QUEBEC CITY, Canada - Fahrenheit and Celsius converge when the temperature reaches 40 below zero, the forecasted wind chill on the day of our first test drive of the 2005 Volvo V50, and when the air whips across the surface of exposed skin, it sears the cells like a burn on a hot stove. Bundled in heavy coats, thick gloves, waterproof boots, and black hats which resembled Elmer Fudd's hunting cap, we set off for Quebec's frozen hinterlands in a Mineral Gray Metallic Volvo V50 T5 equipped with an automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, a map of local roads, and a bag of Trader Joe's Salty, Sweet & Nutty Trek Mix. Our mission: sample the Volvo V50's available all-wheel-drive in some of the most extreme winter conditions possible.
Thankfully, the day was bright and the wind calmer than expected, making unnecessary the Exothermic Toe Warmers that Volvo supplied. Our Volvo V50's two-stage seat heaters, however, were set to full blast, and the dual-zone automatic climate control system poured warm air into the cabin throughout the frigid day. We spent several hours cruising highways, crossing icy two-lane roads, and driving a handling course carved into a frozen lake to evaluate the cold-weather prowess of Volvo's latest AWD creation, a vehicle aimed at a younger, less affluent, but more active demographic than the Swedish automaker has ever targeted. Based on our brief fling with the V50, it appears that Volvo has created a vehicle that youthfully exuberant consumers might find fits their lifestyle perfectly.
Under the hood of the V50 2.4i is a 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline five-cylinder engine making 166 lb.-ft. of torque while burning premium-unleaded fuel. This engine is connected to a Geartronic five-speed adaptive automatic transmission with manual gear selection that drives power to the front wheels, accelerating the V50 2.4i to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, according to Volvo. Fuel economy rates 22 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.
Volvo V50 T5 models get a big horsepower bump, thanks to a turbocharged, 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine that requires premium fuel. The blown motor sends 218 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft. of torque through a six-speed manual or a five-speed manually interactive automatic transmission to the front wheels or all four wheels. Torque peaks across a broad rev range between 1,500 rpm and 4,800 rpm, meaning that the V50 T5 storms out of the gates and doesn't lose steam. Restrained use of the throttle results in 22 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway with the manual transmission, while the automatic returns 21 city and 30 highway.
All-wheel-drive is available only on the V50 T5 model, and uses an electronically controlled Haldex system to distribute power. Under normal driving conditions, power flows to the front wheels. When the front wheels slip, as much as 95 percent of the power can be transferred to the rear wheels. If only one wheel has grip, either front or rear, Volvo's AWD system can move the majority of the engine power to that single wheel to gain maximum traction. AWD takes a toll on fuel economy, dropping the rating to 19 mpg in the city regardless of transmission choice. Manually shifted models can get 27 on the highway, while automatics score 26 on the highway.
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. Electro-hydraulic steering is calibrated to increase effort at higher vehicle speeds, 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. A Dynamic Sport Suspension is optional on the V50 2.4i and T5, and comes standard on the T5 AWD. Stiffer springs and reduced ground clearance help models with the Dynamic Sport Suspension grip the road with greater tenacity.
Standard equipment includes the usual list of features, though it's important to note that the V50 2.4i does not include a trip computer, power driver's seat, or automatic climate control. Those items are optional on the 2.4i, but standard on the V50 T5. Other goodies that come on the T5 include a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area, a leather-wrapped shift knob, aluminum interior trim, and stereo controls on the steering wheel. Every 2005 Volvo V50 also includes the first four scheduled maintenance stops for free, as long as they're made within three years or 36,000 miles of purchase. Key options on all V50 models include rain-sensing wipers, a DVD navigation system, heated front seats, a power sunroof, leather upholstery, and a 445-watt, 12-speaker premium sound system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer and Dolby Pro-Logic II Surround Sound.
In addition to this new safety structure design, the Volvo V50 includes SIPS and WHIPS, but no chains. (For mountain driving in the winter, you'll need to drop by the local auto parts store.) 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. Volvo is one of the few automakers that offers the option of child seat boosters integrated with the rear seats. Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) is optional on the V50 2.4i and V50 T5, but comes standard on the V50 T5 AWD, where it's bundled with a low-speed traction control system that operates at speeds under 32 mph.
