XC40 – a worthy Car of the Year!

Volvo SUV family - with the new XC40 on the right
Volvo SUV family - with the new XC40 on the right

What Car” Car of the Year 2018, European Car of the Year 2018 and Autocar “Game Changer”, the list of awards dished out to Volvo’s XC40 compact SUV just keep on coming, despite the presence in the new car marketplace of many other apparently credible alternatives, such as the Jaguar E Pace.

Yet even with the huge strides forward taken by Volvo as they have rejuvenated their model range under the ownership of Chinese giant Geely, can the XC40 really be that good?

We set out to find out…………

The Volvo XC40 - a "tough little robot"

The Volvo XC40 – a “tough little robot”

First impressions of the XC40 from the outside are that classifying the beast as a compact SUV is misleading, for it appears far from compact. The tape measure tells no lies, however: the XC40 really does occupy almost no more road space than a VW Golf. Its imposing road presence results from its commanding height, which is noticeably greater than many, indeed most, of its competitors. Its young British designer, Ian Kettle, summed up his creation up as looking like a tough little robot, and his description captures the essence of the design admirably. At first sight, it may not be the most handsome of motors, but it certainly wears an air of robustness that makes you feel that it would take a stint or two of off-roading in its stride quite happily. Indeed, in terms of that bluff, functional appearance, it brings to mind the much-lamented Skoda Yeti, albeit far more stylish. Indeed, the XC40 has just helped Volvo to yet another award, this time Car Buyer’s “most stylish manufacturer”!

Everything seems well screwed together

Detail inspection of the outside shows everything to be well screwed together, with tight panel gaps everywhere. One notable exception to this was on the early launch demo cars where the fuel filler flap on each car was noticeably misaligned in its aperture, however, Volvo fixed this one quickly and the flap is perfectly aligned on every customer cars we have seen.

Mention of this minor quality blip calls to mind one of the very first magazine reviewers, who seemed determined to find fault with the car, finally making a big thing of a slight misalignment of a piece of dashboard trim. Again, however, production cars show no sign of this and the trim is perfectly matched to its neighbour. In fact, early build quality issues in the XC40 seem to be very few and far between, judging by the positive feedback to a query we raised to check this on the very active independent XC40 forum, with over 500 members at the last count.

Thors Hammer headlights - big and bold

Thors Hammer headlights – big and bold

Volvo make a big thing of their “Thors Hammer” signature daylight running lights as a distinctive styling feature – although perhaps quite so distinctive since Audi have now pinched a similar appearance for their A5 front lights. One unexpected feature of the Thors Hammer lights, though, is that they make very prominent front indicators: given how ensuring good indicator visibility seems to have been overlooked in the styling of many new cars, this is extremely welcome, although knowing Volvo’s determination to ensure safety, is highly unlikely to be accidental.

And speaking of safety, the list of safety features available for the XC40 is extremely comprehensive, if not unique. Not only that, but one of the great things about the XC40 is that almost all the safety kit is standard fit on even the entry-level models, unlike most of the competition who charge a sizeable premium for many of these features.

Before we get on to how well this safety kit works, or how intrusive it is, let’s take a look at the interior. This has been described typically as “Scandi cool”, and indeed it is clean and uncluttered, although arguably no more so than say most Audi offerings. There are a few unusual touches, however, such as the tiny Swedish flags stitched into the edges of the front seats, and the big portrait-format centre display screen, about which more anon. Much has been made of the revolutionary way in which Volvo have dispensed with the sound system speakers which normally occupy the front of the doors, in theory freeing up more space for bigger door pockets. In practice, though, the space gain was a bit of a disappointment, for the door pockets don’t seem particularly big, indeed the current VW Golf door pockets, for example, will easily hold bigger drinks bottles. Volvo claims lots of storage space inside, and indeed the box below the centre armrest is pretty cavernous, aided by the useful if possibly somewhat gimmicky removable centre rubbish bin.

The XC40's drawer under the drivers seat: great in theory, in practice too small to be much use!

The XC40’s drawer under the drivers seat: great in theory, in practice too small to be much use!

Mind you, that centre stowage bin needs to be cavernous, because the glove box is tiny, no doubt the end result of the speakers being relocated from the doors into the facia. And the less said about the under-seat drawer, the better. Try as we might, we couldn’t find anything shallow enough to fit in it, bar a mobile phone which once in the drawer could only be extracted with extreme difficulty due to the limited opening of the said drawer. And, yes, there are useful touches such as the fold out “takeaway hook” which pops out of the glovebox when required and has a nifty load-limiting feature which prevents it breaking off if overloaded. Yet how often is such a feature really needed by most of us?

