There were always two phases to Geely’s rescue plan for Volvo: upgrade the models it already had, then launch a bunch of new ones to push it forward.
The XC40 is the first step in the push-it-forward phase and, thankfully for the Sino-Swedish operation, it’s very good. Launching into the premium end of the booming compact SUV segment, the XC40 looks, feels and drives just about right for what it needs to do.
When it arrives in SA in April 2018, it will start life with one four-cylinder petrol engine in the T5 and one four-cylinder diesel engine in the D4, both of which are turbocharged and share the same capacity. Those launch engines will be followed up by a D3 three-cylinder turbodiesel, T3 and T4 petrols, a plug-in hybrid and, eventually, a full battery-electric version.
It’s difficult to see how Volvo’s bet could have been bigger with the XC40. It’s changing the way it builds cars, it’s changing the way it sells cars (with a full smartphone-style subscription service in Europe under consideration in SA) and it has changed the way it designs cars.
It has taken a leaf from Volkswagen’s book, but where the German outfit’s MQB modular architecture is spread across more than a dozen models, Volvo’s CMA architecture makes its debut beneath the XC40. Like the VW system, it locks in fixed engineering between the front axle and the firewall, just ahead of the dashboard, while giving design and production flexibility in every other dimension.
In its petrol-powered form, the XC40 is a beautifully judged piece of engineering, balancing interior comfort, practicality and design demands with the often-conflicting demands from the engineering teams. It’s not quite the same car as a diesel, though, and it feels quite wooden, stoic and dull with the more economical powertrain fitted up front.
However, the T5 petrol is a convincing car. Powered by a 182kW version of the same 2.0l four-cylinder Volvo already uses in the XC90, the S90 and even the new XC60 (coming to SA in mid-2018). The engine should feel lively, too, because at 4,425mm long and weighing 1,684kg, the XC40 gives it the easiest job it’s ever had.
It’s not a motor built for speed, but it still manages to drive through to 100km/h in 6.5 seconds and on to a 230km/h top speed. It’s not really the pace it shows that makes it stand out. It’s the willingness. We drove the D4 diesel first, and the step up in enthusiasm in every part of the petrol-powered car was frankly remarkable. Where the D4 is a nice, solid car in most things it does, the T5 has a real joy in everything it does, in town and out on the open road.
There is a surprising amount of refinement in the way the T5 goes about its work, mixing a reasonably good ride and it feels like it’s happy to dive into corners, too.
Overall, it’s taller and longer inside and out than Jaguar’s E-Pace, but significantly longer than Audi’s standard-bearing Q3 and heading up towards the Q5.
But the real clever touches are inside the car, including top-shelf connectivity, the technology to inductively charge phones and the ability to update the navigation system for free.
In SA, Volvo will deliver the XC40 in two initial trim packages: the Momentum entry-level and the sportier-looking R-Design. Later in 2018 it will add the more luxurious Inscription.
The entry level brings dual-zone climate control, cruise control, a 12.3-inch fully digital instrument cluster, a nine-inch vertical infotainment screen, cruise control, rear parking sensors, automatic windscreen wipers and 18-inch alloys as standard equipment.
R-Design cars build on the Momentum specification and add black gloss inside the cabin, tinted windows, leather for the seats, the steering wheel and the gear knob and can be ordered with 20-inch wheels, adaptive lights and heated seats. The most expensive package adds the powered tailgate, front parking sensors, ambient lighting and other goodies, but asks for yet more money for 19-inch alloys.
The XC40 is not without tech flaws, the most glaring of which is that Carplay and Android Auto are optional, as are inductive charging and the USB slot.
The luggage area isn’t the largest one (460l) touted today, but it is the most practical. The floor is admirably flat, but the optional "Convenience" pack can be z-folded up onto itself, slotting into a notch on its base. That gives it a shorter floor, effectively locking shopping bags or suitcases in place against the rear seats.
There are also useful storage hollows beneath the floor and it is all just easy to use, even pushing the luggage area out to its 1,336l maximum.
The rear seats have a slightly too-flat base, but masses of head room. They also have masses of foot room beneath the front seats and the armrest folds down to be at the same height as the ones on the doors. The only hiccups are that the bottom edge of the door opening is short, so it needs a concerted pivot to get out without kicking the massively thick B-pillar and the waistline is so high that younglings will have trouble seeing out the side windows.
Thought has been given to practicality, without compromising the style Volvo has tried to instill in its third SUV, including huge door pockets, a glovebox with a sturdy flip-out curry hook, big cubby holes beneath the seats and even a lift-out trash bin in the centre console.
The infotainment takes a bit of getting used to, with its touchscreen functionality helping to keep the cabin free of cluttering buttons and its collapsing-tile philosophy user system works well once you get the hang of it. Its navigation system is clean and clear and surprisingly intuitive to fiddle with.
The steering is more communicative in the T5 than the diesel (but then, so is just about everything) and the car corners with an admirably flat body and is solidly predictable in a series of corners. It successfully walks the fine line between being faultlessly predictable in corners, without feeling dull.
With more than 100 pre-orders, Volvo is obviously confident that its XC40 can make an impact in the local market, particularly with pricing from under R500,000 to about R650,000. The new model is a terrific effort and one that shakes up contemporary interior design and adds unexpected dynamic prowess with useful interior space.