What an important car the 2018 Volvo XC40 is for the Swedish brand, due here in April with a starting price just north of $45,000.
With the big new XC90, Volvo declared that despite now being under Chinese ownership, it has the design, technology, fit and material quality to take on the best in the premium market.
Then, this year, along came the smaller new XC60, playing in a more affordable arena. That new mid-sizer takes on models like the equally new BMW X3 and the still fresh Mercedes-Benz GLC, at circa-$60k - a point where experimenting is a little more palatable.
The XC40, though, could be where Volvo captures downsizers and young buyers alike, wowing them with fun looks and trendy upmarket Scandinavian brand vibes.
With a car like this, at a price point suited to young professionals looking for something different... that's where you earn loyalty, winning buyers that will step into an XC60 when they're ready to clip in some child seats.
Indeed, the XC40 will be measured not only in its capacity as a small SUV, but also as evidence of whether Volvo's new small-car architecture holds genuine promise for the next V40 hatch.
So, really, a very bloody important car. Betting big, Volvo has already said it can pinch sales from the BMW X1, an obvious rival at the small end of the premium SUV market.
First impressions? I'm in Barcelona for the XC40's first global drive experience, and while that means a more market-specific assessment will be needed at next year's Australian launch, the signs are good.
UPDATE, March 26, 2018: We now have Australian pricing. See our story here.
Under the skin
The XC40 is built on the new Compact Modular Architecture (CMA), developed together with Volvo's Chinese owner, Geely. Made of conventional steel and the ultra high-strength sort, CMA will be used not only by the XC40 and other new small Volvos, but also for Chinese-branded models - including the new fashion-focused Lynk & Co marque.
Suspension is by McPherson struts up front, matched to a multi-link design at the rear. Three chassis variants are featured, with Dynamic as the standard, while Sport (stiffer springs, dampers and anti-roll bars) and 'Four-C' (electronically-controlled adaptive dampers) setups are available as options. Steering is managed by an electro-mechanical rack-and-pinion setup.
Five driving modes are featured, depending on the trim grade selected. Those are Eco, Comfort, Dynamic, Off-Road and Individual. As with the systems in other cars, each mode adjusts steering weight and speed, brake pedal feel and throttle response.
The XC40's initial powertrain offering consists of one petrol and one diesel engine, both 2.0-litre turbocharged designs from Volvo's existing aluminium Drive-E family. Smaller engines will be offered sometime after launch, along with plug-in hybrid and full-electric variants.
The T5 petrol offers hot-hatch numbers, with 182kW of power at 5500rpm and 350Nm of torque between 1800 and 4800rpm. This unit promises to push the XC40 to 100km/h in 6.5 seconds, while fuel consumption is listed at between 8.3 to 9.1L/100km on the combined cycle – based on Europe's new 'real world' WLTP test program. The trade-off, though, is the engine requires 95RON fuel.
Opt for the D4 diesel and power drops to 140kW - available sooner, at 4000rpm - while torque climbs to 400Nm, available from 1750 to 2500rpm. Fuel consumption for the diesel is listed at between 6.4 to 7.1L/100km (combined cycle, WLTP), with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 7.9 seconds.
Both engines are matched to an Aisin-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission, and a part-time Haldex all-wheel drive system is standard.
Packaging and comfort
The XC40 measures 4425mm long, riding on a 2702mm wheelbase. This makes it a rough match for offerings like the BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA, and a fair bit longer than the new Audi Q2 and its ageing Q3 sibling. The XC40 is wider and taller than most, too, at 1863mm and 1652mm respectively.
Storage in the XC40 is clever, with a few 'wow' points to boot. That starts with the deep, long, wide door pockets, made so through the deletion of the speakers you'd normally find there. To make up for that, all models get an air-ventilated 'air woofer' atop the dashboard, delivering low frequencies to complement the smaller tweeters mounted elsewhere throughout the cabin.
(I'm no audiophile, but I gave the speakers of the Harman Kardon system a proper crank with a variety of tunes, and the results were very satisfying.)
There's also a deep centre compartment that can easily accommodate a regular tissue box, along with - as you move forward from the centre console - a removable waste bin, two cup holders, and a deep cubby with (when optioned) integrated wireless charging.
