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Volvo's compact SUV isn't afraid to plough its own furrow. But is it worth the premium over similarly sized cars?

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Volvo has more or less accidentally discovered that it’s an SUV company. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, given that it’s a car maker founded on the virtues of strength and stability. But where once it was famed for its blocky, spacious estate cars, today those have given way to more dynamic-looking saloons and estates, and the values of spaciousness and pragmatism are instead found more in its SUVs - like this Volvo XC40.

Which is handy, given that 4x4s, crossovers or anything with a hint of rufty-tufty will likely find itself in one of the faster-growing and more profitable market segments. Whether by good fortune, design, or most likely a combination of the two, with Volvo and SUVs it’s very much a case of ‘right place, right time’, and the brand certainly isn’t letting this moment pass it by.

The XC40 promises something a bit different compared with larger Volvo SUVs. This is a younger market – both of itself and in regards to the people who buy cars from it – so Volvo allowed its designers to cut a little more loosely when it came to sculpting this 4.4m-long vehicle. It's very much a rival for the uber-fashionable Range Rover Evoque, BMW X1 and Audi Q2.

There's also an electric model, called the Volvo EX40.

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DESIGN & STYLING

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Most compact SUVs tend to adopt a Russian doll approach to design and styling compared with larger models in their makers’ ranges, but Volvo has liberated the XC40 from the more sensible, formal design of the bigger XC60 and XC90. It’s a great deal funkier, chunkier, more outgoing and more striking and perhaps the biggest diversion from Volvo normality since the 480 coupé.

Beneath that skin sits Volvo's Compact Modular Architecture (CMA) vehicle platform. As with the platform for Volvo’s bigger cars, CMA is a primarily steel monocoque, with a front-mounted engine installed transversely.

The four wheels that it drives are suspended by MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link rear that gets, unlike larger Volvos, coil springs rather than a composite transverse leaf.

INTERIOR

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Volvo has applied the same themes and approach that brought us the airy, lounge-like interiors of the XC90, XC60 and V90 to a class whose last words on cabin sophistication have thus far been the Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque, and in doing so it has delivered an interior for the XC40 that looks and feels luxurious, expensive, informal and very pleasant.

The approach employed is similar to that of Volvo’s larger and more upmarket SUVs, but with a touch of added visual flair and youthful exuberance.

The car’s stylised, narrow air vents flanking the (portrait style) Sensus infotainment system and its patterned dashboard decoration foils (which reflect the light in the daytime and are backlit in the same pattern at night) draw the eye and invite it to linger. This serves partly to draw attention away from some slightly cheaper-feeling fixtures (the window switches and the buttons on the steering wheel spokes) than those you’ll find in Volvo’s bigger cars, but the XC40 is a more affordable proposition, after all. Even allowing for their presence, then, you won’t feel as though you’re being short-changed as far as quality is concerned.

Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system is fitted as standard across the XC40 range. The 9in portrait-orientated touchscreen has pride of place in the middle of the dashboard and is used to operate the majority of the XC40’s functions. These include the entertainment, satellite navigation, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and vehicle settings. 

A row of buttons sits beneath the screen, providing quick access to the volume, heated windscreen and heated rear screen. The display screen itself is clear and responsive enough and relatively easy to fathom, but the absence of physical buttons for features such as the climate control is a bit of a pain, because altering settings while on the move does require you to take your eyes off the road. 

Although this switchgear-lite approach does lend the cabin a clean-looking, decluttered design, you can’t help but feel that Volvo may have placed form above function – at least until you’re used to working the touchscreen intuitively, at any rate.

Space is good, too. At 2702mm, the XC40’s wheelbase is only 72mm shorter than that of the XC60, so while this might be a smaller car, it doesn’t come with a huge practicality compromise. Adults will find a reasonable amount of head and leg room in the back seats and won’t wince at the idea of a long-distance trip.

However, the shape of the XC40’s rear seats and the shortness of its seat cushions do force taller adults to sit a little uncomfortably, with their thighs propped up in mid air. Thankfully, this being the kind of SUV in which the back seats will be more commonly occupied by teenagers and kids, we needn’t dwell on that, except to note that several similarly sized SUV options have more comfortable second rows.

The XC40’s 432-litre boot will swallow a couple of suitcases without any trouble, but it’s hardly generously sized by class standards: a Volkswagen Tiguan’s is around 50% larger. Still, it’s certainly a deep, intelligently laid out and useful carrying space, with retaining straps, a flat floor, an underfloor storage area and a power outlet. Our test car also featured a retaining partition net, allowing you to prevent high-stacked loads from sliding forwards into the cabin.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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All XC40s now (previously four-wheel-drive and diesel models were available) get a seven-speed auto, front-wheel drive and a 2.0-litre petrol engine. 

There are two options to choose from: the B3 has 161bhp and a 0-62mph time of 8.6sec, while the B4 gets 194bhp/7.6sec.

Both variants are hushed and smooth. However, Volvo has also plainly come to understand that ploughing its own furrow with the driving experience of its cars doesn’t excuse it from the need to also make them just as responsive and strong as their rivals in outright terms. The XC40’s slightly laid-back accelerative step-off is one of the dynamic hallmarks of a car that offers no apology for its pragmatism.

