First Drive

2019 Volvo XC40 First Drive Review: Going Big By Going Small

Say hello to Volvo’s first-ever subcompact SUV.

Throw away your corduroy and elbow-patched jackets. Forget about earning a tenured position at a regionally important liberal arts school. And brown? Remove it from your personal color palette. Volvo’s evolved identity now has more in common with cuffed jeans, careers in industrial design, and pinstriped suits tailored with European cuts than it does your Boston bred, second-year history professor driving a cream colored, long-roof 240. Sweden’s last remaining automaker has gone fashion-forward.
Still, as much as Volvo has reinvented its image over last decade, it’s lagged its German peers in one of the most important automotive segments in America, if not the world. Now it’s time for Volvo to play catch up, and it plans to do so with this: the all-new 2019 Volvo XC40. For a luxury automaker trying to make the best of every R&D dollar, you’d think Volvo would have introduced a subcompact luxury SUV or crossover by now. Even Volvo itself emphasized the importance of the burgeoning segment—shared with the BMW X1/X2, Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA, and others—during the launch of its all-new XC40.
But when subcompact luxury SUVs were in their infancy (and they still are to a degree), Volvo was preoccupied with the tasks of mere survival. Now the Swedish automaker, after $12 billion of investment, is enjoying the spoils of its work with two new platforms and a range of new models to its credit. The 2019 Volvo XC40 is the first-ever subcompact SUV from the Swedish manufacturer and the first Volvo in America to ride atop the company’s new Compact Modular Architecture (CMA) platform. Simply put, CMA is identical to Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform in function, but not in form.
Both platforms enforce a fixed dash-to-axle section, though the size of that section differs between the two platforms. The SPA platform, which underpins Volvo’s 60 through 90 series vehicles, has a longer dash-to-axle section than the CMA platform used for Volvo’s 40 series and under models. However, both platforms can be paired with longer or shorter cabin, nose, and tail sections to derive new models, all without having to reengineer engine mount points and driveline placement. In fact, Volvo will soon sell a new V40 hatchback in Europe using the same CMA platform as the XC40. If you were to measure the dash-to-axle distance of the XC40 and new V40, you’d come up with identical numbers.
Dean Shaw, Volvo Cars USA’s VP Corporate Communications summed it up nicely: “We can design exactly what we want.” The XC40 comes to the United States motivated by a selection of two engines: a less powerful (187 horsepower), more affordable T4 model with front-wheel drive will be available later this summer, but the more powerful T5 with 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque paired with standard all-wheel drive will be available at launch. Volvo brought only T5 models to the XC40 first drive event we attended in Austin, but both engines measure in at an identical 2.0-liter displacement and are mated to eight-speed automatic transmissions supplied by Aisin.
In other markets, buyers can option their way into a diesel, but it won’t be coming here. When hustled, the T5 will put down a 0-60 mph sprint in 6.1 seconds. Only Jaguar’s new E-Pace is quicker thanks to its 296-hp turbo inline-4. Like almost every turbo four on the market today, the XC40’s 2.0-liter mill isn’t what you’d call aurally pleasing, but at least it has some performance cred to make up for its lack of premium note. While its an SUV in nearly every respect, you won’t be taking the XC40 down the Rubicon Trail anytime soon. Standard all-wheel drive on T5 models is there to ensure grip during inclement weather, but it’s a fully automatic system without all the dials and controls of more rough-and-tumble alternatives.
There are no different modes for a smattering of surfaces one might encounter off the beaten path because it’s really only meant for one: pavement. That’s okay, though, as Volvo is aiming this vehicle at young urban couples and empty nesters who simply want a fashionable, taller alternative to entry-level luxury sedans. Smoothing out the concrete jungle is a MacPhearson strut front and independent multi-link rear suspension in two different tunes: a standard, more compliant variant for Momentum trimmed models and a stiffer, more sport-centric version for R-Design trims. However, during our day with both trims, the suspensions were basically indistinguishable from each other.
What did make a difference were the configurable driving modes—Comfort, Dynamic, and ECO—that adjust steering, engine, gearbox, throttle/brake response, and steering effort to best suit one’s desired driving style. Volvo is supposed to offer active damping at a later date on R-Design models, but it won’t be available at launch. Most customers of the XC40 won’t particularly care about cornering performance and acceleration times. For those buyers, utility is key, and the XC40 brings it with 57.5 cu. ft. of total cargo space with the rear seats folded, 20.7 cu. ft. with those same seats erected for rear passengers, and a standard power tailgate for easy loading.
