Max’s Monthly Column: BMW vs SEAT, and are Volvos still only for old people?

by | Jun 11, 2019

Max Berry

Welcome to Max’s monthly Column; where automotive conversation is at the heart of operation, shining a well-voltaged LED light on the dark depths of the vehicular industry and all that it entails. This month in June’s edition, I pick apart the so-called ‘warm’ hatchbacks of today, putting BMW against the unlikely competitor of SEAT. And, I investigate whether Volvos are still for the old and frail. As Thomas Edison – inventor of the lightbulb, probably once said, “it’s going to be lit”.

‘WARM’ HATCHBACKS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT: BMW VS SEAT

BMW make nice cars; it’s a fact. It’s simply public knowledge. You may not necessarily like them, but a Beemer with a 2010 or later number plate is a likely sign that the owner has some sort of income, or is a burglar. The badge does just seem to have that effect.

I’d probably tend to agree, as I’ve been having a look at the BMW 116D M Sport. It’s BMW’s answer to the unestablished market of ‘warm’ hatchbacks. This is an unofficial genre of car which is nippier than your average hatch, usually with slightly stiffer suspension; but nothing that will ever set the world on fire.

The BMW and SEAT side-by-side.

“The BM has its badge, the good first impression I mentioned earlier, and in fairness, its build quality is on another level.”

– Max Berry

It’s a clever model variant I think, because it offers the slightly more aggressive aesthetics (and steering wheel stitching) of a hot hatch, without the expensive-to-insure big engine and performance figures. All the big automotive brands are at it, giving large quantities of the younger (and trickier to insure) generation, the chance to drive about in something that looks quite menacing, but underneath is about as aggressive as an angry kitten.

I am a buyer of this car genre, with my own SEAT Ibiza FR (which, rather proving my point; stands for ‘Formula Racing’). Apart from some very stiff front springs, some angrier exterior body panels, bucket-inspired seats with red stitching, and a similarly constructed, more angular steering wheel; it’s no different from any other 1.6 turbo diesel injection Ibiza. It’s got just less than 110bhp and 250 juicy newton meters of torque, which can get the 3-door coupe from 0-60mph in just over 10 seconds.

BMW have a similar system with the 116D M Sport, equipping it with M Sport body trim and brake callipers, firmer suspension, some racey interior fittings and that’s about it. The engine is a very similar 1.5 diesel that you’d get in the standard 116D, throwing 116bhp and 270nm of torque down at the rear wheels.

So on the face of it at least – these two cars are quite similar. But of course the BM has its badge, the good first impression I mentioned earlier – and in fairness, its build quality is on another level from that of Volkswagen’s attempt in the SEAT. The Beemer also offers practicality that the Ibiza doesn’t, such as having a pair of rear doors whereby passengers can climb into a space which would be relatively comfortable for more than two and a half hours – something the Ibiza doesn’t.

Does the Ibiza cling back anywhere? Well, it’s the best part of five grand cheaper than the German, with the FR’s £18,000 price tag compared with the 116D’s £24,000 one. And since we’re talking about the younger generation here, every penny counts. Rather obviously, the Ibiza is cheaper to insure in insurance group 14 – two groups lower than the BMW.

Is there one defining thing that really sets the two apart? “What about”, we thought to ourselves whilst stood beside these two very cars on a Devonshire hill, “a drag race?” All the best car comparisons need one really.

“I was expecting the much less expensive Ibiza to be left for dust, but it not only competed, but was competitive.”

– Max Berry

So we borrowed a piece of private, dead straight tarmac (commonly known as a runway), and we did one. Now before you start placing your bets, the stats are these:

The hand of our underpaid race beginner dropped and the two cars tore away. I was surprised, at the wheel of my SEAT to find it was a little bit faster through the gears to third, making the most of its lighter weight. Through 4th gear, in all three of our races it was, genuinely, nail-bitingly neck-and-neck; but it was when we neared 100mph that the BMW stood forth. After a tantalisingly close first quarter mile which the FR actually won, I changed to 5th gear a bit late, allowing the BM to use its greater torques to push it ahead past our 1⁄2 mile finish point.

But it was amazing you know, I was expecting the much less expensive Ibiza to be left for dust, but it not only competed, but was competitive. It was a good effort from both the cars, but I was particularly impressed with the way the FR stood its ground. With its black wheels and body paint, blue brake callipers and of course the badge on the bonnet, the BMW 116D M Sport looks twice as fast as the £5,000 cheaper SEAT Ibiza FR, but as it turns out; it isn’t.