Cabin comfort is very good, with the XC40's tall and wide design offering plenty of space inside. Headroom is good in both rows for my 176 centimetres - even with the sunroof installed - and leg/shoulder room in the front is excellent. Rear legroom is also good, but fitting more than two adults back there will be a squeeze. Thankfully, if you do try, the compact transmission tunnel should keep unintentional footsies to a minimum.
Rear storage is listed at 460 litres with the rear seats up, growing to 1336 litres when the 60/40 split-folding seats are laid flat. Although decent, these aren't especially impressive numbers and it's a shame the XC40's rear seats can't slide like the BMW X1, offering the freedom to tweak the balance of space between rear legroom and cargo space.
Still, the use of space back there is clever, with plenty of hooks and a neat folding floor that can easily lock into an upright position to provide deeper compartmentalised sections. Sheer volume aside, the XC40 easily boasts one of the more practical cabins in its class.
That sharply-angled upkick towards the D-pillar is a debit, though. The result is reduced rear visibility for the responsible head-checking driver, and rear passengers - especially the younger, shorter type - are also unlikely to appreciate the design. Clearly an example of form over function (led, no doubt, by the advent of blind-spot monitoring and rear-view cameras).
Seats in both rows are comfortable, remaining so through a full day's driving. The rear door aperture is on the small side, though, which left me catching my foot on the B-pillar the first time I stepped out of the second row.
Cabin materials and finish are, overall, of a high standard. Soft-touch surfaces abound; dials and switches - what few there are - feel solid and nicely damped; and the various satin silver, gloss black and aluminium highlights all look the part. Likewise, the 'felt'-lined door pockets make for a nice touch - literally and figuratively. Incidentally, that 'felt' is made from recycled plastic bottles.
There's a fair amount of hard plastic below the dash line, but this isn't unusual in small premium cars and the general feel to those surfaces is of a solid and sturdy installation.
Without question, the cabin of the XC40 is a thoughtfully designed and intensely considered space. The company told us at launch that its extensive research said, no surprise, that Volvo buyers want practicality - even at the compact end of the market - and expected "true SUV proportions" from the XC40. This, product planning manager Frank Vacca says, was considered a "critical" factor in developing the XC40. We can probably rule out a coupe-inspired BMW X2 rival, then…
In the European specification we drove, the XC40 is a well-equipped thing. And, as we've seen with the XC60 that launched in Australia recently, that theme should continue with the XC40's local debut.
The Belgian-built XC40 will initially be offered in two familiar trim grades: entry-level Momentum, and sporty R-Design. A high-spec Inscription model will be detailed sometime after launch.
The below equipment highlights are specific to European markets, although Australian models are expected to start from a high standard specification (larger wheels and so on).
From the base level, there's a big 12.3-inch driver display behind the steering wheel and a large portrait-oriented 9.0-inch main display in the centre of the dash. To have these as standard is unusual, with most brands forcing you to option the driver display, and to start with a smaller main display.
Satellite navigation is standard, but connectivity for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are optional extras. (Volvo giveth, and Volvo taketh away…)
The base model gets just three speakers, while the 'high performance' audio option is a six-speaker deal, and the Australian range is expected to start with that tier. We didn't get to experience either, however, with only a top-shelf Harman Kardon pack fitted to the test cars.
There's also 17-inch alloy wheels (we only experienced the 19- and 20-inch options), LED headlights and daytime lights, keyless start (push-button, rather than the beautiful knurled switch in bigger new Volvos), dual-zone climate control, cruise control, automatic wipers and headlights, rear vents and rear parking sensors. The seats are cloth as standard, and the door pockets get a felt lining - both to reduce rattling and for a reasonably 'cool' look.
The R-Design level adds loads of gloss black surfaces inside and out, 20-inch alloy wheels, leather seats and steering wheel, bright exhaust tip finishers, and a sports chassis setup. Sadly, it's no louder than the regular models.
Depending on the model, market, and options list, there's also a powered tailgate, adaptive 'bending' headlights with 'shadow' tech designed to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers, powered sunroof, wireless phone charging, 1200W Harman Kardon premium audio with 13 speakers, heated seats and steering wheel, and higher-grade leather trim.
We expect a lot of that to be standard on Australian cars, but a detailed final local spec won't be revealed until next year.
Safety, something of a key selling point for Volvo over the years, is also well represented in the XC40. Standard kit for these Euro models will include City Safety collision avoidance with braking at all speeds, along with Run-off Road Mitigation, Oncoming Lane Mitigation, Slippery-Road Alert, Hazard Light Alert, Driver Alert Control, Road Sign Information and Lane-Keeping Assist.
