First Drive: 2019 Volvo XC40

Youngest child SUV acts out in all the right ways

BARCELONA, Spain — I came to the 2019 Volvo XC40 press preview expecting little more than a smaller version of Volvo’s other SUVs, and I bet most of you were anticipating the same. And who can blame us? All of the new-generation Volvos—XC90, XC60, S90, V90—are cut from the same cloth, and it’s not like we’re talking about cheap polyester.

What I found, though, was something very different. The XC40 has classic youngest-kid syndrome—you know, the one who tries to differentiate himself from his older siblings by getting tattoos and a nipple ring. Though the family resemblance is obvious, both in appearance and driving dynamics, the XC40 fights for its independence with a scrappy demeanor and a streak of rebellion—and that’s good news for potential buyers.

The XC40’s attitude is readily apparent in its dare-to-be-different styling. This is the most unique-looking SUV in Volvo’s refreshed lineup. While it shares its basic shape with other Volvo SUVs, it’s impossible to miss the kicked-up C-pillar (don’t tell Volvo, but it reminds me of the Jeep Compass’ shark fin), deeply sculpted lower door panels, and (optional) contrasting-color roof.

Still, don’t let the obvious details distract you from the more subtle ones like the concave grille, echoed at the back by a slight dishing of the XC40’s tailgate; the 90-degree seam formed by the front door, fender, and wrap-over hood; and the way four different body lines meet at the forward edge of the C-pillar. I’m tempted to say “It’s a Volvo, Jim, but not as we know it,” but I’m pretty sure the reference will be lost on the millennials at whom the XC40 is targeted. (Yes, kids, it’s true: Leonard Nimoy was on another TV show before Big Bang Theory.)

The XC40 is the first vehicle based on Volvo’s Compact Modular Architecture (CMA to its friends), as opposed to the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) used for the 60- and 90-series vehicles. (One has to wonder: How scalable can an architecture be if Volvo needed a different one for their smaller cars?) Like the XC60, the XC40 uses MacPherson struts up front, but the four-link rear suspension employs coil springs instead of a transverse leaf.

Despite the architecture differences, the XC40 is just as good of a drive as the bigger Volvos, though it exhibits more spirit and attitude. The press preview featured XC40 R-Design models powered by the 248-hp T5 engine, which comes bundled with all-wheel-drive. This is the base powerplant for Volvo’s larger SUVs, but it’s the high-end motor for the XC40, which weighs some 200 lb less than the XC60 and 700 lb less than the XC90.

Removing the extra bulk does wonders. Whether you’re stopped at a light or need to jump into the passing lane, the T5-powered XC40 leaps ahead like an SUV possessed, and we’re inclined to believe Volvo’s 6.2-second claim for the 0-to-60 sprint. The eight-speed automatic transmission lives to downshift, and will happily do so with even the lightest prod of the pedal. This summer, Volvo will add the front-wheel-drive T4 powertrain, which shares the T5’s 2.0 liter displacement but uses a different turbo and tuning to deliver 185 hp (and, presumably, better fuel economy).

The XC40 R-Design features a sport-tuned suspension and the driving dynamics can best be described with the sort of boilerplate clichés that hacks like me use when we can’t come up with anything else: It turns in sharply, grips eagerly, and the body stays relatively flat in the turns. Steering effort is light, and its quick response and lack of feedback often results in direction changes that are rather more deliberate than the driver may have intended. My Automobile colleagues complained about this in the XC60; it seems more in line with the XC40’s scrappy character, though a little more road feel would be welcome. Still, it made me grin, and really, that’s all that counts. The XC40 has five selectable drive modes (Eco, Comfort, Dynamic, Off-Road and Individual) that are supposed to alter throttle, steering and braking response, but based on my experience there’s no point in pressing the button until the adjustable-damper option arrives later in 2018.

Inside, the XC40 gives up some of the elegance of the 60- and 90-series cars for a more “shabby chic” feel. Its upright cabin feels rather narrow, though the XC40 is actually one of the wider vehicles in the segment. Back seat legroom is good, but the seats themselves lack thigh support, which is both surprising and disappointing. The 20.7 cubic foot luggage bay seems to have been designed for people with a cargo-carrying fetish, what with its hidden storage, 60/40 split-fold back seat, and ski pass-through. You can even store the swing-up cargo cover under the cargo floor. What will they think of next?

