Clearly, everyone in Italy fancies themselves as being a bit handy behind the wheel. Transferring to the weird and wonderful Villa Amista, a Byblos Art Hotel just outside Verona, we were treated to a demonstration of spirited driving by the hotel minibus driver as he chopped and stuttered through the late afternoon traffic from the airport. A ride in a local taxi in Dubai was like Driving Miss Daisy by comparison.
Things improved dramatically once we stopped, though the feeling of déjà vu appeared as I not only recognised the hotel from a similar press trip some years ago, but found myself assigned the same room as I had the last time I stayed. The Byblos Art Hotels are pretty weird generally, so if you are into the architectural and design combinations of rococo and tacky, these are the places to stay. In complete contrast, thankfully, was the warm, efficient and laid back welcome we had from Volvo to drive their spanking new V40 premium hatchback.
Before even getting behind the wheel, you get the distinct impression from those Volvo chaps that something big is happening here: there is a tangible air of excitement and downright pride in what has been achieved with this car, and talking to their chief of chassis and dynamics, Joakim Rydholm, I was delighted to hear that the new V40 is a ground-up-designed entry to a sector that is full of mediocre competition. "We set out to beat BMW at its own game, and we reckon we've managed it," said Rydholm. A splendid alfresco dinner and a good night's rest were all that stood between that statement and the test of it, on some of the best driving roads in Europe.
There are five engines available in the new car, two of which are diesels, though at launch in the Middle East around February of next year, we will get only the T4 to start with, a petrol turbo four cylinder with six-speed powershift autobox.
The engine is quiet, unfussed and very responsive, and it seems that the gearbox ratios are well chosen for the task. I was very impressed by its willingness, and commented at the lunch halt that I thought it really quite sharp for a 2.0L motor. "That's good to hear," responded our hosts, "since it's a 1.6!" Now that was a surprise. Perhaps I should have spent a bit more time looking at the badges but my fellow drive partner and I both felt that we were in something a bit bigger. At 180hp and 240Nm of torque, plus an extra 30Nm on acceleration through over-boosting of the turbo, there is more than enough poke, and with no lag in the turbo, it is instantly available.
Performance on paper shows an acceleration time of 8.5 seconds to 100 kph, and a top whack of 225 kph with the autobox. But in all honesty, the new V40 feels a lot quicker.
Where this new Volvo makes a complete departure from anything with a Volvo badge before is in the handling. The new chassis has been four years in development, and according to Rydholm, has done more kilometres than he can remember, on five development units, in six countries and in every conceivable condition. "I was away for up to 25 weeks at a stretch during the testing process and had to send pictures of myself to my kids, so they'd remember what I looked like when I got home again," he said.
Two chassis settings will be offered in the V40: a standard dynamic package that features McPherson struts at the front and monotube dampers at the rear, and a sports chassis, which is lowered by 10mm all around. Both feature electrical power assistance to the steering, with three available settings, and are distinguished by having a particularly low centre of gravity.
In comparison terms, that translates to a handling package that can best be described as Volkswagen Golf GTi - a benchmark setup that has been an industry pinnacle for years. In a Volvo, it's a revelation. There is little or no sign of understeer, the front of the car is pin-sharp and the whole vehicle is taut, chuckable and faithful to driver input. On the roads above Lake Garda, you really don't want it to be any other way.
If there is a single criticism that can be levelled at the V40, it is that, like all front-wheel-drive Volvos, the turning circle is less than brilliant, but it is a very small price to pay. I could not fault the car otherwise.
Volvo design has stepped up a notch, too. There are some neat and yet not obvious signs of "heritage", that ghastly old chestnut that seems to be the excuse of several manufacturers these days when they are too lazy to clean-sheet a design proposal. The panoramic glass roof - in dark tint, especially on a lighter body colour - is reminiscent of the classic Volvo Amazon, and there's a really neat cut in the swage line that is straight from Roger Moore's P1800 as driven in The Saint, kicking up through the rear door to accentuate the shape around the glasshouse. The car is wide at the front, giving it great road presence and the trademark stacked and swept-around taillights are Volvo design at its purest. The V40 looks aggressive without being brutal, functional without resorting to the old box shapes and easy on the eye. It looks particularly good in the lighter colours, and the range of these has been expanded with a few new ones.
Inside the car, the Scandinavian, almost minimalist appearance is still prevalent. Volvo claims large car spaciousness for the V40, and that is certainly the impression given with new materials and colour schemes. The overall ambience has been improved over previous generation cars, where the Scandinavian minimalist theme has sometimes been a bit too Ikea.
Theatre style lighting features throughout the interior, courtesy of carefully concealed LED lamps, and this mood lighting can be adjusted for colour and intensity. There's plenty of room for back seat passengers despite the relatively low roofline, and storage areas abound; there is even a hidden storage compartment in the boot floor. The rear seats split 60/40 and, in the usual style of Volvo's accessory catalogue, you can opt for any number of clever fitted boxes, nets, organisers and attachments. Ikea has not been ruled out of this Swedish experience entirely, it would seem.
It would be impossible to publish a story about a Volvo without referring to safety. Remember that safety has always been one of Volvo's core values: the first company in the world to fit three-point safety belts as standard equipment; the first to introduce catalytic converters to limit exhaust emissions; the first to have anti-whiplash seats - the list is almost endless. And with the launch of the V40, there is another first: the pedestrian air bag, which in the event of an unavoidable collision will trigger a raising of the rear edge of the bonnet and release an airbag that covers a third of the windscreen, the back edge of the bonnet and both A pillars, thereby contributing significantly to the reduction of pedestrian injury.
Notwithstanding this world first, there have been developments and improvements across the whole range of active and passive safety devices. Volvo's City Safety system, which keeps its own eye on traffic, now operates at speeds up to 50 kph. City Safety is already documented as reducing collision frequency in high density traffic by as much as 22 per cent. There are enhancements to the Blind Spot Information System and a Lane Keeping Aid that gently applies pressure to the steering wheel and sends a vibration through it, should you veer from the straight ahead. The list of acronyms is enormous, and it is thanks to Volvo's continuing research - there is a team in Sweden that investigates every single accident involving a Volvo car - that we not only see these support systems being introduced, but also that we see them filtering through to every other car made.
The new V40 is now the most intelligent and safe car in its segment but, having said that, in the real world of scabby white lines and road works, these systems can lull you into a false sense of security. There are conditions in which Lane Keeping Aid, for example, works well, and in others when it does not, especially if the cameras or radars cannot "read" the road because of poor markings. You can, of course, switch several of the systems off, but does that not rather defeat the purpose of having them in the first place? As a technological tour de force, Volvo has certainly raised the bar, but I have to admit that I found a few things so intrusive I disabled them. I also believe that if you can't drive a car properly and with sufficient attention to the task without driver aids, maybe you should not be driving at all.
There was a time when the thought of buying a Volvo was considered a tree-hugging exercise of some sort - like making a statement of not really wanting to have a car at all, but opting for something that was a necessity with absolutely no pretensions to style or personal choice. While the new V40 still can claim the number one spot on the safety front, it is an interesting, practical, comfortable and highly entertaining car to drive. It is such a departure from the archetypal Volvo that it's almost not a Volvo at all.
The Volvo V40 will be available in the Middle East in the first quarter of 2013, and though prices are yet to be announced, it will be worth the wait. I'm actually thinking seriously about getting one myself, though perhaps with a couple of fuses taken out.