The 2018 Volvo XC40 looks cool as a cucumber in the back of a fridge, inside and out. But after putting about 1,287km on one and living with it for a week, I have to say I found this car frustrating in a lot of little ways.
(Full disclosure: I asked Volvo's representatives for permission to borrow an XC40 because I wanted to spend more time looking at it. Still do, what a sweetly designed machine. I returned it with a legion slain insects on the front bumper, for which I'm sorry.)
Editor's note: This review is from the United States. Some specs and features may vary in Australian models.
My good friend and colleague (boss, if you want to get technical) Mike Ballaban endured a trans-Atlantic flight and a fancy hotel to test the XC40 when it was brand new and concluded that it "makes life easier." I like some of the accessibility features he pointed out, but the car most definitely did not make my life easier.
In fact, a lot of its idiosyncrasies made me want to smash its big, beautiful centrally mounted touchscreen.
What Is It?
It's a smallish crossover, about the size of a BMW X1, Mercedes GLA or Audi Q3. Though it actually feels pretty sizable from the cabin, both in terms of how much space you get around you and how far away the end of the hood seems.
More than anything else, the XC40 is a triumph of design. It stands out, an impressive accomplishment in of itself for a crossover, and blends severe modernism with friendly familiarity.
Specs That Matter
The XC40 measures out to 174.2 inches front to back, 185cm side-to-side and 165cm tall which affords the car 27.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row of seats, or 47.2 with the seats folded. That's substantial, and it's all pretty usable thanks to the car's Minecraftian squareness.
A base XC40 is about $47,990. The T5 AWD Momentum we tested has the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood. You almost never hear it and few owners will probably ever even see it, but Volvo claims it produces 248 horsepower and 117kg-ft of torque. If that sounds like enough to make the car feel fast, it is not. But it is sufficient for propulsion.
Our tester with the Premium Package (adaptive cruise control, semi-autonomous driving, folding floor with grocery bag hooks, and other things), Vision Package (blind spot alerts, and other things) Advanced Package (LED lighting, and other things), heated seats and steering wheel, Harmon Kardon premium audio and a few more cosmetic options brought the sticker price up.
Volvo claims this version of the car should be able to get 31 mpg (roughly 7.6 litres per 100km) on the highway. In my experience driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, with a heavy foot, averaging out in the high 20s is possible.
The digital touchscreen display is an enormous 12.3-inches diagonally, and works pretty much exactly like a phone.
Since I opened this story up in a tizzy over how good looking the XC40 is, I have to circle back to that at the car's main highlight.
The way Volvo's artists managed to blend a truly modern looking and feeling cockpit with weirdly soft carpet trim that looks like it had another life as the flooring of an RV, and somehow managed to make that look good, is freaking incredible.
Outward visibility is pretty solid since the windshield is massive, and so is sound insulation from the outside world. The car just feels... well, nice. And that's exactly what anyone will say when they climb in.
The XC40 has a few cute convenience features, like hooks for bags and little storage slots next to the rear seats that I really liked, but the car's best party trick is the unbelievably crisp resolution of its parking cameras, which give you a glorious omniscience when it comes to what's near your car at speeds below 20km/h.
As soon as you're done admiring the XC40's elegance and grace, you're going to be annoyed by its hyperactive helicopter parent personality. I'll break down my beefs with this car in the chronological order of how I discovered them.
Put your foot on the brake, press the start button, and move the shifter back to take it from Park to Drive. No, sorry, push it again because you have to cycle through neutral. The shifter is always in the same position; it's like a toggle switch, not a typical selector, so you pull back once from Park to Neutral, then pull back once from Neutral to Drive. It is impossible to go from Park to Drive in one motion, like you can with pretty much every other console-shifted automatic you've ever been in.
A week was not enough time for me to get used to this, and I hated it. To go back to Park, by the way, requires you to push a separate button.
Like many modern cars, the XC40 uses an engine start/stop feature to theoretically use less fuel by shutting itself off at stoplights. My test vehicle wanted to shut itself off at every opportunity, every time it came to a stop at all. And not just in the miserly "Eco" mode.
