Car reviews - Volvo - XC40
Unique exterior styling, clever and appealing cabin, high-grade technology, spacious interior
Room for improvement
Features left off the standard list, cheap-feeling rotary dial, thick rear pillars limit rearward vision, tyre noise on coarse roads
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2 May 2018
By TERRY MARTIN
LIKE a lot of other brands, and perhaps quite surprisingly, Volvo is now known primarily for its SUVs, with its XC60 and XC90 accounting for about two-thirds of its sales in Australia – a figure that is only going to increase now the all-new XC40 small SUV has arrived.
The new kid on the block might be late to the burgeoning segment, but Volvo has strong credentials with its well-established and highly regarded larger SUVs.
Yet this is unchartered territory for the Swedish brand, not only in entering a fiercely competitive class but in delivering its first vehicle based on a new global compact platform developed in conjunction with its parent company, China’s Geely Automobile, which plans to use it on a variety of models.
Ahead of launch, this had us wondering whether shortcuts were taken that put the XC40 at odds with its accomplished larger siblings, which could limit its potential.
And the radical design, well, it’s nothing like we’ve seen from Volvo before.
The senses are always heightened whenever a prestige car manufacturer, having established its credentials with excellent vehicles in higher classes, look to segments involving smaller and invariably cheaper variants aimed at bringing in more sales.
Everyone is doing it, of course, and the global SUV boom makes it mandatory for big-name brands to get in on the act, lest they get left behind.
Enter the XC40, which is late to the party and arrives not only as Volvo’s first effort in the small-sized crossover segment, but the first product built off a newly developed compact modular architecture (CMA) that will underpin a small hatch/wagon and a variety of models from the Chinese automotive conglomerate, Geely Automobile, in which the Swedish brand now resides.
In the flesh, the 40 is like no XC before it, cutting a unique figure and standing as a distinctly styled, highly appealing vehicle that is certainly not a clone of the larger XC60 or XC90, let alone any of Volvo’s off-road-oriented station wagons.
No Russian matryoshka doll design philosophy to be seen here, where the car company simply produces a set of virtually identical models of decreasing size.
The ‘Thor’s hammer’ daytime runners and other lighting signatures are apparent, and the iron mark on the grille immediately brands this as a member of the Volvo stable. But this is a sharper design, squarer, edgier and instantly engaging.
The test cars on launch were all ‘Launch Edition’ versions which provide an immediate impression of superlative specification, particularly with the entry Momentum model grade, but drilling into the detail leaves us feeling that some of these items should have really been on the standard-issue variant.
We’re talking here about keyless entry, an alarm, tinted windows, electric adjustment for the front passenger seat, electric tailgate operation, the seat-folding function of the back seats and some of the higher-lever driver-assist features: adaptive cruise control and a 360-degree camera, for example.
Taking Volvo’s calculations at face value, the $5000 asking price for the launch special on the entry grade was a great bargain when the extras all add up to more than $10,000.
But with Launch Edition supplies already fully exhausted, our advice is to carefully consider the features you need, and the costs involved in their addition, which will help with the decision.
It’s important to be rational considering the XC40 when fully kitted out, which welcomes its occupants with clever and carefully considered elements that have the ‘surprise and delight’ factor nailed.
There is huge attention to detail in areas such as door sculpting that echoes the exterior design, unique air vents that are as tactile and functional as they are attractive, the broad application of premium materials, outstanding fit and finish, and some very clever storage facilities.
The latter includes smart little nooks and crannies for small items, huge front door bins with the speakers relocated to the top of the door sill, a removable bin in the centre console, a ‘curry hook’ that folds out to the outer side of the glovebox lid for carrying takeaway dinners, and more.
This is the blend of practicality and modernity that we have come to expect from Volvo, but there is a vibrant feel to the cockpit design and the instruments that heightens the senses and broadens the smile.
You don’t have to specify the bright-orange carpet that is made from 97 per cent recycled plastic bottles, but for those old enough, it will send the occupants straight back to lounge and dining rooms of the 1970s – rugs, lampshades, laminated benchtops, vinyl couches, et al.