ARE VOLVOS STILL FOR PENSIONERS?

If you’re under the age of 29, Volvo is a word you probably only ever heard your parents say when hunting for a new car.

And if your parents are under the age of 50, then it’s probably not even a word they’d be using themselves.

This is because, I think anyway, Volvo have been a rather mature, sensible automotive producer since, well – forever. They’ve always been a middle-class byword for safety, with those planning permission-worthy great bonnets, making highly effective crumple zones.

Aside from finding some success with their estate cars in the British Touring Car Championship in the 90s, with their road cars at least, there’s never been much to get excited and flustered over. Like a Home Bargains colander, they’re hugely functional; but wouldn’t make for the most awe-inspiring Christmas present.

“Take the new V60, which despite being an estate is a wonderful looking thing.”

– Max Berry

Take the 700 Series from the late 80s for example. It has to be one of the least inspiring things I’ve ever seen. It’s side profile is an exact replica of what we all (or certainly I) used to draw as a basic car shape in the back of maths books – two shorter rectangles on each end, joined by a taller middle rectangle, with two circles beneath.

Popular amongst geography teachers and large families in particular, the 700 Series, which was later replaced by the equally unrousing 900 Series, was dull in almost every imaginable way. They did have six-cylinder engines, but they produced less than 140bhp, which meant they were inefficient and slow. And sitting on suspension made of sponge meant they weren’t even remotely exciting to drive. They were driven by technocrats who thought that headlight wipers were trendy and useful – which much like the rest of the car; they weren’t.

An old school boxy Volvo.

As Tinie Tempa wrote in his lyrics for ‘Girls Like’ featuring Zara Larsson – “I got a Merc, I ain’t got a Volvo”, and that says it all really. Oh sure, they did a couple of sporty versions occasionally, but otherwise this wash of uninterestingness continued, until not that long ago.

In 2016, Volvo released a facelifted version of their flagship XC90 which was, as far as I’m concerned, the first really good-looking thing they’d made in as long as I can remember. Even previous XC90 models hadn’t had the aesthetic ability to turn heads, but this new one with its striking LED-strip headlights and less boxy general vibe was quite the contrary. And I think this was a huge step in the right direction for the part–Chinese, part-Swedish owned Geely Volvo Group.

Regardless of a car’s actual driving capability, the first way to catch the attention of potential buyers is to offer a car worth looking at. Channel 4 even decided to use a fleet of the more handsome models in their new, and more importantly trendy, show “Hunted”.

Its 2.0 litre, 4-cylinder engine chucked out 250bhp and all for a price of £25,000. Instantly, it sounds like a far more exciting deal. But they didn’t stop there. Volvo even handed a few of their new XC90s to their in-house, completely bonkers performance division. Polestar Engineering made a small run of red meat editions – turbo and supercharging the 2.0L engine to give it 420 furious Swedish brake horsepowers. This newfound power was courtesy also of an electric motor, making it a hybrid SUV that could also do 0-60mph in five and a half seconds. I can only imagine that one of the Polestar engineers put additions in one of the Volvo boss’s drinks at the Christmas party. Who knows? But finally, there was a reason to be interested in a Volvo.

So would this new age last? Well to be honest, yes. Standing by the principle of LED infused, less box-like car design; Volvo are on a bit of roll I think. Take the new V60, which despite being an estate is a wonderful looking thing. Again, it’s far less cuboidy than Volvos of old and the front bumper actually has something to say for itself, with its angular styling and bright white headlight design.

I had a go in the D4 version – with slightly less than 200bhp from its 2.0L diesel engine. It doesn’t offer quite the same driving feedback or accuracy of an Audi or BMW, but that will never be the point of a Volvo.

Nevertheless, it feels like it wants to go somewhere, and it does do all it needs to, such as offer a comfortable ride. I was most impressed by its tasteful interior, with stylish, well-built, aluminium air-con outlets and entirely digital driver display.

Gone, thank goodness – are the days of silly wipers on headlights. And to prove this new stylishness is widespread, the same can be said for the new XC40. It’s a fabulous looking car, with its slightly more juvenile outlook and stocky design. I’d say it’s one of the best-looking SUVs around – bettering much more expensive models like the Range Rover Evoke.

Truth be told, the vast majority are not overly interested in how good a car is to drive, whereas aesthetics are instantly noticeable. The look of a car is the very first impression we take of them, and with Volvos of old; that impression wasn’t enough to spark excitement. So although Volvo have work yet to do on performance; they have given anyone under the age of 35 a reason to notice them. And I’m glad about that.

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