In-cabin scored high in Volvo’s customer research clinics, and the XC40’s cabin is awash in bins and cubbies optimized for phones, tissue boxes, and other detritus of the dedicated road warrior. Volvo moved the front speakers from the doors to the dash so that the front door pockets could accommodate a 15-inch laptop. There’s a nifty mini trash can (removable and sporting a spring-loaded lid) built into the center armrest, though it won’t hold much more than a couple of balled-up burger wrappers and a discarded gum wrapper or two. The optional wireless charging pad is massive, future-proofing it against Samsung and Apple’s fixation on ever-larger phones, though I had trouble getting my old Samsung Galaxy S6 properly centered on the pad so that it would charge.

Like other Volvo models, the XC40 comes standard with the Sensus infotainment system and its portrait-oriented touchscreen. I fell in love with the tablet-style UI when it first came out, but I must admit that familiarity has bred contempt: A few week-long Volvo press loans have taught me that the navigation system can be difficult to program, and swiping and pinching your way between climate, audio and navigation options can get rather frustrating. New for the XC40 is an app-based “digital key” that will allow for easy car sharing; send someone a code and they can unlock and drive the car without a key—a feature that strikes me as both nifty and scary.

The XC40 is offered with four interior color choices—black, white, red and tan—but only in the entry-level Momentum model. The R-Design version, home to the wonderful sport-tuned suspension, comes exclusively in black, though you can get it with orange carpets and door panels. The orange is certainly cool—Helllooooo, 1970! Anyone wanna watch Laugh-In?—but I still think Volvo interiors look their best in lighter colors. Too bad you can only get them in the Momentum trim.

Volvo has priced the XC40 Momentum and R-Design models at $34,195 and $36,695 respectively, including a $995 destination charge. Opting for the T5/all-wheel-drive combo adds $2,000 to either trim. Standard equipment levels are impressive: Momentum models include leather upholstery, a power tailgate, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, while the R-Design adds navigation, 19” wheels, a hands-free tailgate, and other upgrades. Naturally, safety is high on the XC40’s priority list, with automatic emergency braking and lane- and road-departure mitigation as standard and a 360-degree camera, adaptive cruise, and blind-spot and cross-traffic warning on the options list.

The XC40 will be the first offering from Care by Volvo, the brand’s fledgling subscription-based ownership program. Pre-configured Momentum and R-Design models will be offered for $600 and $700 per month respectively (plus tax and a $500 deposit), a price that includes the car, insurance, and a 15,000 mile per year allowance maintenance for 24 months. Insurance is provided by Liberty Mutual, which can’t change the price but can say “no” to potential customers. After a year, buyers can “upgrade” to a new XC40 for a new 24-month term—though unless Volvo plans a return to Detroit-style yearly model changes, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to swap. This is a potential bargain for buyers who live in high insurance rate areas like New York or Frisco; still, Volvo insists this program isn’t about a cheap deal, but rather an easier experience for young buyers eager to bypass traditional dealer bullshit. You go online, you order your car, you make an appointment to pick it up, and that’s that—no more getting hassled by the F&I guy to buy an extended warranty or listening to the service writer extol the virtues of a $159 transmission flush.

It’s no secret that Automobile is a big fan of Volvo’s latest vehicles, and I think the XC40’s mission to bring younger buyers into the brand will be a successful one. The cheeky XC40 makes the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Mercedes GLA look like old fuddy-duddies, and the driving experience gives the Mini Countryman a run for its money. Add in the reasonable price, high equipment level, and available hassle-free subscription plan, and the XC40 appears to be right on point. Like any little sibling, the XC40 is obviously clamoring for attention—and I think it’s going to get plenty.

2019 Volvo XC40 Specifications

ON SALE Spring 2018
PRICE $34,195 (base)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/184-248 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,800-4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed   automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 174.2 x 73.3 x 65.0 in
WHEELBASE 106.4 in
WEIGHT 3,710-3,820 lb
0-60 MPH 6.2 sec
TOP SPEED 140 mph