Gone are the days when luxury cars in India were only targeted at corporate honchos in their middle age. Luxury carmakers are now looking at a whole new breed of customers who are younger at heart and are yet to get a chauffeur. Volvo and Mercedes offer some of their thoroughbred compact luxury cars for just a tad more than the price of an executive saloon, a refreshing change from the more grown up cars we’re used to seeing from luxury carmakers. Mercedes’ new A-class is supremely stylish with all the pizzazz needed to tug at your heartstrings.
Volvo’s feature-laced V40 Cross Country isn’t lagging in the style department either and coupled with a fantastic engine, this car is equally desirable. You may argue that these cars are expensive for a hatch, but don’t be fooled, these are seriously luxurious cars that only happen to have a hatch instead of a boot. What these luxury cars also offer is an escape from the slightly stoogy appeal of other cars at this price point. Both have the visual appeal of cars twice their price, both are built to the exacting standards employed by their respective brands and both offer basic quality levels that are higher than we are used to seeing in compact cars. Picking one of these unconventional luxury hatchbacks will probably be a decision that involves the heart more than the head. So, which one stirs up stronger emotions?
What are they like inside?
One of the things that distinguish luxury cars from regular cars is how well the insides are constructed. Customers picking up either will not be disappointed with the cabin quality on either, but there is a bit of a contrast between the two as far as styling and theme are concerned. Step into the V40’s cabin and you will realise that it isn’t as flashy as the extrovertly styled body. Volvo’s designers have exercised restraint and you may find more than a few familiar quality-made parts from Volvo’s inventory. There are a few exceptions though. Something that will immediately catch your attention is the space-age-like high resolution, fully-graphic instrument cluster which, depending on your mood, can be lit in three different modes. You will also notice some aesthetically engineered bits like the interesting glass-top LED-illuminated gear lever, the snazzy frameless rear-view mirror and the floating centre console finished in textured bronze—all adding a dash of fun and eccentricity in an otherwise sober cabin. From the driver’ seat, all the essential controls are ergonomically well appointed but mastering the car’s functions may take a while owing to the confusing cluster of buttons on the centre console and on the stalks around the steering wheel.
Slide into the A-class and its interior immediately engulfs you with its sporting intent. The all-back cabin with a fistful of dull-finish, metallic-polished accents look absolutely stunning. Every surface you can lay a finger on, save for the air-con controls, feel properly luxurious, and all the moving bits have a lovely viscous feel to them. It’s a fantastic place to be in and truth be told, the interiors make you feel like the price-tag is a bargain. The finely dimpled soft-touch dash and the SLS-styled air-con vents feel and look special. The only thing we didn’t quite fancy was the low-resolution COMAND interface screen that looks a bit out of place. This car is unabashedly designed around the driver rather than his or her fellow passengers with its snug, tall and sporty seats upfront and a bench ideally suited for two at the rear.
What are they like to drive?
Since both these cars are going to be owner-driven, how well they drive is quite important. The Volvo V40 is powered by a 2.0-litre five-cylinder diesel motor that makes a healthy 148bhp and a great deal of pulling power. The engine isn’t very noisy, but the gravelly note from the engine is a sure giveaway that this motor feeds on a diet of diesel. Once you’re past engine speeds even as low as 1500rpm, throttle responses get quite sharp and power comes in almost instantaneously. Slot the glass-top gear lever into Sport and the responses get even sharper and the small Volvo leaps forward into gaps rather easily—quite unlike the typical modern diesel engine that is accompanied by a certain degree of lag. Keep your right foot firmly buried on the pedal and the V40 gathers pace with strong intent. The acceleration is strong enough to give you a good tug back in your seat and this pull lasts for a fair amount of time. Aiding the performance is the six-speed automatic gearbox that makes its changes reasonably quick and doesn’t feel jerky.
As for the Mercedes A-class, it is powered by the same 2.1-litre engine as in the B-class, detuned for a lower power output here. The 107bhp engine lacks the outright punch that is dished out by the Volvo and doesn’t go as fast as its audacious looks may suggest. While the V40’s acceleration gives you a good tug, the A 180 CDI provides a gentle push while gaining momentum. The A-class hits the 100kph mark in 11.29sec against the scant 8.68sec taken by the V40 to do the same. The way the power is delivered in the A-class is quite impressive. Just like the V40, the baby Merc also does away with almost all lag associated with diesel engines. In fact, there’s almost no waiting here—just a few hundred revs are all you need! But, while the flat-out performance is not as strong as its Swedish rival, the fantastic seven-speed gearbox delivers power in a much smoother manner than the V40.
Ride & handling
Over the monsoon battered roads of Mumbai, the Mercedes impressed us a lot more than the Volvo in the way it tackled uneven tarmac. Despite its stiff suspension setup, the A-class handled choppy tarmac well with none of the V40’s tendency to crash through holes. Yes, the suspension definitely feels stiff and does not deliver the kind of plush ride you may associate with a larger three-pointed star, but it didn’t feel too uncomfortable there either. In terms of handling, the sporty Merc feels brilliantly composed through the corners with the tyres sticking to the road surface even when pushed hard.
Volvo enjoys a reputation for making some really comfortable, great riding cars but on this smaller V40 Cross Country, the ride feels a bit too stiff for our roads. It remains reasonably absorbent over rounded bumps and undulations but drive over sharper edges and there is a kick from the suspension that seeps into the cabin, causing quite a crash. This is the result of making this car sporty to drive. The Volvo V40’s crossover body style sits on slightly taller springs, so you may expect it to roll when it corners like an SUV. But this isn’t the case at all. In fact, the body roll is well controlled and it feels really nice if pushed hard.
Equipment & safety
These are luxury hatchbacks, so they’re bound to come with a host of equipment. The Volvo, however, gets a whole lot more than the A-class. In fact, the A-class, in terms of features, has a little more than a midsize saloon. It comes with USB, Aux-in, Bluetooth telephony, a six-speaker audio system, Sat-Nav, and heated mirrors. The Volvo gets all that the Merc does, but interestingly, it comes with parking sensors, which the Merc lacks. Since rear visibilty out of the Merc is poor, this should have been included.
The Volvo brand is synonymous with safety and the V40 is no different from any of the larger Volvos. It comes packed with safety tech, including a segment first pedestrian airbag. It comes with the City Safety feature, a collision avoidance system that automatically applies the brakes if it detects a possible crash. Like the Mercedes, this also comes with a Driver Alert Control system that gives you an indication when it detects that the driver is tired. It even comes with Adaptive Cruise Control, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, ABS, adaptive lamps, and LED daytime running lamps. The V40 gets dual-stage airbags for both driver and front passenger, side-impact airbags for driver and front passenger, curtain airbags, collapsible steering column, and whiplash protection system. It’s safe to say if you drive this car over a landmine, you’d walk out alive. On the other hand, the Mercedes isn’t lacking in terms of safety either, but seems bare-boned in comparison. It comes with nine airbags and most of Merc’s electronic safety aids like adaptive brake lights, attention assist, adaptive brake assist, ESP, auto headlamps, tyre pressure loss warning system and hill-start assist. The Merc, however, is clearly outclassed by the V40 here.
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