Like so many Volvos, it wants to ease you into motion smartly but is in absolutely no hurry to do it. As such, you have to build some torque up against the car’s brakes to make it get away with real urgency, although when you do, the acceleration is plentiful; the automatic gearbox ushers the higher intermediate gears into train quickly and seamlessly; and the timing gear confirms that the XC40 would be a match for most of its rivals in bald performance terms. It’s no slouch by any stretch.

There’s clearly a rounded and refined car here, ready to meet any number of needs and to mould itself around your mood on the road perhaps better than any other current Volvo.

And yet the XC40 still retains a particular character that Volvo regulars will recognise and that Volvo has become practised and expert at creating: that of the relaxing, pragmatic, comfortable and straightforward modern family car, tuned to be absolutely at its best at everyday speeds, on everyday roads and driven in a very undemanding, matter-of-fact way. 

RIDE & HANDLING

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Running on optional 20in wheels and fitted with the stiffened suspension, our test car was about as sporty as it’s possible for an XC40 to be, but neither its ride nor its ease of use seemed any the worse for it.

Volvo’s claim may be that the car’s handling is more energetic and invigorating than that of either of the XC40's bigger SUV siblings, but the company also lets on that it would never have seriously contemplated positioning this model among the most driver-focused SUVs on the market.

Instead, it has cleverly engineered in just enough grip, body control, directness and handling agility to make the XC40 feel usefully sharper, smaller, fleeter of foot and easier to place than its bigger relations around junctions and down country lanes – but not a shred so much as to disturb the settled calm of the cabin or to make the car in the slightest bit physically or mentally trying to drive. 

The steering is, therefore, ever consistent, with its medium pacing and weighting, and light on feedback but thoroughly isolated from the influences of bump and traction. Its body control is good, although it permits more body roll than some – typically, though, only enough to help you gauge how hard the chassis is working rather than to adversely affect grip or balance. The suspension is supple and works well to keep the body level and settled at A-road and B-road pace.

There’s a bit of lateral fussiness to its ministrations over rutted urban roads, which can cause an occasional moment’s unwanted head toss and slightly excitable under-damped feel to the wheel control, but it’s fleeting.

On the motorway, the XC40 has an excellent, fluent and quiet ride to match its impressive cabin sealing, and its Pilot Assist lane keeping and radar cruise control systems work as well as they do on Volvo’s bigger cars to very effectively and discreetly help you keep the car centred in its lane and governed at a safe distance from the car in front. They take the strain out of a long-distance commute better than almost any other manufacturer’s equivalents.

On our ride and handling track, the XC40 is a game and fairly tenacious car to harry along – and, crucially, much more so than you’d have believed a Volvo SUV could be 10 years ago.

That it rolls harder than some rivals may discourage some drivers from fully unearthing how much grip is to be found under its wheels, but there is plenty. The steered axle is incisive enough to allow you a second bite at the apex once the car’s body has settled on its outside wheels, and you can carry plenty of speed. 

The chassis is balanced enough, and the driveline and traction control good enough, to let you open up the throttle early and in confidence as you drive out of each bend.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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As a more premium offering in the compact SUV market, the XC40 understandably comes with a higher asking price than equivalently sized SUVs from volume brands.

Even at the entry level standard equipment is strong, with 18in alloy wheels, automatic LED headlights and Volvo’s 9in touchscreen infotainment system with DAB radio, satellite navigation and Bluetooth connectivity all present and correct. As with all Volvos, a suite of advanced safety systems is also included.

More expensive models, meanwhile, benefit from larger, 19in alloy wheels, a premium Harman Kardon sound system and a range of packs otherwise found on the options list. Although these launch models command a notable premium, the XC40 holds its value well.

Fuel economy is not great when compared with rivals, mostly because there are no low-capacity petrol or diesel engines on offer. The B3 should return around 35mpg, while the B4 will do more like 30mpg.

VERDICT

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The world is well served for premium-branded compact SUVs, but there isn’t another as simple, self-possessing and distinctive as the XC40. There may not be one, either, that delivers against its own particular dynamic brief quite as well.

In its pragmatic, comfort-orientated, functionality-focused way, it is a classic Volvo to its core. But it’s also great to look at; rich, pleasant and refined to travel in; strong, polished, responsive and driveable on the road; and sufficiently cleverly resolved in its ride and handling to be wieldy and enjoyable one moment and relaxing and protective the next.

That the XC40’s suspension is prone to the occasional low-speed stumble must also be noted; likewise that its rear seats don’t deliver better comfort for full-sized adults. But it really is among the best small SUVs on sale.

 

Murray Scullion

Murray Scullion
Title: Digital editor

Murray has been a journalist for more than a decade. During that time he’s written for magazines, newspapers and websites, but he now finds himself as Autocar’s digital editor.

He leads the output of the website and contributes to all other digital aspects, including the social media channels, podcasts and videos. During his time he has reviewed cars ranging from £50 - £500,000, including Austin Allegros and Ferrari 812 Superfasts. He has also interviewed F1 megastars, knows his PCPs from his HPs and has written, researched and experimented with behavioural surplus and driverless technology.

Murray graduated from the University of Derby with a BA in Journalism in 2014 and has previously written for Classic Car Weekly, Modern Classics Magazine, buyacar.co.uk, parkers.co.uk and CAR Magazine, as well as carmagazine.co.uk.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volvo XC40 First drives