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As Volvo's breakthrough compact model reaches its golden years, how much youthful appeal does it retain?

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The Volvo XC40 has been a transformative car for its creator. Even as it closes in on replacement, this compact SUV remained Volvo Cars’ second biggest-selling global model in 2023, only being outperformed by the mid-sized Volvo XC60.

With the arrival of the Volvo EX30 alongside it, Volvo is renewing its assault on the more affordable end of the European car market; but it was the XC40 that first proved the potential of a compact Volvo to win fans and find homes when it appeared in 2017 - and it still is.

The XC40 holds true to the Volvo tradition of a quiet, safe, comfortable car that's easy to drive, but it also grips well

Volvo’s timing with the introduction of the car, as Europe’s compact SUV market boomed, was undoubtedly good - but the car’s design was Gothenburg’s true ‘eureka’ moment. Although the company’s history with smaller models is quite long and chequered, never before had it tried to maximise how much brand-typical visual toughness and solidity it could transfer onto a smaller and more affordable car. As it did so, it unlocked a significant amount of untapped sales potential.

And, like most cars who find commercial success, the XC40 has been through quite a lot of development and change within its first model generation. Having launched exclusively with conventional petrol and diesel combustion engines (and scooped the European Car of the Year title for 2018), it was offered with a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid powertrain - the XC40 Twin Engine - in 2019. 

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Those PHEVs would later go on to become re-named XC40 Recharge; and that nomenclature strategy would become a little confusing when Volvo added all-electric models into the XC40 range under the same banner. In recent years, however, the XC40 lineup has been rationalised. Having removed the original diesel-engined models from UK pricelists in 2020, Volvo discontinued its plug-in hybrids as part of the car’s most recent facelift in 2023. 

So now, only mild hybrid petrol and fully electric ‘BEV’ Recharge versions of the XC40 survive. The latter came in for significant mechanical change for 2023, and so it was an XC40 Recharge single motor we opted to test here.

DESIGN & STYLING

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volvo xc40 recharge review 2024 02 panning side

Volvo’s breakthrough with the design of the XC40 was, having recognised that it had to appeal to a younger clientele, to liberate the car from the more sensible, formal design of the bigger XC60 and XC90. It’s a great deal funkier, chunkier, more outgoing and striking in its outward style; perhaps the biggest diversion from Volvo design convention since the 480 coupé – and certainly since the C30.

Beneath that skin sits Volvo’s CMA platform (Compact Modular Architecture). The car’s primarily steel monocoque has to be flexible enough to admit a front-transverse mounted 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine which drives the front wheels in the case of either the ‘B3’ (161bhp) and ‘B4’ (194bhp) mild hybrids; or a rear-mounted primary electric drive motor, driving the rear ones, in the case of the Recharge models. The only route to four-wheel drive in the is now the upper-tier XC40 Recharge Twin.

While the mechanical fundamentals of the combustion-engined XC40 haven’t changed much since the car’s 2017 introduction, however, the all-electric Recharge models have changed much more. The first XC40 Recharge models entered production in 2020, offering a choice of either front- or four-wheel drive, and battery capacities of 69- or 78kWh respectively. 

But in 2023, Volvo altered the layout of the car quite radically, switching to a more powerful primary drive motor of a proprietary ‘permanent magnet synchronous’ design for the single-motor model; adopting a more efficient asynchronous secondary front drive motor for twin-motor models; and extending battery capacity to as much as 82kWh, depending on derivative.

In doing all of the above, Volvo made the XC40 one of the first rear-wheel drive Volvos to be sold in several decades. Our XC40 Recharge Ultimate test car used that single-motor, rear-drive layout, retaining the lesser EV model’s 69kWh nickel-manganese-cobalt battery pack - 66kWh of which it made ‘usable’. The car is suspended by MacPherson struts at the front, and a multi-link rear axle which, unlike in larger Volvos, uses coil springs rather than a composite transverse leaf spring. 

INTERIOR

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volvo xc40 recharge review 2024 12 speakers

The XC40’s interior design was perhaps less bold and adventurous than that of its exterior. Nevertheless, applying the same themes that brought us the lounge-like cabins of the Volvo XC90, Volvo XC60 and Volvo V90 to a class whose last words on cabin sophistication had, by 2017 at least, been the Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque, delivered results that looked and felt quite luxurious but also informal, and very pleasant with it.

