Volvo XC40: Swede dreams
The XC40 is Volvo's first small SUV - and it is another zeitgeisty winner, says William Scholes
IT seems that barely a week passes without yet another SUV being targeted, like cabbages fired from a cannon, at the car-buying public, writes William Scholes.
There is an inescapable logic to this; people cannot get enough of them. And the public gets what the public wants, as The Jam said.
The contents of showrooms and forecourts increasingly reflect this demand. One in three of all new cars are now classed as SUVs or crossovers, a share that is only going to grow. SUVs own the zeitgeist.
Truth be told, even for people who obsess about cars and write about them, most of these SUVs tend to blur into one.
Too often, they are wholly unremarkable vehicles. A cynic might regard them as little more than gentrified hatchbacks with inflated price tags to go along with their raised ride heights.
The lack of ambition in the conception and execution of most is, if you really care about cars, borderline depressing.
But there are honourable exceptions, among them the latest clutch of SUVs from Volvo.
The Swedish brand, under Chinese ownership these days, is on a run of form that must be causing its rivals in the so-called premium sector sleepless nights.
Every new car it has launched recently has been little short of brilliant. This includes the XC90 - its largest SUV - and its smaller XC60 sibling, which have been just about the best cars of any sort, from any maker, to be launched in their debut years.
Those cars replaced existing XC90 and XC60 models. But now Volvo, sniffing an opportunity, is entering a different part of the market with an all-new car, the XC40.
The XC40 is Volvo's first go at building a so-called premium compact SUV. That means its chief opponents are the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and whatever the Mercedes effort is called.
And as with its larger cars, Volvo has given the Germans just as sound a beating.
Don't get me wrong. A BMW X1 or Audi Q3 is a fine car - the Mercedes isn't, by the way - but they just aren't as fine as the Volvo.
That is because Volvo has worked out a way of distilling a bunch of highly desirable qualities into its cars.
These are nice things. Like loveliness. A sense of calm. Safety. Wholly pleasant and relaxing. Low key, not shouty or vulgar.
They are attributes we crave in our always-on, hyper-connected world, where Facebook mine your personal data and the Brexit fantasy looms.
The world around you and your family might be fast-paced and bonkers and just too busy... but a Volvo offers sanctuary and a sense of wellbeing.
Key to this, I think, is that it hasn't worried too much about making its cars 'sporty'. The Germans, meanwhile, obsess about being sporty.
The XC40 is Volvo's first go at building a so-called premium compact SUV. That means its chief opponents are the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and whatever the Mercedes effort is called
That's OK if the car in question is a two-door coupe, or a hot hatch or the sort of wheels an off-duty Formula One driver might choose to do his shopping in.
But it is all a bit much - rather unnecessary; vulgar, even - when the main job of the car in question is to act as family transport.
And that, it seems to me, is at once the most humble and highest calling a car can have; right now, no-one gets this as consistently as Volvo.
The chunky XC40 itself is a smartly styled wagon. Instantly recognisable as a modern Volvo, with its large grille, distinctive lights and aura of solidity and safety, it is also more youthful looking than its bigger brothers.
If you're around 35 years old and already have a toddler, then you're the customer Volvo had in mind when it was designing the XC40.
For those who care, it sits on an entirely new platform, which will soon form the basis of other small Volvo models.
It has been engineered to cope with plug-in hybrid and pure electric drivetrains in the future, though right now a straightforward choice of petrol or diesel is your lot.
A six-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel-drive is standard, and an eight-speed automatic gearbox and four-wheel-drive are also available.
Diesels include a D3 with 148bhp and D4 with 187bhp; petrols are T3 with 154bhp, T5 with 178bhp and T5 with 244bhp.
Whatever combination of oily bits you choose, you get the same spacious cabin, which is distinguished by the same sort of attention to detail and practical flourishes that make the XC60 and XC90 so satisfying.
Volvo's large portrait-orientated touchscreen, one of the best in the business, will likely catch the eye first but features like the enormous door pockets, the little waste paper bin between the front seats and the hook which flips from the glovebox lid to carry shopping bags or takeaway orders soon grab your attention.
The boot is similarly thoughtfully organised, with a folding floor which can be arranged in various ways to secure different-shaped loads.
Comfortable seats, a Volvo trademark, are a given and options such as orange carpet can enliven an interior that is otherwise a paragon of rationality and ergonomic efficiency.
The XC40 has exceptional showroom or kerbside appeal, then. On the road, it is a comfortable, quiet and relaxed drive.
There is plenty of grip, the handling is predictable and the engines - I sampled the D4 and T5 units - offer more than enough oomph.
But, as mentioned earlier, the XC40 doesn't particularly encourage spirited driving. It is more about soothing away the ills of the world around you, offering a bit of peace and quiet.
Safety is a key consideration for the modern family. Volvo, as you would expect, has loaded the XC40 with its latest kit.
That means its 'city safety' system, which will apply the brakes if the car thinks you are going to hit a pedestrian, cyclist or "large animal". Or another car, of course.
The world around you and your family might be fast-paced and bonkers and just too busy... but a Volvo offers sanctuary and a sense of wellbeing
There is also - deep breath - oncoming lane mitigation, driver alert control, run-off road mitigation, run-off road protection, road sign information, a speed limiter and a lane-keeping aid.
That's all as standard. Optionally, you can add adaptive cruise control, blind spot information and Volvo's semi-autonomous 'pilot assist' set-up.
Also standard is the ability to control many features from an app. Among other things, this allows you to send satnav destinations to the car before you get in, unlock the doors and, in the case of cars with an automatic gearbox, start the engine remotely.
Equipment levels are generous across the range, which follows Volvo's familiar ladder of Momentum, R-Design and Inscription, with 'Pro' levels of each adding extra kit.
A 'First Edition' model, which comes with pretty much everything you could think of, is a launch special, with a £40k price tag in both petrol and diesel flavours, each with all-wheel-drive and an automatic gearbox.
First Edition cars also get a little rubber Swedish flag, poking from the front wing like the red tab on a pair of Levi's; it's a surprisingly pleasing design touch, which Volvo may like to make available on other models.
Prices start at £27,905 for a T3 Momentum manual, and top out £10k later with the £37,605 T5 AWD R-Design automatic. Volvo reckons that the D3 R-Design, from £30,815, will be the most popular variant.
That means it is priced pretty much on a par with the German rivals. None of them, however, manage to be simply as pleasant as the XC40.
Zeitgeist, that idea of being in touch with the spirit of the times, is a German word. No other car type is as zeitgeisty as the small, upmarket SUV.
And it is the Swedes at Volvo, and not the Germans, who are truly in tune with the times we live in.
Volvo XC40 D3 R-Design
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 148bhp, 236lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 121mph, 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 58.9mpg, 127g/km
Car tax: £205 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 30 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested
Volvo has worked out a way of distilling a bunch of highly desirable qualities into its cars. Nice things, like a sense of calm and safety. Attributes we crave in our always-on, hyper-connected world, where Facebook mine your personal data and the Brexit fantasy looms
Volvo XC40 T5 AWD First Edition
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 244bhp, 258lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 140mph, 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 39.8mpg, 166g/km
Car tax: £515 in first year, then £450 annually
Benefit in kind: 34 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested