With the recent launch of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, the revised the Audi A3 (now including Sportback), and the still-fresh BMW 1 Series, the market for premium C-segment hatchbacks is the domain of the German trio. It is therefore easy to forget that Volvo also offers a strong player in this segment with its V40, which is marketed in South Africa with a very wide model line-up. Nevertheless, in the battle for brand recognition, the V40 is trumped, and consequently not getting the attention it deserves.

The rather stylish new Cross Country derivative, however, may be a more effective showroom weapon for the Swedes. Certainly, Volvo seems to know this, and as a result has high expectations for this model. And yet, for all intents and purposes the Cross Country is nothing more than a V40 with typical SUV/crossover design elements, such as large wheels, skid plates, a black mesh grille, upright DRL lights and contrasting sills. All-wheel drive is only offered on the top-dog T5 turbopetrol model, so the D4 driven here has to rely on a slightly raised driving position (40 mm) and the aforementioned design detailing to justify its Cross Country name tag. The appeal of the end result is hard to explain in words, but most observers were in agreement - the V40 Cross Country is a very attractive car, with the "crossover" detailing actually enhancing the V40's already stylish looks. Among the more mainstream Audis, BMWs and Mercedes-Benz's, it really does stand out in the crowd...

Upmarket, feature-laden cabin

As you can see from the photographs, the Cross Country's cabin is identical to the V40's. This is no bad thing, because the V40 offers superlative front seat comfort, lots of adjustment from the steering column and, in Elite trim as tested here, loads of gadgets to play with. This most luxurious version of the Cross Country offers a power adjustable passenger seat, active (and very cool) TFT instrumentation, an illuminated gearshift knob (yes, indeed), active bi-xenon lights with a headlight cleaning system, a high performance multimedia audio system with a 7-inch colour display screen, Bluetooth and a three-spoke leather steering wheel among others.

I took the V40 Cross Country on an extended journey recently can can vouch for its high comfort levels, good NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) control when cruising and superb audio system. The ride quality is surprisingly good, considering the large 18-wheels the car rides on, and even on gravel it didn't become skittish. Complaints are few and far between, and centre around packaging. The boot is quite small, so investment in one of those fancy Thule roofboxes may be necessary. Rear legroom is sufficient, but hardly generous.

Powerful, economical engine

The standard V40 model is not offered with the marque's powerful D4 engine. It is, however, offered in the Cross Country. This 2,0-litre, five-cylinder turbodiesel engine delivers a hefty 130 kW and impressive 400 N.m of torque (from as low as 1 750 r/min). Coupled with Volvo's six-speed automatic transmission, the engine powers the Cross Country to 100 km/h in 8,3 seconds and on to a top speed of 210 km/h. But far more impressively, it also sips diesel at the rate of only 5,2 litres/100 km if you drive it gently. The power/economy balance is therefore very impressive. It's a slightly gruff engine, especially on take-off, but is almost completely silent when cruising at the national speed limit. There's more than enough grunt on offer for effortless overtaking. But, if you'd like it to be even more responsive to throttle inputs, push the lever into Sport mode, and the difference is quite immediate and pronounced, with much sharper throttle responses. Just a pity there are no shift paddles behind the steering wheel...

Clever (optional) features

By now most of you would have read about the V40's groundbreaking pedestrian airbag system (a R7 000 option across the range), but that's only the tip of the iceberg. The V40 (and the Cross Country) is offered with a long list of optional safety, entertainment and design options, allowing you to essentially specify a very unique car to suit your own needs. The D4 Elite in this article was also equipped with the so-called Advanced Pack. Priced at R25 000, it adds BLIS (blind spot information and cross-traffic alert), a driver alert system, active cruise control with collision warning and pedestrian detection and, much to my family's entertainment, automated parking.

In summary

Priced at R382 100 (without options), the V40 Cross Country D4 Elite is not cheap. It is, however, an undoubtedly premium product in terms of its design, build quality and powertrain. At the moment the German brands are not playing the "cross-hatch" game, so if a premium hatchback with a hint of an outdoorsy design appeals, you are limited to this Volvo, Subaru's XV and the Mini Countryman. Against those products the Volvo is, in my opinion, superior in almost every way. However, it needs to be noted that, at these prices, you could get all-wheel drive from not only the cheaper Subaru, but also "real" crossovers, such as the Mitsubishi ASX, Hyundai ix35 and Kia Sportage. But then again you won't be getting the Volvo's premium aura, performance/economy balance and technology. It deserves serious consideration.

Specifications:

Model: Volvo V40 Cross Country D4 Elite AT

Engine: 2,0-litre, five-cylinder, turbodiesel

Power: 130 kW at 3 500 r/min

Torque: 400 N.m at 1 750 r/min

0-100 km/h: 8,3 seconds

Fuel consumption: 5,2 l/100 km

CO2: 137 g/km

Top speed: 210 km/h

Price:  R382 100

All manufacturer-claimed figures