But sitting up in the snug, supportive leather seats, having had no trouble finding a comfortable position, the driver soon discovers that all the major controls – on the steering wheel, in the all-digital instrument binnacle and on the dash stack, where there is a large touchscreen and minimal switchgear – are smartly presented, clear and quite easy to use.
Again, detail matters here. The large central screen that means navigation is easily handled directly in front of the driver. The touchscreen controls that are quickly mastered and extend to functions like electric rear headrest fold-down.
And the radar/camera set-up that provides accurate speed limit recognition, an incredibly clear and precise 360-degree view and reassuringly smooth and progressive operation of features such as autonomous braking and lane-departure warning.
The small metal-coated (but plastic) rotary knob on the centre stack was perhaps the only bit of switchgear that felt a little too light and insubstantial. Read: cheap.
There were no diesel variants available on launch, and our relatively short drive through the Adelaide hills was limited to the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol R-Design Launch Edition.
There were no dirt roads on a route that really did show the XC40 in its best light – tooling around suburban streets, stretching its legs outside the city limits and not shying away from some more engaging, winding roads.
The T5 engine never feels underdone but is not at the top of class in terms of syrupy smoothness or punchy performance, perhaps as a result of all the extra equipment onboard the limited edition that sees it pushing towards 1800kg.
It integrates neatly with the eight-speed automatic transmission, which holds up its end of the bargain with smooth and responsive operation in undemanding conditions, but has quite a bit of work to do when the driver wants to press on in tighter, undulating terrain.
The driver can at least swap cogs manually via steering wheel paddles or the novel tipshift-type console controller and a ‘Dynamic’ drive mode will sharpen things up with its shift points (holding onto a gear longer, for example) and throttle response. In these conditions, the XC40 acquits itself extremely well, sitting relatively flat through corners and offering plenty of grip with its 20-inch tyres and on-demand all-wheel drive system that basically runs as a front-driver but redistributes up to 50 per cent of torque to the rear as required.
It steers with a fair degree of accuracy, the turning circle is tight, the brakes have a nice progressive feel and powerful stopping performance, and, in overall terms, telegraphs a clear message of competence and class competitiveness.
The R-Design’s stiffer sports suspension is firm but compliant, never harsh across the road blemishes we struck but nonetheless prepared to allow some noise into the cabin. There was also some tyre noise rising on coarse bitumen roads.
These were the only downsides to an otherwise fine balance Volvo’s engineers have achieved with ride, handling and refinement.
The designers, meanwhile, have not only created something unique on the outside and in the front compartment, but we are pleased to report that there is a lot of room for two large-framed adults and a similarly high degree of attention to detail in the back seat.
Good outboard seat comfort with high seatbacks and large headrests are appreciated, design cues with the air vents, door trim and the like extend to the rear, and good storage and convenience facilities are provided.
The narrower centre position that doubles as an armrest and load-through area is a compromise, but only when fitting three across the bench seat for long distances.
The electric fold-down headrests maximise rearward vision for the driver – who has thick rear pillars to contend with, albeit with plenty of (optional) cameras to assist – and there is a reassuring feeling of weight in the seatback that folds down electrically to create a virtually flat load floor.
The standard cargo area, with space-saver spare wheel, is also quite generous and continues the practical theme with smart design features such as a concertina-fold floor that can remain upright and has shopping bag hooks attached.
There is also a broad, shallow compartment under the floor, a couple of lights and the usual array of tie-down and power points.
Just as the little Swedish flag sticking out from under the bonnet near the driver’s door is a neat detail point, the XC40 has proven itself to be a real contender in this class with its unique aesthetics, premium feel, spacious interior and sheer cleverness in its functionality and technology.
It clearly has Volvo DNA but, as its chief designer Robin Page puts it, the XC40 unashamedly stands as more of a cousin than a sibling to the larger XC60 and XC90 – and there is nothing here to indicate that it is anything other than a vehicle which is truly representative of the premium Swedish brand.
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