Driven: The 2019 Volvo XC40 T5 Is a Paranoid Android

Generally well executed, sometimes the XC40 can’t leave well enough alone.

Arthur St. Antoinewriter, photographer Andrew TrahanphotographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

I first drove Volvo's all-new-for-2019 XC40 at last December's 2019 Automobile All-Stars competition. The cheeky subcompact luxury crossover (ours was outfitted with the sporty R-Design package) didn't make it to the winners' rostrum, but it impressed a lot of us with a unique combination of practicality, clever design elements, and enthusiastic moves that helped it stand out in a class of vehicles that all too often look and feel like mere transportation appliances. Recently I spent a week behind the wheel of an XC40 in T5 AWD Inscription trim that mostly reaffirmed my initial fine impressions of the car—with a few notable exceptions.

The Inscription is the XC40's top-of-the-line package. The $4,550 option adds a host of luxuries, including a panoramic moonroof, 18-inch wheels, eight-way power front seats, navigation, keyless entry and start, and even a crystal shift knob from renowned Swedish glassworks Orrefors. I prefer the edgier look of the R-Design's two-tone bodywork and sportier interior, but the more traditional Inscription is still a clean and handsome piece. My test car also boasted a ton of other options, including the Premium package ($900), the active-safety Vision package ($1,100), the Advanced package ($995) with 360-degree surround-view camera and headlight washers, and Volvo's Four-C adaptive suspension ($1,000). A really nice Harman/Kardon premium audio system ($800) helped make the cockpit an especially inviting place to spend time.

The T5 version nets you all-wheel drive and the more potent of two powertrain offerings, in this case a turbocharged 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder good for 248 horsepower and mated to an eight-speed automatic. As I discovered during my initial drive, it's a zesty little thing, pulling away from stoplights eagerly (max torque is on stream at just 1,800 rpm) and equally happy when you're gunning through the twisty stuff. (It is a little rough in the sound department, however.) The eight-speed does a fine job of keeping the revs in the meat of the powerband, and it executes shifts smoothly and quickly.

In Comfort mode, the Four-C's shocks deliver a well-filtered ride, while switching to Dynamic adds a noticeable firmness and a bit less roll. Even in Dynamic the ride remains generally pliable, and that's the setting I used most of the time. The steering is overly boosted, unfortunately, which detracts from the pleasure of arcing the XC40 through turns as there isn't much feel or feedback. Still, you can hustle along quite effortlessly.

One afternoon, having just watched Quentin Tarantino's new Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I took a drive about a half-hour north of Los Angeles to the site of the former Spahn Ranch, the one-time western movie lot where Charles Manson and his "family" holed up in the late 1960s. The buildings burned down in a fire long ago, and today the place is completely overgrown—but the boulder-covered hillside in the background is unmistakable. About five miles further west lies the location of the former Iverson Movie Ranch, another one-time backdrop for assorted westerns and other films featuring exotic locales. Today a piece of the site is a public park, and it's here that Tarantino recreated Spahn Ranch in all its dilapidated glory for several key scenes in the movie. The sets were torn down immediately after shooting wrapped, but I hiked around and could easily figure out where "George Spahn's house" had stood and where Brad Pitt's character had engaged in his impressive dust-up with a Manson disciple. The day of my visit was brutally hot, though—107 degrees—so I was happy to return to the comfort of Volvo's spacious, air-conditioned cabin.

Spending a week at the wheel uncovered a few issues that, during my first drive, either I hadn't experienced or which hadn't bothered me in the short term. Most troubling is the Volvo's standard automated emergency-braking system. Five separate times in just a week, an audio alert sounded and the brakes suddenly slammed hard—for no apparent reason. In each case the brakes quickly released, but the split-second panic stops were as annoying as they were frightening and potentially dangerous. Only once could I even determine the remotest reason why they'd gone off. That was when, while driving through L.A. 's tight, twisting, two-lane Benedict Canyon, a car in the oncoming lane had probably appeared to be headed right for me (it was an illusion brought about by a succession of tight corners) and the system activated. But when it happened again and then again and then again, suddenly driving the car felt like playing Russian roulette—I just never knew when the auto-braking system was going to fire. And every time it did, I was totally and very unpleasantly startled. Frankly, the system isn't ready for prime-time.

I also uncovered less serious but still head-scratching issues in the center console. For one, the gear lever can't simply be slipped forward or back from Drive to Reverse. You have to pump it twice—essentially engaging neutral along the way. I'm sure you'd grow accustomed to doing so in the long run, but on more than one occasion I found myself stepping on the gas only to feel the engine surging away in neutral. Even more strange, park is engaged by pressing a button marked "P" next to the gear lever. Not such a big deal—except immediately behind the park button is another button with a "P" in a circle, this one, of course, for the parking brake. Might a driver in a rush mistake the two and fail to engage park? Maybe, maybe not, but it's a curious ergonomic decision by a company so renowned for its unfailingly sensible approach to design. On a better note, the Orrefors crystal shifter really is quite glamorous.

The issues I uncovered while driving the XC40 bothered me most because in almost every other way it's such an engaging and well-executed machine. The leather seats are superb, the driving position is excellent, the primary gauges are big and clear analog dials, and cargo room in back is quite decent. The primary touchscreen is a bit slow in response and on the fussy side (there are many submenus needed to access some systems), but generally I interacted with it well enough. Much appreciated were the enormous storage compartments in the doors that easily swallow everything from laptops to large water bottles.

I realize that active-safety systems are intended to protect the majority of drivers from their inattentive, texting selves, but when you're an unfailingly vigilant and engaged driver, systems like lane-keep assist and, especially, auto collision braking are nothing but annoyances that completely detract from the driving experience. In a few ways at least, Volvo's otherwise very agreeable little crossover is too paranoid for its own good.

2019 Volvo XC40 T5 AWD Inscription Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $36,195/$46,290 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 248 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 23/31 mph (city/hwy)
L x W x H 174.2 x 73.3 x 65.0 in
WHEELBASE 106.4 in
WEIGHT 3,700 lb (est)
0-60 MPH
6.1 sec
TOP SPEED
140 mph
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