The verdict: The XC40 is a stylish, fun-to-drive subcompact that packs the utility of a bigger SUV.
Versus the competition: The XC40 offers distinctive looks and competitive luxury and technology — all with more practicality than many luxury subcompacts.
The 2019 XC40, Volvo’s new small SUV, takes aim at urban and younger buyers with a technical, even cute design and impressive attention to detail. It will do battle with established luxury subcompact SUVs like the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class.
The XC40 is no lightweight compared with Volvo’s well-regarded bigger SUVs (except in actual weight): It offers most of the multimedia and safety tech brainpower of the compact XC60 and the mid-size three-row XC90, Cars.com’s Best of 2016 winner. But it comes in a tidier, city-size package that’s almost a foot shorter and priced about $6,000 lower than a comparable XC60.
For this review, I drove the two versions that went on sale first, the T5 Momentum and a sportier T5 R-Design. A fancier top-of-the-line T5 Inscription trim level now has joined the lineup; all three share the same powertrain and all-wheel drive. Due in the summer of 2018 are less expensive T4 versions with front-wheel drive and a less powerful engine, and Volvo says hybrid and battery-electric models are coming down the road. Overall, I found the XC40 to be a stylish, fun-to-drive model that packs the utility of a bigger SUV.
Distinctive, Not Pretentious
The XC40 has a family resemblance to Volvo’s bigger SUVs, particularly in the tall taillights and “Thor’s Hammer” LED daytime running lights. Its upright profile is all SUV, not a dressed-up, lower-slung hatchback like some competitors.
The car riffs on these themes with a taut, original shape and a youthful attitude: It has a concave grille, big upswept back pillars and a “floating” roof offered in contrasting black or white. There’s even a Momentum version that combines the available white contrast roof with white mirror caps and white wheels. That one was a bit too retro-white-go-go-boots for me, but the interesting blue-gray paint that went with it stood out as my favorite.
The R-Design gets a sportier attitude with its own blacked-out grille, a black roof, some gloss-black trim and bigger, 19-inch standard wheels. The Inscription, meanwhile, is a bit more conservative, with no contrast roof, a fancier premium grille and a return to 18-inch standard wheels.
The big, upswept back pillar is a standout design element, though it cuts rear visibility to the point that you really need the available 360-degree camera display and rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking. A subtler touch is the little rubber Swedish flag tag at the corner of the clamshell hood — a nod to Volvo’s heritage, though the XC40 is built in Belgium and Volvo is now owned by China’s Geely.
Overall, the XC40 is a fresh, technical-looking design that Volvo says drew on sources as diverse as street fashion, designer goods, urban architecture and pop culture. While many luxury rivals try hard to look like Mini-Me versions of their bigger, more expensive stablemates, the XC40 stands on its own with a distinctive — but not pretentious — design that fits its small size.
Not Just Fun to Look At
The current T5 versions are all powered by a zippy 248-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard AWD that includes hill start assist and hill descent control. We didn’t drive the upcoming XC40 T4 base model with a 187-hp, turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder and FWD.
Our test vehicles’ 258 pounds-feet of torque came on early and stayed late, providing plenty of scoot around town with very little turbo lag and plenty in reserve for highway passing and on-ramps. The engine is a version of the base four-cylinder from Volvo’s bigger, heavier SUVs, but it shines in this smaller package. Volvo estimates the XC40 will go from zero-to-60 mph in a respectable 6.2 seconds.
The eight-speed automatic’s shifts are not always silky smooth. I was more than willing to forgive that, however, for the way it willingly downshifts to tap more power. The XC40 has five selectable drive modes (Eco, Comfort, Dynamic, Off-Road and Individual) that provide modestly different throttle, steering and transmission response.
My only real nitpick with the powertrain is that it drives better than it sounds — the same complaint we lodge against Volvo’s larger models. The engine is a little buzzy when pushed, and the quiet cabin made it seem even more intrusive. The engine start-stop system is also a little rough in its stops and restarts.
The 248-hp, AWD XC40 has been EPA-rated a decent 23/31/26 mpg city/highway/combined, though it wants premium gasoline. That matches the rating (and thirst for premium gas) of AWD versions of the 2018 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 (23/31/26 mpg), and it beats the ratings for AWD versions of the 2018 BMW X1 xDrive28i (22/31/25 mpg) and 2018 Audi Q3 (20/28/23 mpg). See their EPA ratings compared here.
The XC40 is the first Volvo on the automaker’s new Compact Modular Architecture, so it has its own suspension with struts in the front and a multilink coil-spring suspension in the rear. The R-Design gets sportier tuning, but both models are firm without being harsh, and they’re relatively flat in cornering. Coming in the summer of 2018 is an adaptive suspension option. As a fundamentally FWD design with its weight concentrated forward, the XC40 understeers when cornering hard. Steering is responsive but also lighter than desirable, though that’s less true in Sport mode.
Overall, the XC40 is fun to drive — more so than its small SUV peers (at least the versions that haven’t been tricked up (and priced up) by their brands’ performance divisions, such as Mercedes’ AMG).
