CARS.COM — Volvo's current SUVs, the XC90 and XC60, are elegant, even Zen, with their Scandinavian design, open-pore wood trim and muted colors. Funky, spunky, even cute have not been words that come to mind — until now, with Volvo's new city-sized SUV, the 2019 Volvo XC40, aimed at bringing in more urban and younger buyers. The Volvo XC40 takes on such established compact rivals as the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class.
The Volvo XC40 is the big SUVs' fun younger cousin. Not that it's a lightweight (except in actual weight): The XC40 packs most of the brainpower — multimedia, safety and driver aid tech — of the XC60 and three-row XC90, Cars.com's Best of 2016 winner. It just offers it in a tidier package almost a foot shorter and about $6,000 cheaper than a comparable XC60.
At a Volvo media preview in the Texas Hill Country, I drove the two models that will be available first, the T5 Momentum and sportier T5 R-Design, and found they pack a lot of standard features into an SUV that's both stylish and fun to drive. More and less expensive versions will be available after the initial launch. (Per company policy, Cars.com pays for its airfare and lodging at such automaker-hosted events.)
The launch models, which will be at dealers "in a few weeks," says Volvo, are pricier trim levels with all-wheel drive and an upgraded 248-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The Momentum starts at $36,195 with destination; the R-Design at $38,695. Both AWD test cars were loaded with options; the Momentum I drove totaled $44,315, while the R-Design sticker was $45,935.
More flavors of XC40 will follow. An XC40 T4 base model with front-wheel drive and a 187-horsepower, turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder joins the lineup this summer, starting at $34,195, which is on target with the base models of rival small luxury SUVs. Also coming is a fancier XC40 Inscription flagship, like the XC60 and XC90, and — down the road, Volvo says — full-electric versions and a hybrid using a recently unveiled new 1.5-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine.
Premium, But Not Pretentious
The XC40 has a family resemblance to Volvo's bigger SUVs, particularly in the taillights and front "Thor's Hammer" LED daytime running lights. Plus, its upright profile says SUV and not dressed-up hatchback like some competitors.
But it riffs on this theme with youthful attitude: its own concave grille, big upswept back pillars and a "floating" roof offered in contrasting black or white. There's even a version with a white roof, white mirror caps and white wheels. It's a fresh design that Volvo says drew on sources as diverse as street fashion and designer goods, urban architecture and pop culture. By comparison, it makes many luxury rivals look a little dated, stuffy or both.
Inside, nature-inspired Scandinavian design of recent new Volvos, with muted colors and open-pore wood trim, gives way to design that's still Scandinavian but less serene, with patterned metal trim and some color choices that you'd see more at Ikea than in nature, such as red leather or 1970s-retro Lava Orange door panels and footwells. Yes, there is more plastic below your elbow than in more expensive Volvos — as you would expect — but not in the creative design and materials for places you look at and touch most. That ranges from the standard leather seating in all XC40s to the original and eco-friendly feltlike material lining the door panels that's made from 97 percent recycled water bottles.
The front seats were comfortable and supportive for a long drive, as you would expect from a company known for its seats. The backseat is less satisfying, offering sufficient space for adults if you compromise a little with the front seat occupants' position. The base cushion is too low and short for good thigh support and a non-reclining seatback is uncomfortably vertical. It's better back there for short drives.
How It Drives
The test vehicles' 248 hp and 258 pounds-feet of torque, which comes full-on early and stays late, provides plenty of scoot in town and on the highway, with next to no turbo lag. It's a version of the base engine in Volvo's bigger, heavier SUVs, but it really shines in this smaller package. Fuel-economy ratings are not yet available, but premium fuel is recommended.
The eight-speed automatic's shifts are positive, though not always silky smooth, but that's forgiven for the way it willingly downshifts to tap more power. The XC40 has selectable drive modes that provide modestly different throttle, steering and transmission response. Coming this summer is an adaptive suspension option with adjustable-firmness ride quality that will add to that variation.
My only real nit with the powertrain is that it drives better than it sounds. When pushed, the engine is a little buzzy. The cabin is well-insulated from road noise, which made it seem even more intrusive. And the start-stop system also is a little rough in its stops and restarts.
The XC40 is the first Volvo on the company's new Compact Modular Architecture, a different platform than the one that underpins the XC60 and XC90, and has its own suspension design, making it more a cousin than a sibling to them, says Volvo. The XC40 uses struts in the front and a multilink and coil suspension in the rear. The R-Design gives the setup a sportier tuning, but both models were firm without being harsh and relatively flat in cornering.
As a front-drive design with the weight concentrated forward, the XC40 understeers when pushed. The steering was responsive but light (less so in Sport mode). A bit more weight and feedback would allow the driver to feel more confident in the corners.
But these criticisms are at the margins, particularly for an SUV. Overall, the XC40 is fun to drive and notably more so than some of its small SUV peers.
Putting the Utility in SUV
A key way Volvo is trying to set the XC40 apart from rivals, most of which have limited cabin storage, is with one of the most practical interiors this side of a minivan. The idea is to help organize the clutter of life in the car.
Most striking are the panels with carve-outs reclaiming space from inside the door. The big bins that run the length of the front doors were made possible by new-design subwoofers behind the dash just below the windshield that eliminated the need for lower-door speakers. Other details include a removable trash receptacle ahead of the console storage bin to catch the odd small trash and wrappers that end up in the cupholders. A "phablet"-sized device bin at the front of the console has media and power ports and an available wireless charging pad for the supersized class of new phones that approach tablet-sized. There are card holders in the dash to the left of the driver and out of sight above the device bin. The glove box cover has a flip-out hook on which to hang your takeout bag or purse. And there is more storage space under both front seats.
The cargo area in the XC40 includes more than 20.7 cubic feet behind the backseat (including an underfloor bin), which is a lot for this class. The cargo floor can be folded to stand up as a divider (including bag hooks) to sort and restrain smaller cargo. And in a detail that should be a federal rule for SUVs, the cargo cover stores on board under the floor when you need it out of the way.
Full-Size Technology and Safety
While the XC40 is a smaller vehicle with a smaller price, the safety and multimedia technology have not been downsized. The XC40 comes standard with Volvo's City Safety system that includes a low-speed front collision warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian, bicycle and large animal detection. Volvo's Pilot Assist system, with a sophisticated adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering, is available, as is a rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking and a 360-degree camera.
The XC40 also has a 12.3-inch screen for the standard configurable instrument display. And dominating the center of the dashboard is the same 9-inch vertical multimedia display as in the XC60 that handles almost all of the climate and audio controls. It's just as sharp and colorful — and just as distracting to use on the move. The steps required for common functions sometimes took my eyes off the road more than I'd like. Thankfully, there is a volume knob, but a few more physical controls would go a long way here.
Buy, Lease or Just Hang Out With It
Volvo is offering a sort of "friends with benefits" way to get into an XC40 without the more serious commitment of buying or leasing. Citing the growth of the subscription economy, from cell phones to Netflix to Amazon, it has created Care by Volvo. It's a 24-month car subscription with no money down and an all-in monthly payment that covers insurance, scheduled service and wear-and-tear repairs, plus it gives subscribers the option to switch to a different vehicle after 12 months.
You sign up online and pick up your XC40s at a Volvo dealer. There are two configurations with select options offered: A T5 Momentum for $600 per month or a T5 R-Design for $700.
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