Not all is standard, though. Pilot Assist - Volvo's semi-autonomous driving technology - is optional for the XC40, as is Rear Collision Warning and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Adaptive Cruise Control, Park Assist Pilot and a 360° camera.
You know what won't make it to market? That neat little Swedish flag poking out from under the bonnet like it's a label stitched to a t-shirt seam. I really dig it, but Volvo tells me it's just a bit of glued-on fun for their demonstrator cars.
The good impressions continue here. The roads in and around Barcelona are a far sight better than most in Australia, but Volvo's attention to performance, comfort, ride and handling shines through with the XC40.
Both the 140kW/400Nm D4 diesel and 182kW/350Nm T5 petrol were on offer at the launch event, and both proved compelling in their own way.
The D4 and T5 'Drive-E' units are familiar engines, already featuring in other Volvo models, but this is the first time they've featured in a new-generation Volvo of this size.
The diesel offers decent pull from a standing start, if not outstanding. Acceleration is a little lacklustre at highway speeds - Barcelona's posted speed limits range between 90 to 120km/h - but not disappointing, and never dangerous.
To its credit, the eight-speed auto shifts quickly and smoothly to get the XC40 up to speed despite its relatively hefty 1684-to-1733kg kerb weight, with only very brief hesitation in responding to a sudden demand for power.
The D4 testers on offer were all riding on 19-inch wheels wrapped in 235/50 R19 rubber, matched to the standard 'Dynamic' chassis. Comfort on these nearly perfect roads is good, but to be sure, we tracked down every pothole and crack we could find. The result was only a mild thump with no obvious crashing, most noticeable at slow speeds around town. Opting for a smaller wheel on bigger tyres would certainly help alleviate this.
The D4 engine is a reasonably quiet thing in this application, too, with little diesel clatter at startup or idle.
Of course, tyre roar off the big hoops of both the D4 and T5 was - no surprise - a constant companion, while wind noise from around the base of the A-pillar and mirrors stood out on the highway. This, more than anything, robs the XC40 of just a little of that 'premiumness' Volvo wants us to subscribe to.
The T5 petrol model is unquestionably the more compelling drive here, offering not only more power (if less torque), but also a more focused suspension setup. We rolled on 20-inch wheels with 245/45 R20 tyres, set atop the 'Sport' chassis tune.
Volvo claims a hot-hatch 0-100km/h time of 6.5 seconds for the T5. Our car was hauling two journos (me a portly one) and our luggage, and there was no bothering with a stopwatch, but we were in no doubt that this model could get going with some alacrity.
Now, there's no mistaking this Volvo for anything other than an SUV - especially one taller than its rivals - but, for the very rare buyer that tries, the XC40 T5 R-Design can really tuck in.
Our tour of Barcelona's surrounds included a charming piece of winding coastal road that, while mostly encumbered with sightseers and cyclists, did offer the opportunity to sample the T5's intent.
Get into it, and the T5 R-Design will show you a surprisingly good time, happily slinging through corners at moderate pace. You'll be reminded of the little SUV's tall build quickly enough, but its body roll is predictable and actually quite well controlled. Shifts are quick with the driving mode set to Dynamic - and the paddle shifters responsive - while the steering and ride firm up nicely.
Nobody buys a car like this for that sort of mucking about, but it's a lark all the same. For an SUV, the T5 makes a decent 'warm hatch'. It's a bloody shame, though, that it doesn't make any noise…
When the XC40 lobs in Australia next year, it ought to be worth a look. It's a surprisingly fun and funky offering from a brand not really known for it, and it more than feels up to the task of tackling the establishment on performance and feel.
A starting price around $45,000 will make it a tough sell for some - especially those not prepared to accept Volvo as a premium marque. But, for that spend, these high-spec launch models will give you more power, more driven wheels and probably more standard kit than any other player in the premium small SUV segment right now.
Still, you could always wait for the entry-level models that will follow in late 2018 or early 2019. Smaller engines and front-wheel drive should see the price drop to about $40k - maybe lower.
For now, the XC40 can only be assessed on this week's adventures... and it's a spectacular little thing. Volvo reckons it can sell around 2000, maybe 2500 of these in Australia each year. I reckon it's in with a chance.
Watch for our first Australian test in the new year.
UPDATE, March 26, 2018: We now have Australian pricing. See our story here.