A wise auto expert whose name escapes me once said that you can tell a lot about a brand by how well they do their cheapest vehicle. In this regard, the new-for-2019 XC40 is very telling.
Priced from $40,000, this is the smallest crossover in the brand’s lineup. The look is more playful and youthful than bigger Volvo utility vehicles, like the XC60 and flagship XC90 higher up the ladder.
It’s less serious a thing to look at and features styling that seems to morph from sleek to boxy to almost toy-like, depending on where you’re standing. It’s a unique look, but still unmistakably Volvo — although your writer wonders if the looks may be a little too unconventional for some buyers.
All the elements in a boiled-down Volvo
On board, it’s a similar setup. All key elements of the modern Volvo cabin are on board — including a fully-digital instrument cluster, a portrait-oriented touch-screen interface, and numerous vertically-oriented styling elements that help tie it together.
Signature Volvo seats are on board, and they’re super-comfy, as expected. From inside or out, there’s no mistaking XC40 as anything other than a Volvo.
But beneath the looks are two important attributes. First, the XC40 gives the shopper a boiled-down and visually-stirring take on what Volvo interiors are all about.
Second, as Volvos do, the styling goes its own way. Unlike many luxury competitors, the XC40 is visually quiet, discreet, looks upscale without being shouty, and doesn’t roll down the road like a chrome-plastered parade float with giant wheels and a massive grille. It turns heads — but more for originality, not flashiness.
It’s a little crossover, in a world where many shoppers buy crossovers because (among other things), they’re big.
But is it sufficiently large?
I’m about five-foot-ten and 200 pounds and mostly average in size, though wide in the shoulders. Me, and three additional humans of my size, could all ride with minimal issue.
The XC40’s tall and blocky shape enables a tall cabin, and one passenger who clocked in at six-foot-three even expressed delight at the available headroom.
At my height, I had no problems with leg or headroom from any seat. Notably, the knees of rear-seat adult passengers will have several inches of space before encountering the seatback.
In the driver’s seat, my optimal driving position sees me sitting upright and alert, surrounded by good outward lines of sight, and provides a commanding view of the road ahead. Expect to feel like you’re in a tall and upright car, not a hulking SUV.
Storage nearby for smaller items (wallet, gum, camera, etc.) is more than sufficient, and a wireless recharging pad in the centre console bin automatically juices compatible Smartphones when they’re placed inside, no plugging in required.
Also, there’s a built-in, removable, flip-lid trash receptacle. No more spent mustard packets or expired parking slips in the cup holders. Hooray!
Rear seat backs are very heavy but fold via a motorized action for assistance, and the tester’s power tailgate added further convenience, too. In the middle is a cargo hold that should accept four or more moderately-sized luggage, or a heavy grocery run with little fuss. It’s not a massive cargo hold, though the tall and square shape helps maximize the available room.
More impressive? Driving the XC40 in the snow. My tester ran a two-litre, four-cylinder engine that’s turbocharged for 250 horsepower. Confusingly, this turbo four-cylinder engine is called the T5. In other applications, the engine is fitted with a supercharger, in addition to the turbocharger, and that’s called the T6. All Volvos run some version of this engine.
In this case, the turbo four was attached to an eight-speed automatic and subsequently to Volvo’s (excellent) all-wheel drive system. Also, the tester ran Michelin X-Ice tires, which are my favourite winter rubber.
A button press sets the XC40 into one of several drive modes, each with specific subsystem calibrations designed to set the machine up for the task at hand.
In a blizzard, use “comfort” mode. Everything is relaxed, controls respond more slowly and smoothly to your commands, and the XC40 encourages you to go slow and steady and smooth — which is exactly what’s required for safe driving in slippery, low-visibility conditions. As it tends to go with Volvos, the XC40 also feels heavier and more planted on slippery roads, in the hands of the careful driver, than its looks lead on.
With a click, engagement of “dynamic” mode sees X40 is riled up. The steering and throttle go hair-trigger, and the engine and transmission conspire to put more turbocharged torque at the tips of your toes, more of the time. Responses to your inputs are more immediate and urgent, and the sweet bit of the engine’s power curve is always within easy reach. Here, the XC40 feels like a feisty little driver’s car — eager, responsive. It encourages the driver to steer with the throttle or brakes, or to initiate long, gentle slides with little flicks of the steering wheel.
And all the while, the AWD system is smart, works fast and feels invisible while extracting grip from the road. It requires none of your attention. Brakes bite nicely from an initial touch of the pedal, too, and little you can do takes the XC40 out of its considerably wide winter-driving comfort zone.
The gist? When Mother Nature is being crabby, XC40 can be as entertainingly slippery, or as perfectly surefooted and stable a thing to drive as you like. After all, this little Swedish luxury utility was literally engineered in a country where people go skiing on their lunch hour, and it shows.
A few gripes are, however, notable.
First, you’ll curse at the central command touch-screen interface at least nine times before you learn how to use it intuitively. Once you do, it works great. Getting there will be a process for some. If you have trouble accessing things on your iPad, ask the nearest teenager to help you figure it out.
Second, the XC40 is fitted with a variety of semi-autonomous safety features that, among other things, apply some automatic steering to help you stay centred within your lane. This works nicely when the camera powering the system has a clear view of the markings on the road. In winter, when that’s often not the case, you might have a fight with the XC40. After several arguments with the vehicle about which lane I’d like to occupy, I ended up turning this function off until the roads were clear.
Note here that the XC40’s automatic steering inputs are very easily overridden by just steering where you’d like to go instead, though turning the system off is just a button-tap away, if required.
Pricing from $40,000. If you’re shopping in this hot segment, and especially if you’re doing so from a Northern climate, this one needs to be on your radar.
Model: 2019 Volvo XC40 R-Design
Engine: 2-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, 250 horsepower
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Features: Power folding seats, power tailgate, IntelliSafe system, 360-degree parking camera system, Harman Kardon audio system, sunroof, automatic climate control, automatic lights, adaptive cruise control
Starting price (Volvo XC40): $40,300
Starting price (Volvo XC40 R-Design): $44,550