Jude P. Morte / Jude P. Morte | July 11, 2005 00:00
A hauler, but check your budgetIn an era where commercial vehicles or CVs - pickups, SUVs and vans - reign supreme, the station wagon has nearly been rendered obsolete. Once America's (and occasionally, the Philippines') favorite mode of urbane private transport for passengers and cargo in the 70s and 80s, the station wagon has been reduced to a nearly extinct species, available only in certain European marques.
But with the Volvo V50, the Swedish-based manufacturer is trying to revive the notion that station wagons are as good, or even better, than commercial vehicles in terms of hauling people and paraphernalia safely, decently, even luxuriously. And if its recent tie-up with MTV is any indication, a vehicle fit for the perpetually on-the-go yet stylish yuppie.
Upon arriving at the Volvo headquarters along Pasong Tamo Extension, the author was mildly disappointed at the V50 procured for the test drive - a silver MTV decal-clad one, sporting a 2.4-liter, five cylinder DOHC engine mated to a five-speed a/t with Geartronic. Not exactly a picture of elegance, considering that the Swedish-based marque is known in the country as a premier brand. Honestly the MTV decals wrapped all over the V50 rather "tarnished" the unit, making it look like you're getting Keds instead of Cole-Haans.
But appearances can be deceiving. Take away the MTV decals and the V50 is a distinct character with its bulging hood, strong shoulders, graceful roofline and tapered tail, scaled down for use on a shorter wheelbase. To the author the car looks like a pissed-off station wagon willing to take on all comers in a race. Truly Volvo has come a long way since the 70s and 80s, when units used to resemble the cargo crates that carried them. Nowadays, Volvos are among the most appealing vehicles on the road, instantly recognizable as Sweden's best export this side of ABBA, The Cardigans and supermodel Elin Nordegren.
A potential date car
When asking for a date, what's on the outside produces initial attraction between two people. But when selecting a mate, what's on the inside counts most, and Volvo has crafted a comfortable and uncluttered cabin for the 2005 V50.
Ingress and egress to and from the V50 is fairly easy, with the three-spoke, multifunctional leather steering wheel terrifically unobtrusive to the driver's knees. The ignition slot is easy to find, and one only needs to twist the key (ever so) slightly to the right to start the car. Front controls are big and within easy reach, including the handy rear wiper switch, which is logically located on the tip of the wiper stalk. The buttons on the waterfall control panel are grouped closely together to maintain the interior's minimalist theme, but is somewhat hard to find and use while driving. A one-touch control for the windows, however, gives you more time to fiddle with the stereo, climate, and trip computer systems.
Most innovative is the V50's waterfall-style central control panel. This panel, about two inches thick and housing the buttons and knobs that operate the stereo (a 445-watt, 12-speaker premium sound system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer and Dolby Pro-Logic II Surround Sound), climate and trip computer systems, gives the Volvo V50's cabin a contemporary and high-tech appearance. Semitransparent aluminum trim (billed as "Iced Aqua") helps to set this exclusive design feature apart, while the rest of the interior is outfitted with upscale materials, including soft-touch dash and door panels (like on the current Ford Focus models) as well as a fabric headliner. Also, the V50 has a compass, which means you can save money on going around and around in circles if you're good at dead reckoning. Other goodies that come on the T5 include a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area, a leather-wrapped shift knob, stereo controls on the steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, leather upholstery, a cabin pollen filter and an auto-dim rearview mirror. Aside from a few glossy pieces of plastic, nothing inside the V50 announces that it's anything less than a luxury car.
Seating is comfortable, and the wide upper doorsills are a terrific place to rest an arm or elbow for highway cruising. The driver's seat is power adjustable, but not the shotgun seat, highly unusual for a premium car. The steering column that tilts and telescopes help the driver to find a decent driving position, but the foot pedals are too close, forcing the driver to sit far back in the car, a good distance from the gauges and controls. The test car was also equipped with Volvo's new T-tec upholstery, special fabric that feels plush and upscale while simultaneously imparting a sense of durability. The fabric is grippy enough to secure occupants in their places but allows them to shift weight during the ride. Also, T-tec looks vaguely reminiscent of a wetsuit; perhaps Volvo is planning ahead in case another cargo ship takes a trip to the bottom of the English Channel.
Interior storage areas are located in the door panels, behind the waterfall control panel, and in the center console. Of course, a glove box is provided, but it's narrow, deep, and lined with rubber, all of which makes it difficult to reach, find, and retrieve items, especially from the driver's seat. Elastic pockets sewn to the front of the driver and passenger bucket seats are particularly handy, creating a great spot to stash a cell phone, and would be a better location to place smaller items that could vanish within the glove box. As for cupholders, there are large, rubber-lined recesses in the center console designed to grip several different sizes of beverage containers.
