Volvo's previous small wagon, the V40, was a terrifically average car that ambled down the road of mediocrity with a 1.9-liter, 170-horsepower four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, and an automatic transmission. Its successor, the V50, steps into the small-wagon ring with the proper equipment-and style-to go grille-to-grille with the Audi A4 Avant, Mercedes-Benz C-class, and BMW 3-series wagons. In terms of general ambition, the V50 is Bill Clinton to the V40's Roger.
The V50 offers two engines: a normally aspirated, 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter five-cylinder and the 218-horsepower, turbocharged 2.5-liter in the T5. You can get the T5 with a six-speed manual transmission or all-wheel drive but not both. Volvo officials explain this situation by halfheartedly muttering something about the front-wheel-drive manual T5 being lighter and less expensive, but it seems counterintuitive that performance-oriented drivers would want a manual transmission only if they could use it to smoke the front tires like herring. The manual-and-awd combo is offered in Europe, so if enough manual-minded shoppers migrate to the Bavarian competition (and the upcoming Japaswedish Saab 9-2X), this could change.
The interior displays a few tricks that indicate Volvo designers have been running with the SEMA crowd in recent years, such as the optional, semitransparent "Iced-Aqua" plastic trim that adorns the sleek center console. The standard upholstery is something called T-Tec, which looks vaguely reminiscent of a wetsuit (perhaps Volvo is planning ahead in case another cargo ship takes a trip to the bottom of the English Channel). The V50 also has a compass, which means you can save money on the navigation system if you're good at dead reckoning.
At about ten inches shorter than a Subaru Legacy wagon, the V50 is a tight little package, but Volvo set out to make it as safe as the full-size S80. To that end, crumple zones have been stashed wherever they could fit, such as between the front seats. There lies a deformable box that absorbs side-impact energy via pushrods inside the seats. Don't be surprised if you get rear-ended and the glovebox implodes.
On the road, the T5's 236 pound-feet of torque gives the little wagon strong midrange performance, and a stab at the throttle summons the trademark Volvo five-cylinder chortle from the twin pipes out back. It doesn't sound as good as, say, an Infiniti G35, but neither does it sound like something that should be plowing a field. Handling is benign, and even though the suspension errs on the side of compliance, the limits are high enough that most owners will never discover the V50's bias for understeer-at least, not on dry roads. If you're willing to trade a bit of ride to gain a bit of handling, a sport package with lowered suspension and mean-looking, eighteen-inch wheels is available from dealerships.
Volvo wagons have a long tradition of being so relentlessly functional and dorky that they actually became sort of cool-see the 240 and the 700-series, for example. The V50 is the latest evidence that Volvo no longer stumbles upon coolness by accident.