First Drive: 2018 Volvo XC40

First Drive: 2018 Volvo XC40

Do yourself a favour and pick up the book The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson. It is an awesome piece of fiction involving a protagonist named Nombeko from Soweto, nuclear warfare, Mossad — and even an armoured Volvo S80 sedan.

The author was obviously being patriotic by giving the automotive brand some free publicity. But the people at Volvo itself have always made noise about its Scandinavian heritage while playing in the German-dominated premium sphere.

That the new XC40 SUV has a tiny Swedish flag sticking out of the front left side quarter panel is a charming nod to this pride in nationality.

The newcomer completes the XC range, taking its place beneath the XC60 and XC90. The latter, we ought to remind you, holds the title of 2016 South African Car of the Year. We attended the global launch of the littlest XC model in Barcelona, Spain, last week. First things first: where exactly does it fit into the cluttered SUV landscape?

Mostly, Volvo is zoning in on the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class. Initially, it seems that it should slot into a more compact category — think Mini Countryman and Audi Q2.

But in terms of dimensions, it is easily on par with the stated peers from Germany. Perhaps we can attribute that deception of size to intelligent design. It certainly looks the business and will undoubtedly pander to the young urban professional set that Volvo is eyeing. You will find more flamboyance here than in the larger, grown-up Volvos, especially when it comes to the scope of customisation.

Lava-coloured carpets, for example, can be had inside. The XC40 counters its whimsical side with genuine practicality. The luggage compartment offers myriad configurations, with pull-out shelves and compartments. Those Swedes thought things through, going as far as to remove the speakers from the door panels for more storage space. An in-dash woofer compensates for any acoustics that may have been lost.

Its centre console has a removable bin in addition to a holder for a tissue box. As with the rest of the Volvo range, the XC40 has the Sensus Connect touchscreen interface.

Underpinning the XC40 is Volvo’s new Compact Modular Architecture, which will serve in a series of vehicles to come. According to the manufacturer, the default suspension setting in the XC40 boasts a “dynamic” quality. But a sportier setup offers stiffer springs, dampers and antiroll bars. Or you can specify the Four-C system — Volvo parlance for electronically controlled dampers.

Two trim levels and engine choices will be available when the car goes on sale in South Africa next year. The Momentum version marks an entry point, while the spruced-up R-Design is the more dazzling choice. Both will include all-wheel drive.

The T5 model employs a 1969cc four-cylinder turbocharged engine good for 185kW and 350Nm, shifted via an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Performance is effusive, with a claimed sprint time of 6.5seconds.

In this guise, the sprightly personality of the XC40 is complemented well. The D4 derivative has a more sedate air. It has the same displacement and transmission, with a power output of 140kW and 400Nm, although it never felt as ample as the numbers implied. Refinement is outstanding, though, where the engineers managed a stellar job of muting diesel grumbles.

Overall, there are only positives about the way this little Volvo behaves on the road. But we were ever mindful of the fact that we were driving over pristine European asphalt. The true test would come when putting the XC40 through its paces in local conditions — especially on the dirt.

By now we are all accustomed to hearing about manufacturers’ push towards a future where we can take our hands off the wheel. The XC40 pioneers semi-autonomous driving in its segment, with the inclusion of Pilot Assist, which we first experienced in the flagship XC90. It offers assisted steering and braking up to speeds of 130km/h. Emphasis on assisted: the driver still needs to remain active and present.

On the subject of the future, the carmaker will be introducing a different purchasing model through its Care by Volvo plan. Think of it as a subscription service, with a fixed monthly fee that includes vehicle usage, insurance and maintenance. The programme is under consideration for our market.

The new XC40 has all the ingredients for success. Yes, Volvo has already established itself as a serious contender in the luxury category. But this will bring the sales volumes to match. Expect pricing to range between R500 000 and R650 000. – Brenwin Naidu