And today, even as the car ages, it retains plenty of interior appeal. A mix of both soft-touch and harder plastics make up the fascia, but even the latter have a bit of lustre about them; its wool-blend seats are appealing to the touch; while the car’s doorhandles, air vents and other primary touch points have quite high material quality.

It's such a little thing - but being able to fold down the rear headrests remotely to boost your rearview visibility without leaving the driver's seat always makes me feel good about driving a Volvo.

The dashboard is laid out in fairly sparse style. As in other EVs, our Recharge test car had no ignition or starter button, activating instead automatically as you get in and select drive, and switching off automatically as you leave (there is a ‘park’ button next to the gear selector, but the handbrake is fully automated). But Volvo still gives you a large, permanent on/off button come volume control for the audio system, and physical controls too demist and hazard warning functions.

The car’s Google-powered, portrait-orientated touchscreen multimedia system delivers the rest of the car’s controls. The home screen makes it easy to jump between menus, with other shortcut functions around the margins allowing you to access driver assistance presets fairly quickly, and without too much distraction from the road. Google-powered voice recognition is also a strength for the car, making it easy to set navigation destinations, and to make other simple information requests like “will it be raining when I arrive in Manchester”, which the system uses its onboard data connection to answer.

Up front, driver comfort is good. Our test car’s front seat offered some cushion angle adjustment, and both extendable under-thigh support and adjustable lumbar support. It wasn’t the softest of thickest-padded seat, but provided good touring comfort all the same.

More widely, passenger space is surprisingly good. At 2702mm, the XC40’s wheelbase is only 72mm shorter than the Volvo XC60’s; so although 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. 

There are two USB-C charging ports for the back row; our test car offered heated outer rear seats; there are cupholders in the fold-out centre arm rest; and Volvo also includes small storage trays just outboard of the outer seat cushions (although just what it intends you to put in them is a little puzzling). The car also comes with ISOFIX child seat anchorages for both outer back seats, as well as one for the front passenger seat.

The XC40’s 452-litre boot, meanwhile, isn’t the biggest among more compact SUVs; but it is quite a cleverly configured space, offering oddment storage at either side of the main loading area, and a pop-up boot floor that doubles as a shopping bag holder, and opens up useful space under the floor. Our test car also featured a retaining partition net, allowing you to prevent high-stacked loads from sliding forwards into the cabin.

Charging cable storage is provided within the car’s ‘frunk’, under the bonnet at the front - and there’s plenty of it. It remains a shame that Volvo doesn’t include a bonnet release button on the vehicle key, making you instead go in search of the old-fashioned bonnet release in the driver’s footwell every time you need to stow or access your cable.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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volvo xc40 recharge review 2024 25 charing port

With a few honourable exceptions, Volvo has seldom been celebrated as a maker of truly great combustion engines over the years - which might just have made for less baggage as the company has committed, ever more willingly, to fully electric cars lately. Our wider test experience of the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that powers the XC40 mild hybrids is that it’s usefully torquey and easy to drive, if a little unrefined when working hard.

For anyone who test drives both types of power, however, it should be readily apparent which kind of XC40 would provide the more relaxed and well-mannered mode of family transport. Powered by its new rear-mounted drive motor, the single-motor XC40 Recharge has 235bhp and 310lb ft of torque - and puts it down very quietly and assuredly, even in fairly slippery conditions. 

Volvo's 'Pilot Assist' driver assistance system can be a little bit fussy and intrusive; but it never leaves you in two minds as to whether you're switched it on - and there's a button on the steering wheel to switch it off again.

Volvo claims that the switch to a rear-mounted motor was key to increasing power and performance in the single-motor model, and so it feels. From urban speeds right up to motorway driving, this isn’t a car that feels in any way short of potency. It has progressive pedal response, and accelerates in a strong but relaxing wave of torque rather than bursting into motion the instant the pedal is brushed. Imitation combustion noise is broadcast outside of the car, for the sake of pedestrian safety - but isn’t repeated within. 

