norm and the 3008 certainly doesn’t do that. The grin motif, I gather, is on the way out.

What we have here is an immensely practical, roomy family car. It swallowed all of my daughter’s boarding school gear and there was lots of space to spare. It was exceptionally comfortable and pretty frugal in terms of fuel consumption: I reckon I averaged over 50mpg overall and achieved over 60+ mpg when driving fairly gently in the country.

Overall? It’s impressive. So impressive, indeed, that I would seriously consider driving a Peugeot 3008 on a more permanent basis.

The car I drove was:
Peugeot 3008 Active 1.6 HDi 6-speed with Grip Control
(Equipped with 16” Mud & Snow tyres, as standard, when fitted with Grip Control)
RRSP: From €26,275 plus delivery + metallic
CO2: 125g/km – Tax band B1 @ €270 per annum
Mixed Consumption: 4.8 litres / 100km (59MPG)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


My collection of neckwear is sparse. I suppose I wear a tie, at most, once or twice a month but, perhaps due to having a paucity of things to worry about, I have strong views about them.

Many years ago, I was an assistant master at a public school where I spent an inordinate amount of time telling boys to do up their top shirt button and adjust their ties accordingly. I applied myself to this rather unenviable task with remarkable vehemence, which was odd in that I was a rather subversive member of staff. The sight of an undone top shirt button and loose tie simply hurt my eye, and it still does. If you’re going to wear a tie, for heaven’s sake wear the bloody thing properly.

I was reminded of this, and inspired to write the above paragraphs in my most Sir Bufton Tufton-ish style, when watching the Channel 4 documentary, Educating Yorkshire.

It features daily life, as seen through the highly selective and distorting prism of reality television, at Thornhill Academy, a secondary school in a pretty deprived part of northern England.

The headmaster, Mr Mitchell, who looks like a retired rugby international, has a thing about uniform as part of discipline. It was pretty galling, then, to see this head teacher lecture his charges about wearing ties while himself breaking my top button rule.

But, what was worse was the head’s stubble. Look, when you are at work, you need to shave every day or grow a beard. It’s a bit like the tie thing. Wear the stupid thing, or don’t.

So far, so trivial perhaps. I suspect that some of the officers who served in the Libyan desert during World War II, to take a random example of work-time mores, may have occasionally undone their top button and failed to shave regularly. Without losing control of their men.

But, what worried me about Mr Mitchell was his approach to bullying.

The school has a zero tolerance approach to physical violence – which sounds, at first, to be highly commendable. However, as anyone who has ever dealt with adolescents in a school environment will tell you, life with teenagers is not simple enough to admit of such a crude policy.

Ill-behaved pupils appeared to receive oceans of indulgence from Mr Mitchell whose motto was clearly “girls will be girls” (no doubt some of the boys are equally delinquent but, one imagines, the girls are more telegenic).

Twinkly-eyed and kindly with the troublemakers, Mr Mitchell seemed to reserve his sternest demeanour for a boy, Jac-Henry, who was clearly the victim of taunting, name-calling and non-physical bullying; (he and his friends are, it appears, quiet and studious; “I wouldn’t want to be one them”, said the naughtiest of the girls.)

Jac-Henry, like any healthy teenager, reacted to this treatment by lashing out on a number of occasions but without causing injury, let alone GBH. One of the recipients of his spontaneous wrath, a girl, was asked if she had “stamped on his head?” “I dunno,” she said. “I mira done…”

Jac-Henry was, variously, put in the school’s isolation unit (should schools have “isolation units”?), suspended, and given counselling which convinced him that he has serious anger management problems which could mar his future life.

Jac-Henry comes across as a thoughtful, intelligent and polite boy. His tormentors would appear to be anything but.

He was failed by his school because of its one-size-fits-all approach to bullying, and I have no doubt he ended up angrier than ever. It’s nothing as to the anger I felt on his behalf as I watched his headmaster, now something of a minor education celeb and shaving more frequently, indulging the little beasts (sorry, misguided and disadvantaged pupils) who, one is pretty sure, were making Jac-Henry’s life miserable.

Mr Mitchell’s application of the zero tolerance policy had the robotic quality of a call centre in the face of a complex, human situation.

Of course, we must remember that television is not omniscient and that being headmaster at Thornhill Academy is anything but an easy job. But this episode of Educating Yorkshire suggested that having a policy on bullying doesn’t equate to tackling the actual problem.

Because of the nature of much of the English state school system the children, now aged sixteen, have gone on to “college” to complete their secondary education. Jac-Henry wants to be a counsellor and he is still best mates with Brandon, the boy who pointed out, in a moment of blinding clarity, that school was victimising him because he was being bullied.