Less Elegant Inside, But Still Premium
Inside, the nature-inspired Scandinavian elegance of bigger Volvo SUVs gives way to a funkier design — still Scandinavian, but with patterned metal trim and some color choices you’d more likely see at Ikea than in nature, such as a red leather option or 1970s Lava Orange door panels and footwells. Yes, there is more plastic below your elbow than in a more expensive Volvo, but the effect is still premium thanks to creative design and quality materials in the places you look at and touch most. That ranges from the standard leather seating in all XC40s — unlike most of its rivals — to the original and eco-friendly feltlike material lining the door panels, which is made from 97 percent recycled water bottles. Adding to the premium feel is the fact that the cabin is well-insulated from road and tire noise.
The interior also feels spacious and airy despite the XC40’s 174.2-inch length — 1.6 inches shorter than a Subaru Crosstrek subcompact SUV. A relatively long 106.4-inch wheelbase and tall body combine to create the roominess inside.
The front seats were comfortable and supportive for a long drive, and they include extendable thigh support — no less than I expect from a company known for its seats. The backseat is less satisfying, offering sufficient space for adults only if the front occupant compromises a little. The base cushion is also too low and short for good thigh support, and the non-reclining seatback seemed a bit too vertical for my back.
As with the exterior, the R-Design Interior adds sportier details, including an R-Design steering wheel, pedals and gearshift. Also, the leather seating surfaces have a Nubuck finish. The Inscription, meanwhile, adds tonier details, including an available crystal shift knob and driftwood trim.
Putting the Utility in SUV
One 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. Most striking are the carve-outs reclaiming space from inside the door. The big bins in the front doors are made possible by new-design woofers behind the dash that eliminate the need for large lower-door speakers.
Other details include a removable trash receptacle ahead of the center console storage bin to catch the odd small trash and wrappers that otherwise end up in cupholders, a “phablet”-sized device bin at the front of the console, and card/parking pass holders both to the left of the driver and out of sight above the device bin. The glove box cover has a flip-out hook for a handbag or takeout bag weighing up to 4.5 pounds. There’s even more storage space under both front seats, with an available drawer under the driver’s seat. With all of these spaces available, the cupholders might actually be used for cups.
The cargo area includes 20.7 cubic feet behind the backseat (including an underfloor bin). That’s a lot compared with, for example, the 16.7 cubic feet behind the backseat in an Audi Q3. The XC40’s rear seats fold to create 47.2 cubic feet of space, with a flat floor measuring more than 5 feet long by more than 3 feet wide. A clever rear cargo floor option can be folded to stand up as a divider that includes bag hooks while restraining smaller items close to the liftgate. And in a detail that should be in all SUVs, the retractable cover stores onboard under the floor.
Full-Size Technology and Safety
While the XC40 is a smaller Volvo, its safety and multimedia technology has not been downsized. The standard City Safety system includes low-speed front collision warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian, bicycle and large animal detection. Volvo’s Pilot Assist system, which combines sophisticated adaptive cruise control with lane-centering steering, is available, as is rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking and a 360-degree camera system. The XC40 does not yet have crash-test ratings.
The XC40 also has a configurable 12.3-inch display for the standard instrument panel — a premium touch. Dominating the center of the dashboard and angled slightly toward the driver is the same vertically oriented 9-inch touchscreen as in the XC60, which handles almost all the climate and audio controls, as well as many other vehicle functions. It’s just as sharp and colorful as in the XC60 — and just as distracting to use on the move. Thankfully, there’s a volume knob, but a few more touch-without-looking physical controls would go a long way here.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration is standard, a 4G Wi-Fi hot spot is available, and the XC40 comes with a four-year subscription to Volvo’s connected car and emergency services. The big device bin at the front of the console has 12-volt and USB ports, plus an available wireless charging pad. There’s another USB port on the rear of the console for backseat passengers, and a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo area.
The XC40 also has a smartphone-as-key app that lets the owner authorize friends or family to use the SUV and schedule their use times. With your OK through the Volvo On Call app, they don’t need a key to open and drive the car for a fixed time (and they can’t lose an expensive key fob). When time’s up, the digital key expires.
Competitive Pricing or an All-In Subscription
The T5 Momentum starts at $36,195 with destination, the sportier T5 R-Design is $38,695 and the upscale T5 Inscription is $40,745, all with the more powerful engine and AWD. The coming T4 Momentum entry model, with FWD and less power, will start at $34,195, and other T4 versions will be similarly cheaper. Those prices are competitive with other small luxury SUVs, and each level includes competitive (or better) standard features. Compare features and specifications with similar Mercedes-Benz GLA, BMW X1 and Audi A3 models here.
Also like its luxury rivals, it’s easy to quickly pad the XC40’s sticker price. Both our test cars were well-equipped with options, and the Momentum as-tested totaled $44,315, while the R-Design sticker was $45,935. That pricing, however, is still well under the next size up in luxury SUVs, including Volvo’s XC60. The XC40’s room and features might suffice for a lot of buyers without taking that expensive next step.
In addition to purchase and traditional leasing options, Volvo also offers an all-in subscription route into an XC40. Care by Volvo is a 24-month subscription with no money down and a monthly payment that covers insurance, scheduled service and wear-and-tear repairs, and it gives subscribers the option to switch to a different vehicle after 12 months. You sign up online for a choice between two fixed configurations with select option packages: a T5 Momentum for $600 per month or a T5 R-Design for $700.
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