All new for 2005, the Volvo V50 wagon replaces the 2004 V40, even though the new model is a sister car to the all-new 2005 S40. Like the S40 sedan, the V50 is based on a global platform also used by the Mazda3 and the European Ford Focus. Its base price is also $375 under the 2004 V40.

The V50 also benefits from across-the-board 2005 changes at Volvo: all models get new one-piece, flat-blade wipers; water-repellent glass is standard on the side-view mirrors and available on the side windows. All models will have a Dolby Pro-Logic II 5.1 Surround Sound audio system as standard or optional equipment, and all models will feature all-wheel-drive, whether standard or as an add-on.

The V50 comes with a choice of a 2.4-litre naturally aspirated five-cylinder engine, or a 2.5-litre turbocharged inline five. Optional AWD can be added to the turbo; it’s a Haldex electronically-controlled system that delivers most of the power to the front wheels, until the rear wheels slip and torque is sent to the rear for enhanced traction.

The 2.4i comes with a five-speed manual gearbox (a five-speed automatic is optional) and includes air conditioning, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake distribution and emergency brake assistance, 16-inch steel wheels, heated power mirrors with integrated turn signals and puddle lights, projector-style halogen headlamps, rear fog light, folding 60/40 rear seat, CD player with six speakers, tilt and telescopic wheel, power windows with auto up/down on all, and cruise control.

The T5 turbo version uses a six-speed manual (optional to a five-speed automatic) and adds 16-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, eight speakers, dual-zone climate control, wheel-mounted audio controls and trip computer.

The T5 AWD also adds traction control, 16-inch black chrome alloy wheels and dynamic chassis tuning.

Safety features on all V50 models include side-impact and curtain airbags, whiplash protection system (WHIPS) front seats, multi-stage airbags with knee pads for driver and passenger, pedestrian protection, collapsible steering column and pedals, and fail-safe engine mountings. There’s even an optional power child lock for the rear doors.

Although it’s basically a box with a nose, the V50 is still a looker, with excellent proportions and a wider stance than the 2004 S40. It’s also roomier inside than its predecessor. An odd but inviting “floating” console glows in the dark, and the optional navigation system screen pops up out of the dash over it. Controls are simpler than before but they still require a learning curve, and the “T-tec” seat fabric feels too much like a wetsuit.

Volvo calls the V50 a “sport wagon”, and they’re right; it handles more like a sports sedan, with sharp and responsive steering, and confidence through the twisties. This is an excellent alternative to a compact SUV, and while it’s not the cheapest wagon on the road, a base price just a shade over $31,000 should prove irresistible to people who always wanted a Volvo wagon but couldn’t dig quite deep enough.

The V50 is built in Ghent, Belgium.

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