Volvo opts for simplified control over brake energy regeneration: the XC40 Recharge driver chooses between ‘one pedal’ and standard modes of operation (activate it and the car’s trailing-throttle braking settings will bring it to a gentle halt automatically without needing input from the brake pedal). There’s a middle ground ‘automatic’ mode in which the car slows itself at lower speeds and when approaching junctions, but otherwise coasts; but there is no full manual control of battery regeneration, via steering column paddles, as rivals offer.

The car’s brake pedal progression (should you choose to use it in normal driving) is quite good, blending friction and regenerative braking cleverly, and making it easy to be smooth at low speeds. But the pedal itself is mounted centrally within the footwell, which can make it a slightly uncomfortable stretch for your right foot (some testers preferred to left-foot brake).

RIDE & HANDLING

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Volvo’s big switch to rear-wheel drive hasn’t quite transformed the XC40 Recharge into a class-leading electric car. This is, after all, a relatively boxy and high-riding, two-tonne SUV, in a segment where lower, leaner options aren’t hard to track down. 

Instead, the shift seems to have refined and incrementally improved what feels like a familiar driving experience. Our 69kWh single motor car had a comfortable low-speed town ride; enough suppleness to deal with speed bumps and the like easily and without disturbance, but not so much as to lean or lurch around junctions and roundabouts.

Body control is fairly well contained out of town, and so you can use the car’s performance without fear of either pitch or roll. Being tested in the winter months, our test car rode on Pirelli Scorpion ‘mud & snow’ tyres; but it retained respectable outright grip on Tarmac in any case. Cornering balance has been traded a little bit against outright stability, as you’d expect in a Volvo; and steering feedback is filtered-feeling and muted, though steering weight is consistent.

This isn’t an EV for keener drivers, and it doesn’t have the keener poise of the related, newly rear-engined Polestar 2. But it is reassuring and easy to drive.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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volvo xc40 recharge review 2024 01 cornering front

Prices on the XC40 open up at around £35,000 for the lower-tier mild-hybrid model, with single motor XC40 Recharge models on offer from a little over £45,000, and twin-motor cars priced from around £55,000. That’s quite a lot of notional ground for one model to cover; and it’s why it’s correct to observe that, while some versions of the car look like quite competitive value for money in 2024, others clearly don’t.

Our upper-trim level XC40 Recharge Ultimate model in particular looked expensive at more than £56k as tested; especially given the likes of the Skoda Enyaq, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Fisker Ocean now offer superior cabin space and range for a mid-£40k sum. 

In terms of real-world range, we were a little disappointed with our test car, which had usable electric range of between 180- and 200 miles, and offered DC rapid charging at up to 130kW only. Volvo itself may offer a solution in terms of the Extended Range model; but even so, for the outlay, it wouldn’t be difficult to find better, easier real-world running prospects.

VERDICT

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volvo xc40 recharge review 2024 30 sttic front

The Volvo XC40 has had a fairly short but remarkably complicated life so far. Yet to make it into a full second-generation version, it has already had combustion engines added and then removed; plug-in hybrid powertrains brought in, built up, and then junked entirely; and enough mechanical overhaul in amongst the all-electric versions to qualify as at least one full model renewal all by themselves. 

In years to come, this car could be used to teach and typify the extraordinary upheaval and change that the car market has been through over the last decade. And yet, all the while, it has leant on its outstanding design appeal, its versatility, and its premium cabin refinements - and it has sold strongly. 

And today, just as in 2017, it’s abundantly clear why it’s popular. Desirable, inviting, comfortable, well-packaged, cleverly featured, and fully on trend, it’s been right there on the spot with both the body style and powertrain ‘of the moment’ over the last seven years; and it continues to be. The XC40 Recharge performs strongly; rides and handles quietly and comfortably; but, moreover, is abidingly pleasant, assured and easy to drive - as a Volvo should be. 

In some rational respects however, and in spite of the mechanical renewal that it’s been through recently, the car could and should clearly offer more. Our test car’s sub-200-mile real-world range and 130kW DC rapid charging performance aren’t what EV owners will expect for a near-£50k sum. Others might simply expect more outright passenger space or carrying capacity for the money.

And so, having been a class-leading car when it first appeared, the Volvo XC40 now ranks in mid-pack amongst compact premium SUVs in strictly objective terms. But it will always be a car capable of punching well beyond its weight, for those who simply happen to like its cheery, characterful design. 

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