As far as car launches go, Volvo decided to be as dramatic as it could, given that it is a brand that is famed for outrageous safety and annoying conservatism; rightfully so if you have seen their past products. But this Swedish car-maker did not just throw the rule book out of the window. It first shred it to pieces then set it on fire in confetti of showers that left spectators speechless, both young and old. But let us not get ahead of ourselves here. First things first. Turning up to Barloworld Motors where Volvo is housed, the invite was: "Come join us in the unveiling of our important new product...the Volvo V40". Asking where it would be held, Paul Mmeke, Barloworld's dealer principal mysteriously said: "Where else?! Airport Junction Mall!"
It is now obvious why they chose the new mall. They wanted an open space that would allow them to be as entertaining as a Volvo can get. As soon as one got within eyesight of the mall, one was greeted by screeches of protesting tyres sliding across the car park. The first thought was that some crazed boy racer had been let loose on the unsuspecting public. Upon closer inspection, it was shocking to see a brand new Volvo smoking its tires much to the delight of onlookers. Petrol heads, which most Batswana are, were beside themselves at such a spectacle. A respectable car maker making lurid car slides right before them! So obviously, Volvo is eager to convince people that their product is not a dull mule, that fun can be had in abundance though not recklessly so.
In fact, to show how serious Volvo is about changing perceptions, it brought along Pieter Van Staden, Volvo South Africa's technical trainer and field specialist and Quentin Opperman, the regional after sales manager. Staden's pants were on fire. If you ever watch the popular BBC show Topgear, then the mysterious Stig comes to mind.
Staden was tasked with showing off features in the new car that they are particularly proud of - Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) and City Safety. What Volvo did was take anyone who had the guts, threw them into the car and left them at the mercy of both Staden and the car. You sit buckled in the leather bound seat, air-con blasting away while he explains the procedure in which he will be driving the car through a curve which has loose sand thrown on it without actually hitting the brakes. This he did before you could say farewell to your loved ones and hello to your gods! Your innards are churned to curry and your stomach sits in your throat while the man obviously has a grand old time. The wild power slides show how the car can remain stable in a typical curve without throwing you out to the weeds. About the DSTC, he said: "If you, for instance, are trying to turn right but the car is busy going left, which is called under-steer, the system kicks in and prevents that from happening.
Even when you have your foot on the accelerator, the car prevents you from sliding out of control. This is a driver's car and you need to really badly drive it to loose it". Another feature is called City Safety of which he explained that if you, for instance, are driving in traffic and the car in front of you suddenly stops, your Volvo will stop on its own before hitting the other vehicle. But he cautioned that the car needs to be driving well below 50kmph, your typical rush hour speeds to lessen the impact.To demonstrate this, Volvo had a board placed in front of the car, and then asked the public to drive the car up to the board without hitting the brakes. Like magic, the car stopped a few centimeters from the board without the driver's assistance! This was repeated to all Doubting Thomases' by even allowing the public to try it out themselves.It is an unnerving experience to have a machine seemingly think for itself like that, definitely not one for control freaks then.
It is not clear if the system will work with a pedestrian passing in front of the car as opposed to a bigger object like maybe a car. But it is worth mentioning that this is the first and only car in the world that has a pedestrian airbag. As if that is not enough Opperman was on hand to demonstrate a feature that Volvo terms Park Assist Pilot. He said: "Park Assist Pilot is not a new feature. It is something that has been around for a couple of years, but for this vehicle, in the C-premium segment it is the first. It is the first compact vehicle that has Park Assist Pilot. The other brands that have it install it in their top of the range million rand plus vehicles, the big platforms, your Q7s, your E-class Mercs, the seven series BMWs, those are the kind. It is not a new thing, but in this market, we are the first to do it in a compact vehicle. It is not a standard feature, you spec your car with or without it, and I know the next question is probably gonna be 'Can I have this in the manual' and the answer is no. Unfortunately, it only works with an automatic vehicle." What this feature does is, once you are looking for a parking spot, you activate it by pressing a button marked 'P' on the console and the car automatically starts scanning the car park for a space big enough to slot itself in. All you need to do is follow its instructions, which to be fair are only to tell you to put the car in reverse and stop.
It does side parking so brilliantly it is unnerving. One does not get used to seeing the steering wheel turn by itself and correcting its line. In fact, Opperman had both his hands out of the windows in case one thought he was cheating to show that the car does steer itself precisely into a parking bay. You can customise the car to your heart's content and Volvo is especially proud of this new comer and to that end, the slogan for the car is 'Volvo V40, It's You'. In all honesty, the car is loaded with so much tech that it shames some models of higher price ranges with the kind of standard features on board. Here is a glimpse of what to expect. A cooled glove compartment that works with the aircon to cool your stuff. It has a TFT screen to choose your settings in the car; eco, comfort and performance modes. It has what is called Road Side Information System. "When you are driving down a road, it (Road Side Information System) will actually pick up the speed sign, it has got a camera behind the rear view mirror which recognises the speed sign and it displays it and you set the car to warn you once you go above the limit, so no more worrying," Opperman explained.
He said the car can give you close to 18km to 20km on a litre of petrol. They say the car is for the discerning individuals, aimed at an age range of between 25-40 years. Very picky customers indeed.Mmeke said the Volvo is reputed for safety standards. "That is one of our core areas and we will not deviate from that. What you saw there were not stunts, those were processes to expose the safety features available in the vehicle, showing traction on and off and the city driving as well as the park assist. We are not stunt people and sometimes people get involved in an accident because they did not respond well to the vehicle's assistance mechanism. So it was a way of showing the customers exactly what the vehicle can do for them. It is very trendy, vibey, something associated with the youth, and we have maintained our core safety but have also completely changed the ball game. We respect our competition, but we believe that we have a good enough product to take the fight to the German car stronghold in the form of Audi A3 and BMW 1 series.
We are yet to announce our prices though," he said. So, Volvo has grown some curves and lightness to its feet.But there are always the brand snobs who buy a car just because of what the name says on the lid. The V40 is a hatchback and replaces the S40 sedan. It is inevitable the car is likely to be compared to well known brands like the Audi A3, BMW 1 series and even the venerable Golf. Now that is mighty competition that Volvo should be aware of, not to mention that Mercedes Benz is joining the fray with their brand new A-class. But Volvo is pretty confident about what it has with the V40, so bring it on, it says.