And Jac-Henry would appear to be as polite, decent and as considerate as ever. I just hope that his former school might learn from him.

You can watch the relevant episode of Educating Yorkshire here:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I ended up – quite by accident - driving, as my daily car, a SEAT Leon. I was plagued with an intermittent and utterly myserious fuel feed problem in my Land Rover TD5 and had decided, wisely, I think, that dependability was paramount.

A friend of mine, who since regrets it profoundly, offered me his 2002 Leon TDI for a modest price and I agreed to take it home for the weekend just to see what it was like. I was smitten instantly.

It was doing almost 60mpg or half that of the Land Rover. It was a great deal faster, and therefore safer when overtaking, than the Land Rover and it handled in a way that suggested to me that it was glued to the road. Quite a revelation, really, so I snapped it up.

There were only two downsides. The previous owner, in an attempt to remove a mouldy smell from the air-con had managed to impregnate the entire vehicle with some vile kind of synthetic scents which, at first, dictated that I drive with all the windows open, weather permitting. It still haunts the vehicle in a ghostly form. We refer to the car as the SEAT Aroma.

The other is a common fault in cars. It has no long wave on the radio so that I can’t listen to BBC Radio 4. Well, you can’t have everything.

I initially fell for what you might call the practical advantages of the Leon. It was economical and fun to drive; it had five seats and a decently sized boot. All of this appealed to the head.

Within a few weeks, and despite the fact that the aroma was slow to attenuate, it had claimed something of the heart too. I liked its shape which is so much more attractive than its VW stablemate (and parts bin sibling) the Golf. In profile, it reminds me, in a rather indirect way, of one of my favourite cars of my youth, the Alfetta GT Sprint Veloce which was as beautiful and downright cool as it was possible to be between 1975 and 1980 (the age of big lapels, big hair, big tie-knots, and brown as a fashionable shade). It was also as lovely as it was utterly unreliable, but nobody ever bought an Alfa-Romeo in the belief that it would behave like the Swiss railways.

Walter da Silva, now head of design for the whole VW group (which includes Lamborghini and Bentley which must be fun), worked for Alfa Romeo before he was poached by SEAT but I suspect he was too young to have had a hand in the GT. But some of Alfa’s DNA may have travelled with him to Spain and got into the cells of the new Leon.

In any case, my somewhat aromatic and slightly battered Leon (the previous owner’s spatial reasoning is, thankfully, something he doesn’t need in his profession) is a proud possession and I always like to return to it, even after driving much more expensive and fashionable cars. (As a fashion statement, a 2002 SEAT Leon TDI ranks somewhere around the ill-cut tweed jacket with fake leather elbow patches, to be honest, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest).

Anyway, that was the kind of circumlocution (stop sniggering at the back!) that one is allowed only in the blogosphere. A print editor would have dictated that I have reached both my word count and my deadline at this stage.

And it is by way of introduction to my week with the spanking new and bright red SEAT Leon FR TDI which is something which a decade ago would have been considered a bit of an oxymoron: a diesel hot hatch. Actually, it may be a hatchback (are most cars not, these days?) but it’s rather more spacious and comfortable than the phrase might suggest.

OK, it’s maybe not a searingly hot hatch.  The version I drove has a mere 150bhp (more than quite a few models in the BMW 3 series range) as against a seriously hefty 181bhp in the faster model. But that’s still pretty powerful, especially in a car of this size, and certainly enough for my daily needs.

It lacks the electronic parking brake that VW seem so keen on, but I prefer a good, old-fashioned hand-brake like this. The 6-speed manual gearbox is snappy and you get discreet gear prompts for maximum efficiency (an experience which can be very instructive if you are used to changing gear according the old wisdom, incidentally).

Oh, I admit. I loved it. I loved the responsiveness, the mid-range acceleration (which you only miss when it’s not there), the firm but comfortable ride, the sense of connection with the road and reliable feedback.

I also loved the look of the thing (despite my younger daughter describing it as “girly”). Those fold lines are rather lovely, are they not? And those sculpted wing mirrors? And even, well in my case anyway, the inside door handles. I think they’re pretty cool.

On a totally practical note, sensible driving on the motorway will deliver 70mpg (sorry, but I always think of fuel consumption in old money; it was the way I was brought up), and overall I averaged something in the region of 62mpg.

Would I pay over €2700 for the eye-catching “Emocion red” colour? You’re joking. It would bring the cost of the car I drove to a shade over €30k which rather defeats the point of driving this rather delightful SEAT. In a more mundane shade, the version I drove costs just a little under €28k, which is more like it. The entry level model costs €10k less than that, which is stonking value.

In summary, a lively car that would serve a young family well. Practical and a lot of fun, and it’s not often one can say that.

But it took me only a day or two readjust back to the Leon Aroma.