Volvo is relevant. That’s the news that’s been coming out of the Chinese-owned Swedish car brand over the past few years. First, there was the brilliant XC90, which we said was good enough to take on the Range Rover.
Then there was the smaller XC60 – not quite as convincing, but still a genuine rival to the BMW X3 and Audi Q5.
And now there’s this: the new XC40. A small, fashionable SUV, underpinned by a new Compact Modular Architecture (CMA) platform that, frankly, has the potential to make a mockery of the new Jaguar E-Pace.
Why do we say that? Well, look at it. “Expressive Scandinavian design,” is how Volvo describes it. We call it the most attractive compact premium SUV on the market. To our eyes, anyway.
It’s blockier than the bigger SUVs – and thus almost a nod to its past. Volvo has never really been above curves, while a rear end that’s wider than the front gives it an almost aggressive look. ‘Almost’, because we can’t really describe this baby Volvo SUV as ‘aggressive’.
It manages to have a clear family resemblance to the XC60 and XC90, without simply looking like a shrunken-down version.
Volvo is keen to stress that it’s definitely an SUV, and not a crossover – possibly to leave room in the range for a Cross Country version of the new V40, which is due to arrive in 2018. With 211mm of ground clearance, it sits higher than the Audi Q3, Jaguar E-Pace and BMW X1, which adds to its bold look.
Before we go any further, let’s pick apart the prices. The entry-level T3 petrol engine paired with front-wheel drive starts at £27,905 in Momentum trim, making it just as expensive as its German rivals.
There’s a good amount of kit as standard, though: all models feature the ‘Thor’s hammer’ LED lights, a nine-inch infotainment screen (we’ll come to that shortly), rear park-assist and Volvo’s City Safety automatic braking system.
Although finance deals are yet to be announced, strong residual values (43% after three years for a D3 manual Momentum, says CAP HPI) mean it ought to be fairly competitive on PCP.
Volvo’s launching a new subscription service with the XC40, too. At £629 per month and restricted to customers within the M25 to start with, Care by Volvo is not going to drastically change how we buy cars from the off, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
There’s no deposit, the contract lasts 24 months, and everything but fuel is included – including insurance, tax and maintenance. For up to 14 days each year, you can even swap your XC40 for another Volvo in the range. Perfect if you wish to upgrade to an XC90 for a family holiday, for example.
Just as the Volvo XC40 is refreshingly different from its rivals on the outside, it’s more of the same on the inside – in a good way.
It’s not quite as plush as the XC60 and XC90 (you can’t expect that in a compact SUV that’s essentially half the price of an XC90), but it still feels premium and interesting in a ‘definitely not German’ kind of way.
All models come with Volvo’s portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment screen in the centre of the dash, which replaces conventional buttons such as heating and radio controls. It does an excellent job of decluttering, but does make things unnecessarily complicated when driving. We’re sure with time you’d get used to accessing functions though the screen, though.
There are lots of clever touches, too. There is bags of storage space, with huge door bins, a compartment underneath the front seats that can fit a tablet (or, if you’re feeling old-school, a road map), and a clever fold-out curry hook in the glove box.
There’s even a little bin for keeping the footwells clear of used parking tickets and the like.
With 460 litres of boot space with the rear seats left up, it’s competitive, if not class-leading, compared to rivals. The load floor does lift to provide more space, though, and can be folded to help transport tricky items.
The seats fold entirely flat at the touch of the button, should you wish to carry larger objects.
There’s plenty of space for passengers, too. A couple of adults will sit in the rear without any major complaints in the head- or legroom department. It might be worth taking small children on the test-drive, though, as the car’s angular window line might make it difficult for them to see out of the back.
Finally, an area in which we can be a bit critical. The XC40 is somewhat anodyne to drive. Only the higher-spec T5 petrol and D4 diesel were available on the launch, and even the 247hp petrol T5 – which sounds moderately exciting on paper – can’t rival the likes of Jag’s E-Pace for driver involvement.
The steering is light, feedback not forthcoming, and you’re never going to get a buzz from driving the XC40 enthusiastically.
But, frankly, who cares? This car isn’t about being sporty. It’ll roll around in bends, but its four-wheel-drive system (standard on the D4 and T5) means it always feels secure.
Driving the XC40 is a soothing experience, whether you’re threading it through city streets or sitting on the motorway. The eight-speed automatic gearbox (again, standard on the D4 and T5) is fast to respond, while very little noise makes its way into the cabin.
Well, unless you start being rough with the accelerator pedal or make the mistake of putting the car in Dynamic mode.
In reality, it’s the diesel that makes the most sense in this car. It’s so refined that we’d struggle to recommend the petrol, even in the current anti-diesel climate.
Ride quality is excellent, even in T5 R-Design guise with firmer dampers and 20-inch alloy wheels. In Momentum spec, on smaller wheels, it errs on the side of floaty, but not uncomfortably so. We’d be interested to try it on smaller wheels and on UK roads, though.
That brings us on to the usual caveats: these initial impressions are based on a day driving a left-hand-drive model on Spanish roads, and we’re yet to spend any time with an XC40 in the UK.
It’s worth noting too that the D3 diesel with front-wheel drive, the model Volvo’s expecting to be the biggest seller in the UK, wasn’t available to try on the launch. But, cards on the table, this is the first compact SUV to get us this excited in a long time.
And that’s not because it’s exciting to drive. It’s not, but it is easy and relaxing and, in 2017, that’s more important than being fun. Especially in a car of this size and shape. It looks the absolute business, in our opinion, and the interior is brilliantly Swedish.
Volvo’s radically-changing image is one that will appeal to some customers more than, say, BMW and Audi, too. The days of dull estates are long gone.
Star rating verdict: ★★★★★
- Audi Q3
- BMW X1
- Jaguar E-Pace
- Mercedes-Benz GLA
- Lexus NX