Haul stuff and look good doing it
Hauling stuff is the point of owning a station wagon, and the V50 does not disappoint. It features folding rear seats with a 60/40 split help to expand cargo volume, but to achieve a flat load floor the sizable headrests must first be removed. Once that task is complete, a simple latch on the upper outboard edges of the seatbacks drops them to create 62.9 cubic feet of volume. Loading is easy through the large rear liftgate, which features a handy recess in the rear panel to ease closing.
With that, the author decided to test the car's hauling abilities on one Friday trip to and from the UP Gym with some of his former players on the UP UAAP (Seniors) basketball squad. He managed to fit in the rearmost section of the V50 (hold your breath) 12 varsity basketball player-sized duffel bags, a bag stuffed with 10 regulation Spalding basketballs, with two six-footers (specifically, one 6'3" and one 6'4") and one 5'10" player in the back seat. All managed to fit in without blocking the driver's rear view mirror or rearward line of sight. However, the three people at the back complained of tight legroom. Lesson: the rear passenger section was meant only for two people, not three.
But when you go out on the road, people stare at the V50. Maybe it's the decals on the car (or maybe the crowded cabin), but a Volvo is a Volvo, and any European luxury car still draws glances and turns heads wherever it goes.
Swedish meatballs are big and full of power-inducing protein. The V50's engine, much like a Swedish meatball, is full of power. On the road, the V50's 236 foot pounds of torque gives it strong midrange performance, and a stab at the throttle summons a five-cylinder chortle from the twin pipes at the back.
But this naturally aspirated engine in our test unit seemed to have quirks. For example, don't attempt to challenge others to a drag race; launching the car from a standstill stop merely squeals the tires and brings up a lot of wheelspin. And a test of the car on the Forest Hills' notorious 35-45 degree inclines showed that the naturally aspirated engine huffs and puffs (some might find it too long) in second gear before downshifting. Maybe the V50s here should come with the T5 engine only instead of offering an au naturel engine option.
Whether the engine is blown or naturally aspirated, the V50's five-speed Geartronic transmission delivers smooth shifts regardless of driving style. Manually shifting the transmission takes more muscle than expected, and the requested shifts occur with a bit of delay, but the V50's Geartronic features direct shifting with positive engagements, if not operation as fluid as in a BMW.
Electro-hydraulic steering is calibrated to increase effort at higher vehicle speeds (although steering at any speed tends to be quite heavy), and the V50 rides on a suspension comprised of MacPherson struts in front, a multi-link setup at the rear, and stabilizer bars at both ends. Handling is benign, and even though the suspension errs on the side of compliance, the limits are high enough that most owners will never discover the V50's bias for understeer - at least, not on dry roads. If you're willing to trade a bit of ride to gain a bit of handling, 2006 V50s tote standard mean-looking, 7.5x18" Medea wheels. But get this: turn the traction control off and attempt hard cornering, and the V50 handles like a rally champ, but not as great as the go-kart handling of the BMW's 120i or E90 3-Series.
Much like every vehicle in the Volvo lineup, the V50 comes chock-full of safety equipment. Volvo equips every V50 with the same four-wheel-disc braking system that includes ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Electronic Brake Assistance (EBA). Electronic Brake Assistance can recognize when a driver performs a panic stop, fully engaging the braking system before the driver can mash the pedal to the floor.
The V50 is one of the company's first vehicles to employ VIVA (Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture). VIVA is the name Volvo has given the V50's safety package. Among the more important features of VIVA is a patented front vehicle structure which is made using varying grades of steel designed to crumple rapidly at first to dissipate crash energy, and then as forces approach the passenger cabin higher-strength steel creates a barrier to prevent damage from intruding upon the interior.
In addition to this new safety structure design, the Volvo V50 includes SIPS and WHIPS, but no chains. SIPS is Volvo's Side Impact Protection System, and it includes side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags with reinforcements installed between the A-pillars, inside the doors, and in the seats. And because the side-curtain airbags deflate slowly, they help to protect during a rollover accident. WHIPS stands for Whiplash Protection System, and includes front seats and head restraints that move with the occupants' bodies to limit injury in a rear collision. Dual-stage front airbags, traction control, collapsible pedals, seatbelt pretensioners for outboard positions and force limiters for the front seats are also included in the V50. Volvo is one of the few automakers that offers the option of child seat boosters integrated with the rear seats, a must for the family man who has Php 2.295M to spare for a luxury family car.
With the V50, Volvo wants to attract youthful professionals who desire a stylish, safe, versatile, and fun-to-drive vehicle. Theoretically, as these buyers mature, start families, and earn more money, they will trade their entry-level luxury-brand vehicles for larger, more expensive models, and will remain customers for decades. After three days spent behind the wheel of the 2.4i V50, it's clear that Volvo has successfully met its marketing goals. The question is: Will the young and upwardly mobile embrace a station wagon that, when fully equipped, easily surpasses two million pesos?