The 2005 Volvo V50 has not been crash tested by the NHTSA or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but the IIHS did conduct a 40-mph offset frontal crash, side-impact crash, and rear-impact crash tests on the structurally similar Volvo S40 sedan. The S40 received a "best pick" rating from the IIHS for offset crash protection, an "acceptable" rating for side-impact protection, and a "good" rating for rear crash protection.
The 2005 V50 continues the Volvo family design theme of bulging hoods, strong shoulders, graceful rooflines and tapered tails, scaled down for use on a shorter wheelbase. The result is a stylish and distinctive vehicle.
Sixteen-inch alloy wheels come standard on the Volvo V50, but optional wheels measuring 17 inches are available. Tires are sized P205/55R16 on the standard wheel, while the optional wheels receive P205/50R17 tires. An 18-inch wheel wearing wider, lower-profile performance tires is also offered.
Those who wish to personalize a Volvo V50 have a couple of options that will add zest to the bodywork. Metallic paint expands the color palette beyond the standard red, white and black, but each of these optional hues costs almost $500 extra. A Sport package for the 2.4i includes front fog lights and upsized alloy wheels, with little else to visually distinguish it from the standard model. Volvo V50 T5 versions can be tricked out with the Dynamic Trim package, which adds unique wheels, front and rear spoilers, a rear valence panel, rocker panel moldings, and polished exhaust tips for a racy appearance.
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, climate and trip computer systems, gives the Volvo V50's cabin a contemporary and high-tech appearance. Aluminum trim (optional on the 2.4i) 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 as well as a fabric headliner. Aside from a few glossy pieces of plastic, nothing inside the V50 announces that it's anything less than a luxury car.
Major controls are easy to find and use, 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 we found them somewhat hard to find and use while underway. One-touch control for windows and the sunroof, however, gives you more time to fiddle with the stereo, climate, and trip computer systems.
Seating is comfortable, and the wide upper doorsills are a terrific place to rest an arm or elbow for highway cruising. Adults riding in the rear seat are likely to complain about tight legroom; long highway trips should be taken only with smaller children. Power adjustable front seats (optional on 2.4i) and a steering column that tilts and telescopes help the driver to find a decent driving position, but we felt that the foot pedals were too close, forcing the driver to sit far back in the car, a good distance from the gauges and controls. Our test car was equipped with Volvo's new T-tec upholstery, special fabric that feels plush and upscale while simultaneously imparting a sense of durability. However, this material grips occupants' clothing, making it harder to shift weight during the ride.
Though not as comfortable as larger Volvos, the V50 carried us through the rural Quebec countryside for several hours, and we emerged without aches, pains, or muscle strains.
With the 2005 Volvo V50, 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. And if longer items must be carried, the front passenger's seat folds in half, too.
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. Plus, the glove box door was sticky and hard to close on our test sample. 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, but a smattering of control buttons between them and the gear selector appear vulnerable to soda pop spills.
Today, every model in the Volvo lineup includes a performance-oriented version, with the exception of the XC70 wagon (which is designed for light off-roading rather than rapid on-road travel). Our Volvo V50 test vehicle was the sporty T5 model, equipped with all-wheel-drive and riding on the optional 17-inch wheels. For our winter driving test in Quebec, Volvo replaced the standard tires with winter treads to help ensure that participating journalists wouldn't stuff the cars into a snowbank, or worse.
On roads clear of ice and snow, the 2005 Volvo V50 T5 AWD delivers good power, launching off the line with verve while displaying little discernable turbo lag. The V50 T5 accelerates rapidly, the Geartronic transmission delivering 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. We did not have an opportunity to try the six-speed manual transmission in the V50 T5, but in the S40 T5 sedan this transmission features direct shifting with positive engagements, if not operation as fluid as in a BMW.
Engine groans are evident inside the V50's cabin when the motor is revved. This dissatisfying engine note is the single most disappointing trait in the V50's character, making the driver feel as though the machinery isn't a willing companion for spirited driving. When the tachometer needle spins toward the upper reaches of the motor's powerband, the V50 T5's turbo seems to say, "Ow, don't do that," instead of, "Yeah! Let 'er rip!"
Right behind the moaning motor on our gripe list is the V50's lifeless steering. Though quick to respond to input, the electric steering offers little feel for the road. If Volvo intends to pass the V50 T5 off as a driver's car, improvement is necessary.
