Yes, it's yet another mid-size premium SUV/crossover, but the new Volvo XC40 has some nice touches, is pleasant to drive and it sees the debut of a new way of buying cars...
In the metal
I think most will agree that the XC40 is a terrific looking car. Volvo's designers have stuck closely to the template laid down by the original concept model and while you could accuse it of looking, from some angles, a little narrow and upright, the XC40's blocky, chunky styling really does prove itself very appealing. Apparently, the idea was to make it look less like a down-sized copy of the Volvo XC60 and XC90, and yes there are some unique small details (headlight shape, grille, that kicked-up line at the back), but for the most part there's no mistaking from which family the XC40 hails. It's a little colour sensitive (blue with a black roof seems to work well, though), but hard not to like.
Even easier to like is the interior. There's a lot lifted from the XC60 inside, which is no bad thing, and our Momentum-spec test car came with the big 'Sensus' touchscreen in the centre of the dash (it remains the best in the business) plus the 12-3-inch digital dials pack. Have a look around and you'll find some plastics that are a distinct step down from those of a larger Volvo, but for the most part all feels good and is well-constructed, along with the obligatory mention of just how wonderfully comfy the seats are.
What makes the XC40's cabin really stand out, though, is the level of thought and attention to detail that has gone into it. The door pockets are huge (able to swallow a 15-inch laptop and a big bottle of water), which means that the stereo speakers for the brilliant Harmon-Kardon sound system have had to move. They're now higher up on the door, backed up by a 'woofer' speaker on top of the dash, through which Volvo has routed the air conditioning ducts for the windscreen. Clever. There's also a small rubbish bin in the centre console, complete with spring-loaded lid, and space in front of the gear shifter for an iPad.
Rear seat space is fine, but only fine, and there's realistically not enough width for three adults (nor three booster seats) back there. The boot is also fine, but no more - 460 litres is bang on the class average, and hardly impressive when you consider how much more a compact estate will take, but at least Volvo has maximised practicality with a moving, flipping, floor that allows you to section off separate areas of the boot, and there are more hooks than at a Peter Pan convention.
Underneath all of this, you'll find Volvo's new CMA, or Common Modular Architecture, chassis. It's the smaller, cheaper alternative to the larger SPA (Scalable Product Architecture, which you'll find under the XC60, XC90, V90 and S90) and has been developed along with Volvo's Chinese owner, Geely.
The critical thing here is to make sure that you only drive the XC40 in Dynamic mode. Leave it in Comfort or Eco and the steering just goes too light, too wispy and too far from communicating what's happening at the tyre level for comfort. It's so light that you find yourself turning too sharply into corners, and while the CMA's McPherson-strut front suspension reacts briskly, that steering lightness makes it all feel a bit too nervous.
Go for Dynamic mode though, and while the steering doesn't become any more talkative, it does weight up rather nicely, so that the steering weight, suspension reaction and turning speed all now mesh harmoniously. That done, the XC40 is really rather pleasant to drive. The new platform may have been engineered to be more affordable for Volvo to use for smaller models, but it doesn't feel cheap in any way. Riding on 18-inch alloys, all is calm and unperturbed over what lumps and bumps we could find (Spanish roads are as ever too smooth and well-laid to provide much data as to how a car will react on Irish tarmac), and while you'd never call the XC40 a big hot hatch (not even as the 237hp T5 turbocharged petrol version we also briefly tried, but which isn't coming to Ireland), it's not bad at all.
In fact, even in Dynamic mode, the overall impression is of a very languid car. It likes to be driven relatively gently, dipping into the torque reserves of that 2.0-litre diesel D4 engine and not bothering too much about trying to be a back-road hooligan. Well, it is a Volvo after all.
As ever, that D4 engine is roundly impressive, even if it has ceded the refinement crown it once wore back to Audi. Torque is healthy, at 400Nm, but a little peaky (it starts to fade after just 2,500rpm) so you tend to use small throttle inputs and let the eight-speed automatic gearbox take the strain. It actually feels a lot better-suited to the diesel in this respect than the petrol engine.
Basically, the XC40 does what Volvos down through the years have always done - it provides a relaxed, enjoyable driving experience that never especially excites, but which is hugely satisfying. As long as you don't try and drive it like you stole it, you should get on marvellously.
What you get for your money
At the moment, the XC40 is a bit pricey. A T3 Momentum model, using the new 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol 156hp engine and which doesn't arrive until March of next year, starts at €38,900. Now, it's very well-equipped, and that does put the XC40 at the lower end of the premium SUV price bracket when compared to the likes of a BMW X1 or Jaguar E-Pace, but it still feels a bit steep to us for what is actually quite a small car. Certainly it's no bargain. Next year, a lower-spec Kinetic version will be launched, which will bring that entry price down another notch and which should (TBC) get to keep the big touch screen, if not the digital dials. Where the XC40 really scores is in its safety tech (because of course it does). City Safety Braking can detect both pedestrians and cyclists, and there's the new active safety steering system, taken from the XC60, which can actually swerve the car out of danger in a dire emergency. Considering that many families are now starting to buy cars in this class, that's a big positive.
The XC40 will also be the first Volvo that you can (not) buy on the new Care By Volvo system. This is basically like a mobile phone subscription - instead of a deposit and a PCP package, you pay a single monthly fee, which covers the cost of the car, insurance, servicing, motor tax and more. It's due to be piloted in Ireland from the end of 2018, but there are still a lot of details to be ironed out (not least insurance, which is always an issue in Ireland). The ballpark monthly payment across Europe is €680 per month over two years, but Irish costs are likely to be different, if not necessarily higher.
While it's easy to be grumpy about small SUVs, given the fact that they're generally quite expensive and nowhere near as practical as you think they're going to be, it's very hard not to like the Volvo XC40. It's genuinely good looking, perfectly pleasant to drive, has a lovely, well-thought-out and relaxing interior, good quality and tolerable levels of practicality. Unless we're very much mistaken, this will shortly become Volvo's best-selling model, and possibly deservedly so.