Perhaps no automaker’s transformation over the past five years has been quite so dramatic as that undergone by Volvo.
Reinvigorated by the deep pockets and strategic investments of parent company Geely, the former Swedish safety-niks have spun the brand on its axis to place design and style on an even plane with airbags and moose tests. The arrival of the 2019 Volvo XC40 — the company’s first shot at a pint-size people mover — bookends an SUV strategy that began with the XC90 by offering first-time luxury buyers both something more and something less at the same time.
Whereas the dominant trend in European sedan and crossover planning has been to slice a similarly shaped sausage into three to four specific lengths intended to be palatable to customers at each end of the pricing spectrum, Volvo has instead elected to walk a different, more extroverted path with the XC40. It’s a bold move, especially given the praise that has been lauded on its larger XC60 and XC90 siblings, but for a nameplate that needs to stand out in a sea of same, it was the right decision to make.
Look At Me, Ma
This is not to say that the Volvo XC40 doesn’t wear its Scandinavian heritage proudly, but rather that its chunkier and visually busier sheet metal stands in contrast to the smoother lines of its predecessors. Each crease in the XC40’s panels is that much sharper, every body kink more acute, and even its tail lights cut in for a distinct horizontal flourish that is lacking in the 60 or 90. With dark plastic moldings along the rocker panels and front and rear bumpers, combined with the availability of a color-contrasting roof (white or black), this smallest Volvo SUV succeeds with an unexpected brashness that’s often lacking in the segment.
This individualistic streak continues on into the cabin, where the XC40 features a more subdued interpretation of the lavish interior elements found on Volvo’s pricier products. This is not to say that the smaller ‘ute is drab or dull once you open the doors, but rather that the focus has been on maximizing storage space — there are numerous cubbies, drawers, hooks, and even a trash bin scattered throughout the entire vehicle — while preserving a reasonable price point in terms of materials and features. Just under 60 cubic feet (1,628 liters) of total space with the rear seats folded forward places the crossover in roughly the same neighborhood as most other small crossovers.
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Volvo’s fancy, albeit at times slow-to-react (and definitely busy) touchscreen interface dominates a dashboard that is framed by elegant vertical air vents that could have been lifted from the tail fins of a late-1950s American turnpike cruiser, paired with the standard corporate gauge cluster and a simplified set of switchgear serving as the primary touchpoints for the driver. You won’t find any fancy spinning chrome log or console-mounted on/off switch in the XC40, but I didn’t miss either during my time with the vehicle.
All-Turbo, All-Wheel Drive
Where you live will determine what engine choices you’ll have under the hood of the 2019 Volvo XC40. While diesel power remains marooned on the other side of the Atlantic, North American buyers will be able to select from a pair of Drive-E turbocharged four-cylinder engines. The XC40 T4 will feature 185 horsepower and be offered exclusively in front-wheel-drive trim, while the T5 gets a 248-horsepower unit paired with all-wheel drive (only the T5 AWD will come to Canada). An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard across the board.
Given that the less-mighty motor is not set to debut until summer of 2019, I spent all of my time piloting the T5 AWD version of the Volvo SUV. With 258 lb-ft of torque on tap from its 2.0-liter motor, Volvo is calling the XC40 the “most powerful entry-level luxury crossover,” and the engineering team behind the vehicle’s chassis explained that the goal was to create a more engaging driving experience than what was on offer from the larger XC60.
The roads encircling the Catalan port city of Barcelona provided the perfect opportunity to discover just how nimble the XC40’s platform truly was. Surrounded on either side by sandy hills tilled to grow the ground-hugging vineyards that produce Spain’s internationally famous vintages, there were stretches that narrowed to a single lane yet somehow managed to accommodate robust two-way traffic at speeds that would qualify you for a professional try-out in World Rally Championship competition.
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Although not as smooth-sounding as the supercharged+turbocharged Drive-E four-bangers in the family, the 2.0-liter provided more than enough acceleration to surge up steeper grades as well as merge onto the notoriously chaotic highways leading back from the mountains and into the city center. Traction management from the all-wheel-drive system was completely transparent, and the autobox performed admirably in both Comfort and Dynamic (read: Sport) vehicle drive modes, albeit with few thrills to be had when using the paddle shifters pasted to the back of the steering wheel. Driven within its limits, the XC40 was a pleasant-enough handler and providing you don’t push hard enough to jostle anyone riding in the second-row seats, you’ll be unlikely to find the edges of its capabilities on an open road.
As good as the 2019 Volvo XC40 is to drive, and as practical as its creative cabin cues happen to be, a big part of the SUV’s success will be linked to how attractively packaged it is in terms of features and pricing. With well-established rivals like the BMW X1, the Audi Q3, and to a lesser extent the Mercedes-Benz GLA having already defined the boundaries the European wing of entry-level luxury crossover segment, the $33,200 starting price for the XC40 T4 competes head-to-head with, rather than undercuts, customer expectations on value (Canadian shoppers face a steeper T5-only $39,500 opening bid).
Of course, no one drives home in a barebones premium CUV, which means that most transactions will fall closer to the top-tier T5 R-Design model’s $38k tag ($43,700 in Canada), especially during the initial six-month period before the T4 becomes available. Features such as Volvo’s suite of active safety gear (lane-keeping assistance, Pilot Assist semi-autonomous cruise control, City Safety automatic braking to avoid pedestrians and large animals) are standard with all T5 models, as is a full leather interior and the previously mentioned touchscreen infotainment system. Delving further into the options list reveals that the XC40 — which can be had with items such as heated wiper blades, parking assistance, full LED lighting, and navigation — is able to match up with its German competitors in almost every important category.
The Verdict: 2019 Volvo XC40 Review and First Drive
Full-size SUVs like the XC90 have ample profit margins built into their lofty window stickers, but smaller fare such as the XC40 typically relies more on volume to keep the assembly lines churning. Despite not being priced low enough to engage potential newcomers to the brand, Volvo is hoping that its stylish take on easy-to-park urban uber-mobility will trump the flashier badges affixed to blander fare. There’s certainly enough substance behind the dazzle to seal the deal in the T5 after a test drive.
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