Driving around Los Angeles involves a lot of sitting and so the starter motor on my test car got enough exercise for a lifetime. If you're hovering at a curb for somebody, and put the XC40 in Park, it will actually shut itself all the way off and make you press the start button again to bring it back online.
When you're not in the savage grips of crawl-speed traffic, you can activate Volvo's Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving abilities. This is supposed to help you stay in your lane by applying steering inputs if you start to drift. But it wanted to "help" me every single second of speeding down the highway. So with Pilot Assist running, there was a constant disconcerting torque in the steering wheel I had to fight. I left the system deactivated after a few bouts of being freaked out by that.
My final grievance is with Volvo's iPhone knockoff infotainment interface, which is not the worst thing about the car, but it's definitely the worst digital automotive interface right now in my personal opinion.
The software, like the XC40 itself, is really quite beautiful. But it's also distracting and convoluted. There are no hard keys except for one big "home" button, a volume knob, a play/pause and skip/go back song buttons.
Flipping through menus over a rough road is challenging because each bump messes up your swipes. Getting from one menu to another seems like a maze, it seemed like I was finding different paths to the same menus every time I worked my way through it. Every function is neatly tucked away, and even after a week of practice I had no chance of quickly prodding something I wanted without taking my eyes off the road.
For example, turning the heated steering wheel off requires five(!) button presses. And who wants to wait for a screen to load to adjust the climate at all?
If you subscribe to the school of firm seats and firm mattresses, you'll really like the thrones in the XC40. They're chunky and taut.
The drive itself is smooth. There's not a lot of decisiveness to the car's steering feel but you'll always know where you're pointing. I found visibility through the tall, steep windshield to be good. But the XC40 felt a lot larger than I expected it to.
The hood seems gigantic from the driver's seat, like you're in a truck or a much larger SUV. Thank goodness for that high-resolution 360-degree parking camera.
In town navigation is very easy thanks to the blind spot sensors and, obviously, that camera system. Light pours in through the panoramic sunroof and the stitched steering wheel feels very nice in your hands.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that the XC40 does not inspire a lot of aggression. In fact, serenity is kind of the whole point of a car like this. Except when you want to rage-quit the infotainment system.
The T5 Momentum version of this car seemed to be adequately predictable through obnoxious parking lot exits. But nobody will know you're at full throttle if you put your foot to the ground from a stop light.
In turns, grip is sufficient but the car starts to feel tall and heavy pretty quickly. High-speed cruising it had no problem with, though you may feel the seat belt tense up on your shoulder if you hit a bump in the road over 80.
There is a "Dynamic" driving mode to make the XC40 feel speedier but, I can't say the difference was really palpable. There's an "Off-Road Mode" as well, which is supposed to lighten the steering and increase low-speed traction. I'm sorry to say I didn't get to test that one. We might have to head back to Sweden, or at least ski country, to see how it works next winter.
The 2018 Volvo XC40 feels more expensive than it is. The whole experience of operating and being in this car has an aura of fanciness on par with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs that cost twice as much and more.
If your ideal car is practical, comfortable and stylish over everything else, I want to call this thing is a winner. Even in spite of my grievances with its usability.
But the awkward shifter and distracting infotainment software feel like pretty fundamental flaws in the experience of using this car. Perhaps others will be less bothered by it, but I wouldn't chose to live with it.
Then there's the fact that you can get a similarly-sized Korean car that's pretty much as comfortable and a lot easier to use for far less money. But you won't feel nearly as special behind the wheel.
After putting a whole lot of miles on this car, I developed a complicated relationship with it. I think Volvo has accomplished something impressive by bringing an earnestly unique aesthetic to the small crossover scene. And the XC40 is perfectly fine to drive and ride in if you can overcome or understand its quirks.
I could not, and I couldn't have been happier when the good people who ship press cars around took this back and swapped it out for a Kia Sportage SX, which costs less and I love using. But that's a story for another time.
I think a lot of people could be very happy with an XC40 in their lives, but if you told me you were serious about buying one I would insist that you spend a lot of time thoroughly examining the interface and test-driving it before you get suckered in by the cutesy bag hooks and water bottle slots that had me so smitten the first day I drove this thing.