Somewhat disappointing storage space aside, the cabin is beautifully finished, and absolutely on a par with the best of the German premium brands, and probably beats them with the seating, which is in best Volvo tradition superbly comfortable and supportive, aided on many variants by adjustable lumbar and thigh supports. Trim materials seem of excellent quality, and it is great to see that the door armrests are finished in very pleasant to touch soft-grip and almost leather-like plastic unlike many cars with cloth-covered armrests which soon become grubby.

Space inside the cabin is truly impressive in a car of such modest overall length, with lots of legroom for rear seat passengers even with the front seats adjusted well backwards.

Moving into the boot, this is usefully squared-off, with little wheel arch intrusion to spoil the traditional Volvo load-lugger capability, which is aided by the rear seats folding to give a completely flat floor. There’s also a second storage area under the floor, which Volvo has cleverly shaped to take the parcels shelf when it’s removed from its normal luggage-covering position. On top-of-the-range models, the boot floor folds in such a way that it presents a couple of hooks on which to hang your shopping bags. Again, an interesting idea, but possibly one which will see very little if any use for most of us. The boot is a decent size, too, with a useful width of just over 1 metre, although it is fairly shallow. The rear seats fold to provide a fully flat floor, unlike many cars, and impressively we managed to swallow several 2.4-metre fence posts inside the car following a trip to the local timber merchants.

Sensus 9″ portrait-format centre touchscreen

The XC40's Navigation screen in full-size format

The XC40’s Navigation screen in full-size format

And that big portrait-format centre screen, dubbed Sensus, which Volvo is adopting across their product range? Well, it replaces almost all of the various switches which are normally spread around the dashboard of the average car, enhancing the clean uncluttered ambience of the interior. Access to these functions is by scrolling and swiping, iPad-style, which sounds simple, but is not so easy when on the move. Indeed, this has been a criticism of many reviewers, although they have missed a couple of key facts which become clear only after living with the Sensus system for some time. Firstly, the various functions are grouped fairly logically into pages, so those requiring the most screen prods and swipes are those only needed initially to set up the car to your requirements. Other functions which are needed more frequently can be reached by simpler actions. Most fundamentally, though, the voice recognition system of the XC40 is excellent and can be used to control a whole range of things, from setting the temperature of the heating system to lecting sat-nav destinations. Once you get used to this, the need for most touch screen actions is neatly avoided.

Despite all that, a couple of features of the Sensus system are a little disappointing. The navigation map does not make the best use of the excellent pin-sharp resolution of the 9″ display screen, with the roads appearing unnecessarily wide and hence limiting the amount of information which can be shown on screen – Volvo needs to take a lesson from VW in how to make a great map display. In fairness, the nav map can easily be configured to appear in the centre of the 12.3″ drivers display panel, either in addition to or instead of the Sensus display. This display is so effective that in fact, it renders the Sensus centre screen map display almost superfluous.

 

.........and the reduced size alternative: still entirely useable.

………and the reduced size alternative: still entirely useable.

The map display on the Sensus screen can be displayed at two different sizes at the touch of the screen: medium – but still very legible – which allows the screen to be shared with a range of other information, or full-size, taking up almost all of the 9″ Sensus screen. Beware, though, that with the large map display, sideways-swiping to access other functions is not possible, the map size must be shrunk first. Hopefully, Volvo will address this need for a double operation in a subsequent software update.

More frustrating is the challenge of finding and playing your stored music, which relies on the material being streamed or connected by USB, as no suitable hard or even CD drive is provided. Access to your music is not made easier by the proliferation of ways in which the car can be connected, such as a Bluetooth, USB cable, WiFi and Apple CarPlay / Android Auto. Not all of these perform identical functions or are necessarily compatible with each other. For example, the extremely useful Real-Time Traffic Information can only be accessed via Bluetooth or WiFi, however, if you want to use Apple CarPlay, say, Bluetooth is disabled. Perseverance will however eventually find a suitable combination which fits your needs, probably without forking out on a dedicated data SIM for the car, which is yet another connectivity option, albeit probably unnecessary for anyone who has a healthy monthly data allowance on their mobile.