That makes the XC40 a bit tighter than the BMW X1 and X2, but more spacious than the Jaguar E-Pace, Land Rover Evoque, Mercedes-Benz GLA, Infiniti QX30, and Audi Q3. The Volvo also houses tons of ingenious storage solutions throughout the passenger cabin, including a center console large enough for a tissue box, a hook hung from the glovebox door for small bags (there are more in the trunk), and what Volvo claims to be the roomiest door bins in the market as subwoofers typically located in the doors have been moved to the dash. One feature I fell in love with was the XC40’s ability to hide its cargo privacy tray in the trunk floor. XC40 owners no longer need to find a place in their homes to store the cover when anticipating larger cargo.
Volvo’s interior game has been on point ever since it rolled out the XC90. It continues that trend with the XC40, combining high-quality dash, seat, and carpet materials (such as a “Lava” red/orange carpet option on R-Design models) with simple designs to create a welcoming, uncomplicated, roomy cabin. All XC40s get standard leather seating (with Alcantara inserts depending on trim) that are firm but comfortable as they offer a wide degree of adjustment. A wireless charging pad sits below the XC40’s HVAC controls and 9-inch portrait-oriented Sensus infotainment screen. Like other Volvo’s, the high-res Sensus system is gorgeous to look at, but takes a bit of time to get used to due to its high level of functionality.
Also, regardless of trim, the XC40 is fitted with a 12.3-inch configurable instrument panel display instead of traditional dials—for better or worse. Fit and finish were superb all around, its steering wheel felt good in my hand, and controls were easy to use. The main downside is Volvo’s shifter—a drive-by-wire setup that requires that you tap it back twice to shift from reverse into drive. Nearly every time I wanted to pull away from backing out of a parking space, I was left revving the XC40 in neutral after only pulling back on the shifter once. Old habits die hard. Keeping everyone safe is a long list of safety features that’s too long to mention here.
However, the XC40 does come with the same semi-autonomous driving features as its bigger, more expensive siblings. That means you get adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, and a number of other supplementary systems that work together to make long hauls mostly a breeze. There is one major drawback though. Volvo’s system isn’t nearly as mature as some other available semi-autonomous systems—and I’m excluding Tesla’s Auto Pilot from this. For instance, Volvo’s Pilot Assist features tend to ping-pong the vehicle between the white and yellow lines on the road, even when they are very clearly marked.
In comparison, I drove a new Honda CR-V last year that kept the crossover in the absolute middle of the late—even while going around corners. Still, Pilot Assist and many other features are standard kit of the XC40 while only available as options in competing models. For that, you’d expect to pay more for the Volvo than its German and Japanese luxury competitors. Surprise! You don’t. The XC40 T5 AWD starts at $35,200 before taxes and fees, making it the most affordable option in the segment. The financial spread between the Volvo and its competitors grows as you equal out much of the equipment offered as standard on the XC40.
For us, that makes the XC40 a solid buy in the segment for those who want something a little different and aren’t hung up on the premium appeal of a German badge. That appeal will only grow when Volvo brings out the T4. As they say during those daytime infomercials: but wait, there’s more! Volvo is introducing with the XC40 “Care by Volvo,” a new type of quasi-ownership program it plans to roll out to other vehicles in the model lineup. For a flat monthly fee, Volvo will give you an XC40, insurance, and cover consumable costs such as brake pads and other maintenance items. Qualifying buyers can sign up for a two-year contract, but have the option of trading the vehicle in after the first 12 months for another Volvo if they so choose.
All vehicles in the program will be new, so you won’t be stuck with an XC40 that’s already gone through the Care by Volvo program, but it hasn’t yet announced what will happen with the vehicles coming out of the program and will share more on that at a later date. The 2019 Volvo XC40 is trickling out to dealers now in Momentum and R-Design trims with the T5 powertrain and all-wheel drive. Those models start with a base price of $35,200 plus destination and taxes—unless you opt for the Care by Volvo at $600/month on Momentum trims and $700/month for R-Design models. A more luxurious Inscription trim and the lesser T4 powertrain will be available later this year. Volvo didn’t provide pricing details for those options during launch.

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