Volvo XC40: The safe option has never looked so cool
Volvo's stylish XC40 is a truly class-leading small SUV, says William Scholes
VOLVO is at the top of its game these days. In fact, it may well be the most at-the-top-of-its-game car-maker of them all right now, writes William Scholes.
It’s certainly doing a lot of things right, and is being rewarded with bumper sales.
Last year, it sold more cars than it had managed in any year since 1990, with 56,208 new Volvos finding homes in a shrinking UK market.
That was 12 per cent up on the marque’s 2018 performance in Britain and Northern Ireland and echoed its worldwide fortunes, where 2019’s sales were up almost 10 per cent to a record 705,452.
It isn’t hard to explain Volvo’s upward trajectory to middle class catnip.
For a start, Volvo offers the most coherent and consistent range of any of the premium manufacturers.
Wisely, it has majored on prioritising comfort, refinement and, of course, safety, which are all qualities that increasingly chime with the target audience.
And at a time when some rivals - particularly the German brands - give the overwhelming impression of having forgotten how to design elegant, desirable vehicles, Volvo is a paragon of discipline, subtlety and classiness.
The Swedish company - owned since 2010 by Chinese car-maker Geely - was the first to offer a plug-in hybrid version of each model in its range.
It is also incentivising owners to actually plug in their cars - and therefore maximise their zero-emission driving - by offering them a year’s worth of free electricity to recharge their hybrid’s batteries.
A pure electric XC40 arrives later this year, with other battery Volvos to follow.
Consolidating Volvo’s own-the-zeitgeist status is the fact that it makes some of the best SUVs money can buy.
Regardless of their merits and demerits, this is especially handy for Volvo commercially when 40 per cent of the new cars bought in Europe today are SUVs...
It will come as no surprise, then, to discover that it is SUVs that are Volvo’s best-selling models today, rather than the boxy estates which once defined the brand.
The XC60 is the big seller globally but in the UK the XC40, the smallest offering in Volvo’s line-up, is the most popular.
In this column’s view, its only serious rival as a plush junior SUV is the Range Rover Evoque; the Volvo is better though, as a recent week spent with the XC40 confirmed.
If serious and regular off-roading is high on your list of priorities then it’s fair to say that the Evoque may advance its case more persuasively. A Subaru Forester would be better, though.
But, and let us be honest, junior SUVs are little different from their larger brethren in that they rarely stray too far from metalled roads.
And who really wants to go mud-plugging in their posh £35k-plus SUV? In reality, four-wheel-drive is far more likely to be of use in slippery road conditions.
In these circumstances the all-wheel-drive system that Volvo offers on the XC40 is going to be every bit as effective as that fitted to the Range Rover. It’s also worth pointing out that the XC40 - like other all-wheel-drive Volvo models - is a very capable and effective off-roader in its own right.
Owners are more likely to appreciate the XC40’s excellent refinement and comfort. It’s not the sharpest handling SUV of this size, with the Range Rover being a slightly more satisfying steer, though both trail Mazda's effervescent CX-5.
But the Volvo's laidback demeanour gives it an appeal of its own. The XC40 has many of the same qualities as its larger siblings, particular an ability to sooth and calm. It relaxes and cossets the driver and their passengers. These, it seems to me, are a perfectly admirable set of characteristics for a family car.
The XC40 has many of the same qualities as its larger siblings, particular an ability to sooth and calm - perfectly admirable characteristics for a family car
An airy cabin of superior quality adds lustre to the XC40's upmarket credentials. It's a thoughtfully designed space, too - the little compartment between the front seats which can act as a litter bin and the door pockets deep enough to hold a laptop typify how well thought out the car has been from the point of view of everyday liveability.
The seating position is high, making the XC40 feel more convincingly SUV than rivals as well as more substantial.
The boot, for me, is another plus point. Its volume of 460 litres, or 1,336 litres if you drop the seats, is bettered by some of the competition but the Volvo strikes back with its practical flat floor, straight sides and assorted hooks and flaps.
The XC40 sports the same large portrait-orientated touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard, from where you can control the heater, sat-nav, audio sources, phone and so on. Many of the functions you use most often are duplicated on the steering wheel's buttons.
I tend to prefer old fashioned buttons and knobs to work things, but the Volvo set-up is among the best of this sort. It is more intuitive than most of its ilk.
A broad range includes petrol, diesel, plug-in hybrid and battery power, front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive, and six-speed manual, seven-speed double-clutch and eight-speed automatic gearboxes.
Trim levels are similarly comprehensive, coming in Volvo's familiar Momentum, R-Design and Inscription flavours, each of which can be further enhanced by upgrading to a Pro form.
Volvo reckons half of XC40s will be R-Design models, with the 187bhp petrol T4 being the most popular engine.
This was the unit fitted to the test car, which arrived in Momentum Pro trim and was paired with the automatic gearbox.
There are more characterful engines but the 2.0-litre engine is smooth and unobtrusive, which is ideal for this type of vehicle.
Volvo has pledged that no-one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo from this year onwards - its 'Vision 2020' plan - and thus the XC40 is loaded with safety kit as standard.
Safety has, of course, been a cornerstone of Volvo for decades. The XC40 even looks strong, in a Tonka truck-tough kind of way
This includes Volvo's 'city safety' suite, which uses a radar and camera to scan ahead of the car and detect other cars, pedestrians, cyclists and large animals. If the car thinks a collision is likely and the driver fails to react, it will apply maximum braking force.
'Oncoming lane mitigation', designed to prevent head-on collisions, and 'run-off road mitigation' and 'run-off road protection', which is designed to keep you on the road and, if things do go wrong, to do things like tighten the seatbelts to keep occupants safe.
To this can be added a bunch of optional equipment, such as a cross-traffic alert system which uses a rear-facing radar to warn of a collision when reversing from a parking space.
The XC40 can also be had with Volvo's high-tech 'pilot assist' system, which it describes as a "stepping stone towards fully autonomous driving".
Its tricks include assisting with the steering, throttle and brakes at speeds of up to 80mph, and it is smart enough to accelerate and brake with the flow of traffic, down to a standstill.
Safety has, of course, been a cornerstone of Volvo for decades. The XC40 even looks strong, in a Tonka truck-tough kind of way.
There's a sense of solidity and substance to the Volvo, too. Other common sense virtues of practicality, comfort and luxury bolster the XC40's status as a truly class-leading family car.
Volvo has managed to distil into a small SUV package the essence that makes the XC60 and XC90 so desirable. The safe option has never looked so cool.
AT A GLANCE
Volvo XC40 T4 Momentum Pro
Price: £33,385. As tested: £38,210. Options included ‘Xenium’ pack with panoramic sunroof, 360-degree surround view parking camera and park assist with automatic parallel and perpendicular parking, £1,600; ‘Intellisafe Surround’ pack with blind spot information system with steer assist, cross traffic assist with autobrake and rear collision mitigation, £600; Harman Kardon premium audio system £550; smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, £300; wireless phone charging, £175; 19-inch alloy wheels, £525; dark tinted windows, £350; spare wheel and jack, £150; metallic paint, £575
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 187bhp, 221lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 130mph, 0-60mph in 8.1 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 33.6mpg-36.6mpg (WLTP combined); 34.6mpg (real world); 154g/km
Car tax: £530 in first year, then £145 annually
Benefit in kind: 34 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (97/87/71/76), 2018