Have your cake and eat it too

by William Clavey . Dec 07 2018

The subcompact luxury SUV segment reminds me of carrot cake. Nobody is reinventing anything, but rather recycling an old idea presented in a better-looking shape. If you’re going to sell carrot cake, you’d better have a solid recipe if you plan on outselling your competition.

Volvo, with its XC40, has understood that in order to stand out in such a crowded segment, adding more carrots just won’t cut it. You need to make sure the icing on that cake is thicker and tastier than all the other ones on the shelf. And the XC40’s icing is thick, sweet and sumptuous.

In case you haven’t been following, Volvo’s been on a roll lately, reinventing its brand, launching fresh new models with stunning designs, sumptuously comfortable interiors and efficient powertrains. The XC40 is the carmaker’s first entry in the highly popular, and lucrative, subcompact luxury SUV segment, and it’s rather good.

It’s a category where buyers seek styling, versatility, all-weather capability and luxury, all at an attainable price. And the players are strong, with vehicles such as the Audi Q3, the BMW X1 and X2, the Cadillac XT4, the Infiniti QX30, the Jaguar E-PACE, the Lexus UX, the Mercedes-Benz GLA and the MINI Countryman.

Volvo’s little one sits on a brand-new architecture called CMA, which was put together exclusively for the XC40, but will also underpin upcoming other subcompact cars and wagons, such as the — ahem — Volvo V40.

Only one engine powers it on our market; a 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder Volvo called the T5, which also propels the S60/V60 and XC60 SUV. It’s good for 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet. of torque. All-wheel drive comes standard, which is a welcome feature in this segment. An eight-speed automatic gearbox completes the package.

Our tester was an R-Design, which sits in the middle of three available trim levels. It adds to an already good-looking vehicle 19-inch R-Design wheels, a blacked out grille, mirrors and roof, as well as some unique interior design cues. It sells for $52,900.

The first thing you notice when strapping yourself inside an XC40 is how it carries over the rest of the Volvo lineup’s design theme without skimping too much on material quality. Being the brand’s most affordable vehicle means cost cutting had to be applied, but you’d hardly notice it, as the XC40 boasts an attractive, well-put-together cabin, with trendy styling cues and excellent build quality.

It’s also roomy in there, both front and rear, with ample head and legroom, as well as a surprisingly cavernous trunk for the segment.

But once those rear seats are folded flat, the little Volvo gets somewhat outshadowed by its rivals. While its 1,337 litres of total cargo space is more than what’s found in a Mercedes-Benz GLA (1,235 litres), even the tiny Audi Q3 (1,365 litres) is more practical, while the mighty BMW X1 (1,662 litres) totally pulverizes it.

But the XC40 redeems itself with other qualities. On the road, its spirited handling and impeccably well-mannered driving dynamics make it rather fun to drive. And that turbo engine ain’t too bad either, providing plenty of low-end thrust and punchy turbo power, all while delivering more than satisfactory fuel economy.

Unfortunately, that engine does not sound good. Even if Dynamic mode significantly changes the vehicle’s steering, transmission and throttle reaction times, wringing out the buzzy four-pot will quickly get on your nerves.

So yes, as far as doing standard tiny SUV things, the XC40 succeeds, and the thing happens to be well packaged, giving consumers a lot for their money.

But while Volvo has long bragged about building cars adapted for winter due to its Scandinavian roots, our tester proved a little clumsy during the humid mid-November week we had it. We appreciate Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system — entirely touch-operated — for its clean, elegant design, large icons that will react to a pair of gloves and redundant physical controls. But its operation speed is painstakingly slow, especially on cold starts. When you’re freezing your butt off in the morning, the first thing you want to do is turn on the heated seats and steering wheel. The only way to operate them is through that screen. Waiting for the screen to act up is very irritating.

We also experienced problems with the heated steering wheel itself, which refused to operate several times while we had it.

Then there’s the finicky gear lever, which requires a double-tap motion to go from Reverse to Drive. It’s essentially the same knob as in the larger S90/V90 cars and XC90 SUV, but without the glass shifter. It looks good, but we would have preferred a standard PRND gear lever like the one found in the S60.

And while we love how the engine delivers its power, throttle delay remains a Volvo downside across its lineup. There’s a significant lag between the time you stomp the accelerator pedal and when the car decides to get up and go, which can prove annoying during stop-and-go traffic.

But hey, this is a segment where consumers lease versus buy, and favour styling and brand recognition over anything else. Reliability rarely bothers these consumers, and it’s not like its rivals sit at the top of the dependability scores anyway.

In that respect, the 2019 Volvo XC40 is a stylish, fresh offering that looks as chic as the brand-new condo its owner undoubtedly resides in.

In other words, if cargo space and all-weather capability are the boring carrots that hold the cake together, the XC40’s good looks, dashing interior and sporty driving dynamics are the butter-sweet icing that tops it off, making it the best cake we’ve tested in years.

— LC Media

Volvo doesn’t disappoint with its luxurious interiors. The XC40 features an infotainment system, however it can be slow to run on cold days.

Volvo doesn’t disappoint with its luxurious interiors. The XC40 features an infotainment system, however it can be slow to run on cold days.

Photos by William Clavey / LC MediaVolvo’s new subcompact SUV XC40 offers all of the necessities for a small SUV wrapped in a stylish package for any buyer.

Photos by William Clavey / LC Media

Volvo’s new subcompact SUV XC40 offers all of the necessities for a small SUV wrapped in a stylish package for any buyer.