THE PROS & CONS
- What’s good: Stand out styling, tight as a drum, clever storage and use of space.
- What’s bad: Clunky shifter, navigation should come standard.
About a week before I picked up the Volvo XC40, a colleague and fellow auto journalist and I were talking cars over lunch. We talked about what we had driven recently, what we loved and what we didn’t. We talked about our own cars and the types of things we look for in cars: the type of nerdy, technical conversation that would have bored most people to tears.
But we live for this kind of stuff. Most of us love driving; we love cars that are fun. Usually, the sporty kind, equipped with manual transmissions and starchy suspensions and minimal electronics. The type that most forgot about; cars from our youth, cars that spoke to us then and speak even louder today. Cars like the last Supra and RX-7, or the Silvia and the GT-R, or any wagon, or any air-cooled 911, or… It’s a big list.
What we don’t usually talk about are SUVs or crossovers: a vehicle type that has taken over every parking lot, drive-thru, street corner, and boulevard. As someone who took pride in knowing the make and model of every car on the street, the sheer number of new crossovers that seem to come out weekly have all started to look like an amorphous blob of metal and glass with few distinctive qualities. Brand engineering at its finest, with nothing for enthusiasts to enthuse on. Identifying them is just not fun anymore.
So when I told my colleague that I was going to be driving the new XC40, Volvo’s brand new compact crossover, his eyes lit up. He told me that it was a car he could see himself buying. “Seriously?” I responded. I mean, I’ve heard that it was good, but to make a statement like that is possibly the best compliment someone in our profession can pay a car.
There’s been a bit of hype about the XC40 and for good reason. For one thing, there’s the way it looks. It’s straight out of a Björk video. Like ten years in the future just called, and they want their Volvo back.
The squared off nose, tiny overhangs, and wheels pushed out to the corners give this little crossover a great stance. It’s muscular but in a cute way. Like a bulldog.
You can get some cool colour schemes like Amazon blue, which is more of a murky green, and pair it with a white roof, or even the pearl white with a black roof like on my tester. Certain paints only come with specific trims so if there’s a colour you really like you have to keep that in mind.
The chic style continues inside with Volvo’s modern but simple take on the automotive interior. R-Designs get something called aluminum cube trim that looks and feels great. And then there’s the piano black trim and stylish vertical air vents and the grippy nubuck and leather-trimmed seats and it all feels really well screwed together.
The experience is very similar to what you get in the larger more luxurious cars Volvo makes like the S90 sedan and the V90 wagon. A 9-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen is easy to operate and responsive to inputs.
But as much as I like using Volvo’s Sensus system, relying solely on a touchscreen is not the safest approach to infotainment system design and I feel rotary controllers and real buttons are much safer to use when driving.
Another sore point is one I’ve come across before in the S90 plug-in I tested last year. I was not a fan of Volvo’s e-shifter design then and I still don’t like it now; the main difference was that I knew what to do this time. The whole double tap for reverse and double tap for drive is just annoying.
That aside, the designers have made this small crossover feel bigger on the inside than it actually is and there’s storage where you wouldn’t expect it, like under the driver’s seat (optional), and under the rear load floor, that also lifts and bisects the cargo area into two separate compartments complete with bag hooks (also optional). Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? There’s another bag hook that folds out of the glove box, and there’s a removable trash bin, and strangely there are even a few slots to stow your bank card, or gas card, or whatever card you want.
They even moved the subwoofer under the dash, instead of in the door panels where they usually are, freeing up enough space in the door pockets so that you can store a laptop in there, or a big bottle of water. That subwoofer is not a traditional subwoofer, but rather something they call an airwoofer that uses air to create bass, presumably using magic. And even though I’m no audiophile, I thought this optional Harman Kardon system sounded great.
All these efforts are part of Volvo’s war on clutter. This is the company showing you how to keep your car neat and tidy and more Swedish. And you have to commend them for making a car interior more liveable.
XC40s are assembled in Ghent, Belgium and are built on Volvo’s new CMA (Compact Modular Architecture) platform. Driving the XC40 was actually a bit surprising because I really didn’t expect to like it. I thought, for sure, it would be a bit of a softy, a bit boring. Boy, was I wrong.
Bumps on the road generated those reassuring well-muffled thumps you get from a rigid chassis. The XC40 felt buttoned down and planted over everything. Oddly German in feel but not as stiff as something like an X1 or even an X3. I wouldn’t say it handles better than the BMW; there’s more body roll, a bit more suspension compliance, but it’s almost as good and it’s more comfortable. It feels like less of a compromise.
There’s a dynamic mode if you want stiffer steering and more aggressive gearshifts, but Comfort was what I preferred most of the time. Eco mode dulls the throttle and you get eco displays on the 12.3-inch driver display screen that replaces traditional dials. There’s also an off-road mode for, maybe, some light trail use, but on the 20-inch rims that my tester came with, I really wouldn’t venture too far out there, and I suspect most shopping in this segment wouldn’t either.
The 2-litre turbo puts down 248 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque that peaks at just 1800 rpm and makes this funky little car feel much faster than those numbers suggest. It feels light and happy, like a Jack Russell Terrier, except likeable. If you try, it can get to 100 km/h in less than six seconds and that’s respectably quick. The XC40 skips about its business whistling a tune wherever it goes. It’s the type of car you actually want to drive.
Momentum trims start at just over $40,000 and offer good value and lots of standard safety kit like front collision mitigation and a lane keeping aid, that will put you back in line if you unintentionally cross over a lane divider. You also get high-tech stuff like Hill Descent Control which comes in handy for hilly areas or steep descents.
R-Design trims add a panoramic sunroof, leather/nubuck seats, and that cool aluminum cube trim. A blind spot monitoring system, cross traffic alert, 360-degree cameras, and parking assistant are available in the Vision package combo for an additional $1800.
You can even get Pilot Assist, Volvo’s semi-autonomous driving tech that will drive, steer, and brake the car while maintaining a pre-set distance from the vehicle in front. And it worked really well in my experience. You have to spring for the $1,600 convenience package to get this, but you also get a power tailgate, power folding rear seats, a wireless phone charger, and those cool grocery bag holders in the trunk. If it was my money I’d probably spring for this package over the enhanced cameras and driving aids.
Annoyingly, navigation remains a $1000 option even on mid-level R-design trims and that seems like a lot to fork out for something that should come standard on a $45,000 vehicle. There are also adaptive dampers, optional on the top-end Inscription trim but I don’t see why you’d need them.
For under $50,000 you can get this fashion-forward little crossover that transcends the line between sedan and SUV and for once I completely forgot about that whole SUVs are taking over thing. Equip it correctly and you get tech like that semi-autonomous driving mode and that’s almost unheard of in this class of vehicle.
Competitors in the premium sub-compact crossover class are plenty—Mercedes GLA, Jaguar E-PACE, Audi Q3, and the aforementioned BWM X1—but the Volvo manages to stand out with unique styling, great packaging, and a compelling drive.
The XC40 is a brilliant little crossover; one of the best I’ve driven in recent memory. And I can’t help but go back to that conversation I was having with my colleague and how surprised I was when he told me that he wanted to buy one. I get it now. I would buy one too.