- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

Carmakers are constantly attempting to broaden their base. For more affordable brands that entails developing larger, more expensive models and for upscale marques that usually means introducing smaller, less pricey products.

Considered a premium brand, Volvo has built a reputation for safe family transportation. During the past decade performance has also pushed its way into Volvo’s lexicon, as has the phrase: fun to drive. While these are characteristics with real appeal for younger buyers, the typical Volvo price tag traditionally has discouraged widespread interest among young up-and-comers.

The S40 sedan and its companion wagon, the new V50, are Volvo’s latest strategy to lure that younger buyer into the fold.

Replacing the V40 wagon in Volvo’s lineup, the V50 doesn’t take its target buyer for granted. Although there has been some sharing of technology between Volvo — wholly owned by Ford — and Mazda — partially owned by Ford — in creating the V50, the Volvo soul has not been compromised. It looks, drives, feels and protects like its larger, more expensive stablemates.

Offered in two engine-based trim levels, the V50 can either be somewhat sedate (2.4i) or a bit sporty (T5). The $26,675 V50 2.4i is propelled by a 168-horsepower 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine. It comes only in front-wheel drive. Power arrives at the wheels via a five-speed manual or a five-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Laying out an extra $1,600 at purchase for the T5 adds another 50 ponies to the V50’s get up and go. Its 2.5-liter five-cylinder is turbocharged and increases torque by 66 foot-pounds over the 2.4i’s 170 foot-pounds. The T5 is available with either FWD or a transparent AWD system.

While the optional $1,200 automatic tranny is the same as in the 2.4i, in the case of the T5 a six-speed manual is standard. Fuel economy doesn’t vary much regardless of the engine or the transmission.

Two-wheel-drive versions have an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway for the 2.4i and 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway for the T5. Opting for AWD on the T5 does influence mileage, dropping the in-town figure to 19 and highway to 26.

There is nothing terribly exciting about helming the 2.4i. It is capable of keeping up with traffic, but its acceleration won’t leave occupants gasping for breath. The T5 is more satisfying on the morning commute. Even with the automatic, it moves off the line rather briskly after the turbo kicks in. The independent suspension is set for ride comfort rather than crisp handling. The steering is responsive and overall handling is decent for a wagon. Stopping power is achieved by four-wheel disc brakes monitored by an antilock system. Electronic Brake Assist and traction control are standard.

What would a Volvo be without a grocery list of safety features? The V50 has the usual lineup of Volvo protective gear including side-impact air bags up front, front-to-rear side curtain air bags and an active anti-whiplash head restraint system.

In the V50 interior Volvo has managed to make flat surfaces interesting. The bulk of the dashboard to the right of the center stack is a slab. A rounded cowl in front of the driver houses the important analog gauges.

Buttons on the left-hand side of the three-spoke steering wheel operate the cruise control. Redundant buttons for the audio system are on the wheel’s right side (T5). We first saw Volvo’s revolutionary center stack on the S40 and it has been incorporated into the V50s dashboard as well.

Wafer-thin … well, not quite, but the center stack is no more than an inch thick as it cascades from the dashboard to the center console. Looking like something snatched from a Scandinavian electronics boutique, it houses a tasteful array of buttons and controls for the audio and air-circulation system. Behind it lurks nothing but empty space.

The interior is roomy enough and the seats quite comfortable. The split rear seat folds down to create additional cargo room. While there is nothing outrageously fancy about the cabin, the materials are quality and the workmanship top notch.

All V50s have air conditioning, power windows and door locks, tilt/telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated power outboard mirrors, remote keyless entry and an audio system with CD player. The T5 adds automatic climate control, eight-way power driver’s seat and a trip computer. Stability control is a $695 option.

Although it can’t be called inexpensive, even the top-of-the-line AWD T5 has a base sticker of less than $30,000 with destination charge. It’s a lot of Volvo for the price.

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