by John Carey
Seeing the new XC40 for the first time is like finding a tiny Smurf at the centre of a set of one-inside-the-other babushka dolls. After the bigger XC60 and XC90, Volvo's compact SUV comes as a surprise.
Surprise yes, accident no. "The guys were briefed to do something more individual," says XC40 project manager Frank Vacca.
The shape of the Volvo's side windows and rear roof pillar, and its high ground clearance, give it a very distinctive look.
The XC40 is never going to be mistaken for an Audi Q3, BMW X1, Infiniti QX30, high-grade Mazda CX-5, Mercedes-Benz GLA, VW Tiguan or any other classy, compact SUV. Still, its headlights, tail-light clusters and grille stick close to the Swedes' current style manual.
Behind the grille are 2.0-litre fours from Volvo's home-brewed Drive-E family. These petrol and diesel engines, their power and fuel efficiency boosted by at least one turbocharger, are also used in the XC60 and XC90. The smaller XC40 shares its eight-speed automatic with the larger pair, too.
However, it uses less costly chassis tech, for example a simple strut-type front suspension, as in any small hatchback, instead of the luxury car-like double A-arm design of its big brothers.
Built to a price, the XC40 also has been designed with a purpose. Having surveyed drivers in China, the US and Europe, Volvo discovered many found stashing everyday stuff in their cars a problem.
So the Swedes decided to fill the interior with soothing solutions. By not installing audio speakers in the front doors they were able to enlarge the storage pockets there. There are storage drawers under the front seats.
The centre console contains a bin big enough for a box of tissues and just ahead of it is a small lidded rubbish bin, easily removable for emptying. Further forward there's an angled phone tray, with built-in inductive charging (for recent devices able to use this feature).
But the smartest ideas of all are in the cargo compartment. Hinges hidden in the Volvo's flat floorboard mean it can be folded to form a handy divider. Doing this also opens an extra underfloor storage area and exposes three built-in shopping bag hooks. Storage capacity, above and below the floor, totals 460L.
The interior is also attractive. Less expensive materials are used for the instrument panel and elsewhere than in the XC60 and XC90 but it employs the siblings' big and bright portrait-oriented centre screen. The small Volvo also has a screen instrument display, something normally only seen in more upmarket models.
Front and rear alike, the cabin is spacious. The roof pillar looks as if it will restrict the view from the rear seat but in reality it isn't a problem. The front seats are - as usual from Volvo - comfortable and supportive.
Volvo has a reputation for safety leadership and the new compact SUV gets the same safety gear as the larger wagons. The list includes autonomous emergency braking, incorporating Volvo's latest improvements in pedestrian, cyclist and large animal recognition.
Top-spec T5 and D4 versions of the XC40 will be the first to reach Australia, in about April. These have the most powerful petrol and diesel engines Volvo installs in its compact SUV. The all-wheel drive pair initially will come only in sporty - and expensive - R-Design form.
Late next year, Volvo will add less powerful T4 and D3 engines to the line-up, with front and all-wheel drive, while adding the Momentum and Inscription equipment grades across the range. Expect the front-drive XC40s to be priced from about $43,000, much less than the high-powered AWD versions.
Volvo brought T5 R-Design and D4 Momentum models to the XC40 press intro in Barcelona last week.
The T5's 182kW turbo delivers very lively acceleration, without making a fuss. The 140kW twin-turbo diesel of the D4 is only a little more noisy and a little less fast.
They're both easy to like. The suspension delivers a comfortable ride - the stiffer Sport set-up in the T5 R-Design isn't bad and the softer D4 Momentum is practically plush.
The big Continental and Pirelli tyres developed specifically for this model have good grip. The steering, while light and precise, doesn't deliver a real sense of connection with the road. Neither rubber nor steering is made for whipping through corners like a hot hatchback but together they're more than capable when there's a confident driver behind the wheel.
The XC40, at 4.4m long, is Volvo's first compact SUV and it is intended to stand out. The styling may be a surprise but the XC40's thoughtful design, serious array of safety kit and relaxed driving character mean it's a proper modern Volvo too.
VOLVO XC40 T6
PRICE $55,000 (est)
WARRANTY 3 years/unlimited km
SAFETY Not yet rated
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel, 182kW/350Nm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed auto; AWD
THIRST 7.2L/100km (est)
0-100KM/H 6.5 secs