Even the Eurovision venue last night was solid, functional and only really burst into life when the sun went down and the lights and sounds came up.
The contest in Sweden's third city of Malmo was almost a metaphor for the country's major car brand, Volvo: safe, dependable, well-built cars that only now are coming into their own for very sharp designs. The marque's period under Ford ownership in their Premier Automotive Group, alongside Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar, really paid off in the development of looks, driveability and a wider range of cars.
I have always been fond of the cars, even if not as much as what their wonderful compatriots brought out under the Saab marques, especially when they could eschew some General Motors blandness. Yet ever since I benefited from Volvo's safety features in 1968, the brand has always had a place in both my head and heart. It is one of the few cars I am always willing to recommend.
The V40, which was launched last year, quickly has become a firm favourite and it was my choice for the current Continental Irish Car of the Year but lost out to the BMW 3-Series. It is a very sharp looking five-door hatchback that drives very well and has quite incredible economy. It does suffer from a lack of headroom in the back and its luggage space doesn't follow in the marque's usually cavernous steps. In that respect among its mainstream rivals, it is probably a bit better than the Ford Focus, but not quite as good as the Golf.
However, there is a real premium feel about the vehicle that goes with its lovely looks. The V40 has had two significant additions this year: A R-Design model, which is lower, faster and competes in a younger four-seater coupe market; and the Cross-Country version, which goes the other way in being significantly higher and looks more robust – although that is more cosmetic than anything else.
There are rumours of an XC40 version coming, which will do the whole SUV thing, but for the moment the Cross-Country version gives the height for a bit of soft off-roading, although it is only available in 4WD in its most expensive versions, north of €42k.
The high driving position should win converts who want to move upmarket from the Qashqais and the like, but already, according to the Volvo people here, the V40 overall is making conquests from A3 Sportbacks, BMW I Series and Volkswagen Golfs. As there isn't an estate version of the V40 planned and the car replaces both the S40 and the very popular V50 estate, V60 prices have been reduced to keep hold of that very valuable market.
The increased ground clearance also gives a more comfortable ride and while there is a bit more roll, the car sticks strongly to the road. And, never fret, if anything happens you are in one of – if not the – safest cars on the road. It is Volvo's aim that shortly no one will be killed in one of their cars.
While the V40 Cross-Country has a tough image outside with a lot of added chunkiness and metal skid plates front and rear, it is basically the same inside – very stylish without being overly blingy. I liked it a lot and it is probably my favourite car of the year so far. While the V40 range starts a bit less than €30,000, including postage and packing, the Volvo V40 D3 Cross-Country Geartronic with a lot of extras and a 150hp diesel engine on board was €40,654 before p&p. This is heady territory but it is real premium product that turns heads and gives a really accomplished drive.