Cute-utes, SUVs, crossover utility vehicle, crossover activity vehicle, whatever label you choose to affix to small five-door wagons flooding the market, know that these compact and subcompact vehicles are rapidly eclipsing buyers’ taste for conventional four-door small cars.
And nowhere is this more notable than in the premium/luxury car segments, where this week’s Volvo XC40 demonstrates, again, that the newest small crossovers are very, very good cars, thanks to a little Chinese investment (OK, a lot of Chinese investment) plus some Swedish engineering, combined with evolving consumer expectations.
While Volvo’s sales in America still hover around marginal status (Volvo sold 98,263 cars and crossovers here last year, a 17 percent gain), the brand clearly has defined its path forward with three similar, yet distinct crossovers — XC90, XC60, plus this sub-compact XC40. Volvo’s Polestar electric cars lineup will debut late this year, adding a third dimension to the brand.
Key to this Volvo — as well as the Audi Q3, BMW X1, Jaguar E-Pace, Lexus UX, Mercedes GLA or the Mini Countryman — are what styling cues will motivate shoppers, and how well executed is the interior so that buyers don’t think that because they bought small, they didn’t get cheap.
The XC40 makes great first impressions with some of Volvo’s best exterior lines that effectively mask the crossover’s tiny dimensions — only 174 inches long on a 106-inch wheelbase. Thor’s headlights, which turn with your steering wheel at low speeds, plus the familiar elongated taillamps, quickly say Volvo to observers, but the car’s taut shape and smooth contours suggest a richness absent from several rivals. Add available two-tone paint schemes and the XC40 has some adventuresome appeal.
This is mirrored inside where buyers can get contrasting colors on the carpeting, seats, or door accents, like our ruby-colored seats, while subtle detailing on air-vent outlets, the console, and the instrument panel suggest premium even when some materials do not.
Many of today’s buyers expect a certain sameness in driving characteristics, and to some degree, the level of success achieved by the chassis and powertrain engineers across the manufacturing spectrum indicate that yes, today’s crossovers are very good performers. The Volvo XC40, powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (like many rivals), produces a robust 248 hp with a smooth, solid abundance of torque also on tap. Running through an eight-speed automatic, the Volvo feels quick, agile and supple in its responses to your inputs.
The Volvo’s chassis and its decidedly “small” driving capabilities — tiny U-turns, ease of fitting into small parking spots, great sight lines in city driving — all cement the proposition that this five-door utility wagon is in fact superior to most small cars as a city vehicle. With all-wheel drive, a two-level rear cargo bin behind a power liftgate and the elevated seating position of a crossover, the XC40 simply works better and drives better in the city than a comparable small car.
How is fuel economy? Well, the EPA says 23/32 mpg for front-drive T4 models with a 184-hp engine, one mile per gallon less for AWD T5 models. Three fills produced 26.8, 27.2 and 26.8 mpg for our optioned T5. Warmer weather would help these results.
Buyers are also looking for technology and entertainment if performance is a given and competent. The XC delivers Apple/Android compatibility plus a host of other connectivity apps with its own Wi-Fi setup on the 9-inch touchscreen, while lane-keeping assist, automatic emergency braking and auto-high beams are also standard at the starting price of $34,695. Sportier R-Design trim starts at $37,195 (with orange carpeting), while the top Inscription begins at $39,245 before you start layering options.
Volvo’s Pilot Assist ($900) can deliver certain self-driving performance in traffic, with good signage, road markings and at least some steering wheel contact by the driver, while the center screen offers up a plethora of entertainment options.
Ah yes, the screen. Depending upon your level of tech-savvy-ness, you will love the Volvo’s presentation, or — feel otherwise. The only knob, the only concession to conventional, is a volume knob; every other function is carried out on the Volvo’s screen. Even the owner’s manual is layered into this screen.
Other departures from the norms: the electric shifter must be tapped twice to engage drive or reverse, with park a separate (and tiny) push button. The rear wiper engagement is also clumsy and not a one-touch act like the front wiper control.
The new XC40 is without a doubt a huge step forward over the old 240-wagons. The XC40 is stylish, comfortable and thoroughly modern in ways that the old Volvo under Ford ownership never was.