THERE’S NO type of car more underwhelming than the compact SUV with a posh badge. Prod the underbelly of the Audi Q3, the Mercedes-Benz GLA or the BMW X1 and you find tacky plastics, fuzzy-felt carpets and thudding suspension, as if the whole lot had been signed off before the final engineering polish could be applied.
It seems that all the big hitters have raced to take part as quickly as possible in this fashionable sector of the market, at the expense of doing a proper job. The only member of this dismal club that doesn’t feel cynically thrown together is the Range Rover Evoque, perhaps because it’s from a time when Land Rover was less busy and wanted to do justice to Julian Thomson’s distinctive styling.
The trouble is, age and ubiquity have whittled away at the Evoque’s charms, which leaves a gap for a compact SUV that isn’t phoned-in. And who better to have a crack at filling that gap than Volvo, already the doyen of prep-school pavement mounters with its XC90 and XC60?
The freshness of this new XC40 isn’t in question because it’s built from a new kit of components, rather than by raiding the parts bin. If it were any newer, it would have an umbilical cord. More promisingly, you sense an absence of the usual small-SUV cynicism as soon as you clap eyes on it. By golly, they’ve made some effort with the exterior design, down to the little rubber tab that pokes from the front wing bearing the Swedish flag. They didn’t have to do that, but they did because it’s amusing, even though everyone who spots it tries to pull it off.
Overall, the XC40 is really attractive, appearing distinctive without being contrived, and chunky without being childish. A Volvo design boss once ruefully observed that making safety your selling point was harder than emphasising performance or comfort because customers don’t feel the benefits unless the worst happens. What the company has succeeded in doing, though, is making its cars appear strong, and the XC40 continues that tradition. It looks dense and tough enough to bounce off unharmed if it were flung at a wall.
“You can even have it with orange carpet … It’ll look tremendous. Unless you habitually wear bright purple shoes”
The interior’s good, too, what with its none-more-modern portrait aspect touchscreen and slick virtual instruments, both standard even on the basic model. The whole thing is minimalist without being stark, and it’s full of neatly styled details from bigger Volvos, such as the large, knurled knob for the stereo volume and the Edsel-grille interior air vents. As a final design flourish, you can even have it with orange carpet. And why not? It’s more interesting than the dark grey everyone else fits and it’ll look tremendous. Unless you habitually wear bright purple shoes.
Not all the design is stylish for the sake of it, though. There’s some practical thinking going on with the vast door pockets, created by removing the bass speakers from their usual home beside your ankles and stuffing them in the dashboard so the structure becomes a huge boombox, and the multi-permutation boot that includes a storage space for the parcel shelf under its floor. No more leaving it in your hall until someone falls over it. There’s even a bin under a hinged flap between the seats into which you can drop sweet wrappers and parking tickets.
So a nice thing to look at, a nice thing to sit in, and almost certainly a nice place to be if someone runs into you, if such a thing is possible. Which leaves the way it drives, and that is quite nice too. The one I had, a diesel, is never going to make you dream of a dawn romp across the tarmac sinews of the Scottish borders, but it rides acceptably in a firm but comfortable manner and goes round corners in a way that doesn’t make you fear for your life. The engine is quiet in normal use, though it makes some unpleasantly oily rumblings if you ask it to exert itself.
It’s not sporty, but then it’s not pretending to be and many other bump-thumping cars of this type could learn from that. Even putting it in Dynamic mode doesn’t do much, which is fine because the S part of SUV has always been a laughable conceit.
Amid all this niceness, the only irritation is that touchscreen, which, thanks to Volvo’s quest for interior minimalism, controls almost everything. It’s fine for flipping between radio stations but important things such as making the interior warmer or activating the seat heater shouldn’t demand that you look down, find the right zone on the screen and then tap it to bring up the sub-screen with the right controls — unless Volvo thinks the best way to show off its crash safety it to make you crash.
I’m sure the people who designed this system live in exquisitely minimalist homes, but I bet they don’t put all their light-switch controls on an iPad in a box hidden in a cupboard.
In general, however, the XC40 is a very unannoying car. It looks terrific, it’s agreeable inside and it’s perfectly pleasant to drive.
What seals its appeal, however, is that it also seems quite cool these days. A Volvo somehow says you’re renouncing pushy, flashy German cars because you recycle devotedly, have a “bag for life” in every pocket and watch box sets of subtitled dramas featuring people in jumpers solving murder cases and staring into the distance.
Driving a Volvo suggests thoughtfulness and intelligence. And Volvo has rewarded these people with a car that makes rivals look a bit half-baked by comparison. This, it says, is what you can do when you make some effort.
Rivals: Volvo XC40 vs Jaguar E-Pace
|Volvo XC40 First Edition D4 AWD Automatic||Jaguar E-Pace 2.0 D240 S AWD Auto|
|Boot space||432 litres||425 litres|
Richard Porter is script editor of The Grand Tour. Jeremy Clarkson returns next week
Write to us at [email protected], or Driving, The Sunday Times, , London