Volvo helps bring the wagon genre back to life with new V50

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Forget the old station wagon, that boxy family contrivance of yesteryear that went out of fashion with the arrival of the minivan and later, the sport utility vehicle.

The modern station wagon, now coming to you as a “sport wagon,” is becoming hot news. There’s some sexy stuff out there that will blow you away and may get you thinking in the direction of a wagon (ugh – there’s that word again) or more specifically a compact fuel-efficient cargo hauler and away from the energy-challenged two-ton high riders.
We’ve mentioned the wagon revival before, notably the success of the Dodge Magnum. The Magnum is a full-sized version of the modern wagon and the rage of 2004.

Truthfully we can’t figure out why station wagons, extremely popular in the days of
Eisenhower and Kennedy became passé. But for some reason they could not live in harmony with truck based, gas-guzzling SUVs. While wagons offered scads of room with all the handling attributes of a sedan the SUV offered – big.

Would-be station wagon owners, the traditional family with mom and pop and two kids, moved on to the minivan and the SUV leaving very little audience left for the Vista Cruisers and Estate Wagons, and in reality, at that time maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.

But times change and so have wagons and manufacturers are now making the new wagon as svelte and gorgeous as a beauty queen. And people are rediscovering the wagon, particularly the higher-end variety, some of which are so downright good looking that people no longer think of them as wagons, but a new style of sleek transportation. Some examples include the Saab 9-2X, Audi A4 Avant, Subaru Legacy, BMW 3-Series, VW’s Passat, and the Lexus IS 300 Sport Cross.

We just finished seven days in one of the sexiest of the bunch, the all-new compact Volvo V50. And it makes perfect sense to us that more people are considering a new-age wagon with a big cargo area, the agility of a sports car, the fuel economy of a mid-sized sedan and in many cases the all-wheel drive configuration for driving confidence.

The 2005 V50 is a kissing cousin to the new S40 sedan that we spend nearly a month in while on assignment in the U.K. Both are built on the new Ford architecture used by the Mazda3 and the European version of the Ford Focus. Don’t let the Ford/Mazda connection affect your perception of the Volvo, however. While the V50/S40 may have Mazda developed underpinnings it is all Volvo from the roof to the wheels including the specifically tuned suspension. The ride and handling are every bit Swedish and that’s good.

The entry-level Volvo wagon first broke on the scene in 1999 as the V40, also a joint venture with another Japanese partner, was very competent, but the new version is a big leap forward in design and execution.

Volvo has always embraced the station wagon, one of the few companies in the world to offer a wagon variant without interruption through the decades. So it is fitting that Volvo now has one of the best compact wagons on the market.

We were infatuated with the Volvo from its so-called floating center console to its wonderfully comfortable seats to its willing turbocharged 5-cylinder engine. It helped that our test car came equipped with a 6-speed manual (originally developed for the S60 R high performance sedan) since we love to wring the most performance possible out of a vehicle.

And wring we did, the Volvo V50 T5 responded with a 0 to 60 time of less than 7 seconds. Not bad for a “wagon.”

The V50 is also available with a very accommodating 5-speed Geartronic automatic (standard on the 2.4i) that equally provides performance that should satisfy anyone who loves to drive but needs the practicality of an automatic. Our S40 in the U.K. was equipped with the Geartronic and we had a barrel of fun using the manual-shift mode.
The V50 comes in two 5-cylinder trim levels, the 2.4i and the performance-oriented T5 turbo. Prices for the front-wheel drive 2.4i start at $26,345. The T5 starts at $27,945 and the all-wheel drive T5 begins at $29,595. All the prices include destination charges.

Both the T5 and the T5 AWD come standard with the 6-speed manual. For some reason the manual transmission is not available with the smaller engine.

The bigger engine is a 2.5-liter inline 5 light pressure turbo developing 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. The standard engine, a normally aspirated 2.4-liter 5-cylinder, makes 168 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque.

In addition to excellent straight-ahead performance, the V50 is a handling gem on the back-road twists and turns. Our test car stayed planted on the curves, giving the wagon the persona of a sports sedan.

We found the ride more than acceptable, although some will find it a bit on the stiff side. The new V50 is 68-percent stiffer than the prior model. But if that’s what it takes to achieve great handling characteristics, it’s a worthwhile trade-off. Neither of our spouses ever complained so that should tell you something.

Styling inside and out is exemplary. The snub nosed front end that resembles the bigger S60 carries the award winning Volvo design theme. The roof curves gently back into two giant vertical taillights that in a glance let you know that you’re following a Volvo. 

The thin flowing brushed aluminum piece in the center of the dash is as stylish as anything in existence, housing the radio and climate controls in an inset that looks like a large television remote control. As a bonus, there is storage space behind the thin centerpiece as well.

A screen is located between the speedometer and tachometer offering the driver a wide range of information including temperature, time and gas mileage statistics, to name a few without having to take his or her eyes off the road.

The front seats are about as good as it gets in a sedan. Although the V50 has gained some interior space over the wagon it replaces rear-seat legroom is still a bit cramped. If rear passengers can gain some accommodation from those in the front-seats by moving a bit forward all is well.

The rear seat cushions can be pulled up and the seatbacks folded forward to make a flat load floor. The headrests must be manually removed, however. With the seats folded, the V50 has 62.9 cubic feet of storage space.

Safety and Volvo have been synonymous for years, and the V50 lives up to the Swedish car company’s well-earned reputation. Standard safety items include front driver and passenger air bags, side airbags for front-seat occupants, side curtain airbags for both front and rear occupants, a whiplash protection seating system, four-wheel antilock brakes with emergency brake assist and traction control. Dynamic stability control is an available option.

Other standard equipment on our T5 test vehicle included an eight-way power driver’s seat, power windows and locks, automatic climate control, steering wheel audio controls and a sweet-sounding stereo with 6-CD changer.

Although our test car did not have optional leather upholstery our S40 in Europe did. We found both the cloth seats and those of leather to be of top-grade quality.

Volvo has hit the bullseye with the V50. It offers the celebrated Volvo look, safety features and overall feel of a Volvo for an attractive price that can still be kept under 30-grand even in high-performance guise.

And you can carry a lot of stuff in this “sport wagon” as a very worthwhile bonus.