When I see people on holiday in Greece, I always think, “Why have you come to a country where they grow vines, eat the leaves and throw the grapes away, choosing instead to make their wine out of creosote?” Of course, Spain is more civilised than that, but it doesn’t have a proper word for “beer” and the food seems mostly to have come from the nearest bin.
It’s the same story with supermarkets. If you have a choice of outlets within easy reach of where you live or work — and most people do —why would you not go to Waitrose?
There’s more. When you are in need of a refreshing soft drink, why would you not have a glass of Robinsons lemon barley water? Why do people buy BlackBerrys when they could have iPhones? And, conversely, why have a Mac, which has no right-click, when you could have a PC that does?
In almost every sphere of life — baked beans, cola, television channels — there is a bewildering choice on offer but actually no choice at all. Because one product is almost always head and shoulders above the rest. I’m trying my hardest at this point not to mention Fifth Gear.
It certainly applies in the world of cars. If you want a big off-roader, you can waste your time test-driving the Toyota Land Cruiser if you like, but it simply isn’t as good as the Range Rover. And that’s the end of it.
Supercars? Yup. By all means buy a McLaren MP4-12C or a Lamborghini Gallardo, but you must know that because you didn’t buy a Ferrari 458 Italia your life will not be quite as good as it could have been.
You may imagine that the theory gets a little blurred in the risk-averse world of the humble hatchback. These are the bread-and-butter cars and any attempt to do something risky or interesting might put buyers off. Car makers know this, so they stick to four wheels and a fold-down back seat. And yet . . .
What is it you want? Economy? Value? Speed? Comfort? Reliability? Handling? Space? A blend of all that? It doesn’t really matter because the Volkswagen Golf does more things more betterer than all of its rivals. It is the Italy of hatchbacks. The Heinz baked bean. The iPhone. The Waitrose. The best.
I recently drove a Vauxhall Astra VXR and it was deeply impressive, fast like you would not believe yet blessed with a level of comfort that you could not reasonably expect. But too flashy, really. So you’re better off with a Golf. Which isn’t flashy at all.
The Ford Focus ST? Great fun. But not as good as a Golf. Mercedes A-class? Well, the model I tested was the 250 AMG Sport and it was flawed in many ways. But it does at least have that Germanic quality. Much like the Golf, which isn’t flawed in many ways.
The BMW M135i? This is a fabulous car. I loved it. It’s better to drive than any Golf I’ve ever experienced, but the payback is a slightly cramped interior. A Golf doesn’t have that problem.
However, in recent months I’ve been seeing a new boy on the block. It’s so pretty that I’ve found myself hoping its undersides can cash the cheques its body is writing. Because if this is as good to drive as it is to look at, Johnny Golf may have finally met his match. I’m talking about the Volvo V40.
The interior is just as good as the exterior. Great seats, a good driving position and a “floating” centre console that’s festooned with cool Scandinavian buttonry. With prices starting at a whisker under £20,000, I thought I might be on to something . . .
The washer nozzles are particularly impressive. You get six. This means that when you pull the stalk, it’s like driving through a car wash. Sure, you’re temporarily blinded, but when the spray has gone, it’s as if the glass has been burnished clean. I think, however, that I could make do with fewer. So I’d angle five to clean the windscreen and aim the sixth so I could wash the faces of passing cyclists. I think they’d like that.
So far, then, all is good. But I’m afraid there are a few problems. First of all, Volvo diesel engines are not the most refined you can buy, and the five-cylinder in my test car was no exception. On start-up, it sounded as though the cylinders were full of pebbles.
Plus, when you compare it with the similarly sized engine BMW offers in a 120d, it’s not as powerful and, despite being hardly any more economical, takes nearly 1½ seconds longer to propel the car to 62mph. I don’t understand this. Why build an engine that you know straight away is not quite good enough?
I fear there’s more, because while the floating dash may look nice, it is almost impossible to use. I couldn’t turn the radio up or down, couldn’t operate the sat nav, couldn’t turn the seat heater off, couldn’t find the button that switched the car from Performance to Eco setting and couldn’t work out how to engage the system that parks the car for you. It’s bewildering and hopeless.
It’s not a spacious car, either. Realistically, you’re only ever going to get two adults in the back, headroom is at a premium and while the boot does all sorts of funky things, it’s not very commodious. It looks, then, like a car that’s been designed and engineered by a company that didn’t quite have enough money to design and engineer a new car. Which is probably the case. And as a result, despite the looks, it’s not as good as a Golf. The end.
Except it’s not the end because this car scored a whopping 98% in independent safety tests for adult occupancy. The highest score of any car in history. And I’m not surprised because it comes with a vast range of devices to warn you of impending doom as well as many features to ensure you’re OK even if the worst happens.
And it’s not just good at protecting those inside: it also comes as standard with an airbag that inflates to protect any pedestrians that get in its way. This is all part of the company’s mission to ensure that by 2020 no one should ever be killed or injured in a Volvo.
It’s an ambitious target, and in all probability it’s completely unrealistic. But the aim is noble, nonetheless, and for that reason I would completely understand why you might buy a V40 rather than a Golf.
All things considered, the VW is a vastly superior car. But in an accident you will probably be better off in the Volvo. Think of it, then, as Cuba. In terms of Caribbean islands, Mustique is much better. The food, the beaches, the crime, everything. But if you become ill, you can’t get round the fact that Havana has better hospitals.
The Golf that Sven would make.
- From £24,795
- 1984cc, 5 cylinders
- 177hp @ 3500rpm
- 295 lb ft @ 2750rpm
- 6 speed manual
- 0-62mph: 8.2 sec
- Top Speed:
- 65.7mpg (combined)
- Road Tax Band:
- C (£0 for the first year)
- L 4369mm W 1802mm H 1445mm