Driving the XC40 is where the car really shines. We expected that lofty height coupled with relatively narrow width could be expected to result in a rather unpleasant ride, with the car wallowing around corners. Yet the suspension performs the difficult balance of cornering remarkably smoothly and wallow-free whilst at the same time soaking up the worst of the terrible road surfaces which are now the norm in the UK. Coupled with extremely low noise levels, this makes the XC40 an extremely comfortable and refined vehicle in which to cover long distances and on any types of road. Our car rode on 19” wheels, unusually however other owners report equally good ride on the optional 20” wheels.

Fuel consumption is a bit disappointing…..

Fuel consumption is a bit disappointing, though. Although the 248bhp T5 claims 39mpg measured to the discredited EU NEDC Combined cycle, we struggled to beat 33mpg, and that only on motorway cruising. Town driving soon sees that drop to closer to 30mpg. Interestingly, the figures we achieved are not a million miles away from Volvo’s own numbers when they tested the XC40 to the new WLTP test protocol of 31-34mpg. The T4 diesel also apparently falls some way short of its claimed fuel consumption, according to internet reports. However, if fuel economy is really important to you, a 1.5 litre 3 cylinder T3 petrol engine has also been announced, although at this time it’s only available matched to a manual gearbox. A hybrid model is also in the pipeline and could give both economy and performance.

A dinky little gearlever: criticised by some but I love it!

A dinky little gearlever: criticised by some but I love it!

Talking of gearboxes, some press pundits have criticised the auto box shifter, which unusually needs a couple of pushes to select either drive or reverse from rest. This is yet another of Volvo’s little safety features, ensuring that you really do want to select that gear, aiming to avoid the sort of accident which results from the driver inadvertently moving the lever the wrong way. In truth, you soon get used to this double-tap procedure, aided by the selector movement being delightfully short and positive. And speaking as one who has been involved in the investigation of a number of such “unintended acceleration” accidents, anything which reduces their likelihood can only be, in my humble opinion, a good thing.

All the safety features sit quietly in the background

Which brings me on to the raft of safety features mentioned earlier. Foremost of these is probably the “City Safety” suite, which aims to prevent or at least mitigate impact with other vehicles and road users. Initial impressions were that this was a touch over-sensitive as a couple of times the audible and visual alarm was triggered by vehicles parked in lay-bys. However, no further such incidents took place as we got more familiar with the car, so were, we believe, caused by inexperience. Volvo claims the system to be sensitive enough to respond to cyclists and pedestrians, and it certainly demonstrated how well this works when on one journey a cyclist performed a kamikaze swerve into our path a few metres in front of us!

The Blind Spot detection system is useful, with big orange warnings appearing in the door mirrors to give plenty of warning of the approach of another vehicle. Against this, the door mirrors are set well back on the doors, which is great for ensuring good vision either side of the windscreen pillars, but does mean that the mirrors can be at the limits of the drivers’ peripheral vision.

Traffic Sign recognition is becoming increasingly available on a number of cars, and is extremely useful, in particular on unfamiliar roads. The relevant speed limit and other signs are displayed prominently in the drivers’ display panel, but the Volvo system goes one further, by linking a speed limiter to the Traffic Sign display, ensuring that, if required, you can never exceed the prevailing speed limit. This can, of course, be overcome by a hard push on the accelerator if necessary.

The XC40 can be specified with Volvo’s semi-autonomous Pilot Assist system. This is selected easily via one of the steering wheel buttons and works well on motorways or dual carriageways with sweeping curves, and the sensation of the car faithfully tracking around the curves at the set speed is uncanny. Sensibly, Volvo don’t advise the use of Pilot Assist on other types of road, and we found that it was much less smooth on tighter curves, with the car cornering in a series of threepenny-bit (or these days pound coin) steps.

These are just a handful of the many safety features on the Volvo XC40, and it is reassuring to reflect that they are sitting there quietly in the background ready to protect you and yours in the event of a mishap.

So, summing up, we felt the XC40 is well worthy of the awards it has gained, and a serious player in the smaller premium SUV category. It’s not perfect, although most of the niggles centre around the Sensus system functionality. However, they are by no means showstoppers, and doubtless Volvo will be introducing software updates based on user feedback in due course. They certainly should not put you off considering this very impressive piece of Swedish engineering. Indeed, so highly did we rate the XC40 that we bought one!

Volvo XC40, shown here in Bursting Blue

Volvo XC40, shown here in Bursting Blue

Interested? Find out more on Volvo’s website here: https://www.volvocars.com/uk/cars/new-models/xc40

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