Feel free, however, to praise the suspension for its taut yet supple ride, which keeps the driver informed about the road while filtering anomalies out of the cabin. The V50 T5's dampers provide remarkable wheel control, while the springs soften the blows nicely, resulting in a pleasingly Germanic ride quality. In the few dry corners we encountered, the V50 T5 also handled impressively. Furthermore, the brake pedal proved a joy to operate, offering remarkable feel and linearity, allowing us to consistently bring the car to a smooth stop.
To demonstrate how effective the V50's DSTC stability control system is, Volvo carved a road course into a frozen lake. Our instructions: For the first lap, drive hard with the stability control turned off, and for the second lap, drive hard with the stability control turned on. We happily complied, and learned in the end that the DSTC does a terrific job of bringing the V50 under control on ice.
On the frozen lake, only whipsawing of the wheel combined with lift-throttle oversteer could overcome the DSTC's ability to slow the vehicle and retard a dangerous slide, which means that on public roads you've gotta get in way over your head to cancel DSTC's effectiveness. When switched off, DSTC remained on guard but at a higher threshold where it would ultimately engage and work to bring the car under control. In this mode, we slid off the course and into the snow, underscoring the point that in the real world, we cannot imagine a situation when the driver might wish to shut this vitally important piece of technology down.
After a day spent behind the wheel of the V50 T5 AWD, the top model in the lineup, it's clear that Volvo has successfully met its marketing goals. The question is: Will the young and upwardly mobile embrace a compact station wagon that, when fully equipped, easily surpasses $35,000?
Dynamically, the V50 appears to be worth every penny, and we'd recommend the car to anyone interested in this type of vehicle. But the playing field is flooded not only with worthy competitors but also heavily subsidized leasing programs. In a country where brand prestige is more important than engineering, safety, value, and utility, this marketplace reality and consumer mentality makes it harder for Volvo to expand beyond its core group of safety-minded consumers.
Engine Size and Type: 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline five-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 218 at 5,000 rpm
Engine Torque: 236 lb.-ft. between 1,500 and 4,800 rpm
EPA Fuel Economy: 19 city and 26 highway
Curb Weight: 3,196 lbs.
Max. Cargo Capacity: 62.9 cubic feet
Max. Towing Capacity: 2,000 lbs.
Max. Seating Capacity: 5
Competitors: Audi A4 Avant, BMW 325iT, BMW X3, Buick Rendezvous, Chevrolet Equinox, Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Chrysler Pacifica, Dodge Magnum, Ford Escape, Ford Escape Hybrid, Ford Freestyle, Honda CR-V, Jaguar X-Type Wagon, Land Rover Freelander, Lexus IS 300 SportCross, Mazda 6 Wagon, Mercedes-Benz C-Class Wagon, Mercury Mariner, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Nissan Murano, Pontiac Aztek, Saab 9-2X, Saturn VUE, Subaru Legacy GT Wagon, Subaru Outback, Toyota Highlander, Volkswagen Jetta Wagon, Volkswagen Passat Wagon
Ford Motor Company, which owns Volvo and possesses a controlling stake in Mazda, does share parts of the V50's underlying structure with the European Ford Focus and the global Mazda 3. The Ford Focus sold in the U.S. today is a completely different vehicle from the Volvo V50, and the Mazda 3 doesn't employ the V50's patented front crash-protection structure. Luxury car buyers concerned that they aren't getting their money's worth in the Volvo V50 can rest assured that it's a palpably better vehicle than either the Focus or the Mazda 3.
Is Volvo abandoning its traditional focus on safety to create stylish, fun-to-drive vehicles?
Absolutely not. Safety is still Volvo's primary goal when engineering a new vehicle such as the V50, but in the expanding and increasingly competitive luxury class, safety is not enough especially when other automakers are building vehicles that protect occupants just as well as Volvo can. That means Volvo must appeal to consumers through design and performance, in addition to safety.
Will Volvo build an R-badged performance version of the V50?
At the 2004 Specialty Equipment Marketers Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas, Volvo displayed a high-performance V50 concept vehicle that generated plenty of attention and positive press. We asked Volvo if a V50 R was slated for production, and the response was a predictable: "Ahhhh, next question." If we were bettin' folk, we'd put money down that says Volvo will have a higher-horsepower version of the V50 in showrooms by 2007.
Was it fun to drive on a frozen lake?
Better than an all-day pass at the Mustang Ranch.
Photos courtesy of Volvo Cars North America