For a Volvo to be named (European) Car of the Year might seem like a semi-regular occurrence, but in the 54 years since the title first appeared – and was awarded to the Rover 2000 – the Swedish company has consistently, and some would say unfairly, failed to land the top prize. So there must have been plenty of backslapping at its Gothenburg headquarters when it was announced last month that the new XC40 had, at long last, brought home one of the most prestigious gongs in the business.
For that to be so swiftly followed by the recent announcement that its bigger brother, the XC60, had been awarded the World Car of the Year title is evidence, should any be needed, that Volvo is riding the crest of a wave right now. Finally its styling is right on the money and you don’t need to be a retired dentist to consider owning one – to buy a Volvo is now something you can do with your heart as well as your head.
And the volume seller is expected to be this one: a funky compact SUV that is taking the fight straight to Audi’s Q3, BMW’s X1, Land Rover’s Discovery Sport and Jaguar’s new E-Pace. It is a highly contested segment that also happens to be the fastest growing of all, so the XC40 needs to be able to offer more than good looks and a raft of safety features. It needs to be dynamic and fun to drive; be refined and equipped with plenty of tech. It needs to be cool.
The sister car Volvo XC60 won World Car of the Year:
On the face of it, the XC40 is, indeed, a very desirable machine. It isn't simply a shrunk XC60 – rather it has been gifted an individual appearance that is angular and suited to two-tone colour schemes. It looks fun. This modern-looking structure also sits on an entirely new platform that has enabled a simpler, more cost-effective suspension set-up, because this is a vehicle that will spend the majority of its time in nose-to-tail city traffic rather than traversing the region's desert landscapes.
That isn't to say that this Volvo is incapable, though. The only version we can currently buy in the UAE is the T5, available in normal or "R-Design" trim, and its turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder engine punches out a useful 250hp, while an eight-speed automatic channels the torque to all four wheels. Granted, it isn't going to get the hot-hatch brigade all excited, but it has plenty to offer in terms of real-world usability for most motorists.
There is a real sense of plushness to the car’s cabin, which has sufficient room for five adults and no shortage of connectivity (although the on-board Wi-Fi won’t be available here for the time being). The door bins are large and deep enough to house laptop computers, thanks to the bass units for the sound system being housed in the dashboard, and there is an actual removable bin sited within the centre console, so you can throw out all the family detritus in one go. Now why didn’t anyone else think of that?
It is less “Swedish” in here than in the XC60 and XC90 (I own an example of the latter), so you won’t find birch-wood panelling on the dash – instead there is machined aluminium decoration that looks fresh and modern, as well as vertical oblong air vents that help lift the ambience. And all models receive a full-sized infotainment screen in the dashboard’s centre, which is a glorious thing to behold and use, with beautiful graphics and easily readable information.
Unfortunately, though, some functions require multiple screen dives, which isn’t easy while on the move. Disabling the stop-start function, for instance, would be done via a simple button on other cars, but here it requires several stabs at the screen until you find the right menu. The objective for this is an almost entirely clutter-free cabin, bereft of unsightly switches and controls – in this respect, the XC40 scores highly.
On the move, apart from a somewhat characterless engine note, there is little to complain about. The seating position is standard SUV and the seats are supremely comfortable, while the perfectly judged suspension offers refinement and remarkable cornering ability that retains composure without sacrificing the magic carpet ride. The steering is nice and quick, too, making for easy urban manoeuvring. It would be an extremely easy car to live with.
And isn’t that the whole point of owning an SUV? In their efforts to make the genre more appealing to younger buyers, carmakers have tended to put too much emphasis on the S for sport, rather than the U for utility. The compromises required to inject sporting characteristics are often too much, rendering the vehicles flawed with confused identities.
And if we are to peer into the judges’ decision making processes when scoring this Volvo and making it the winner of Car of the Year (by a significant margin), it is the utility on offer that clinches the deal. A huge amount of thought has been put into its design, and those efforts have paid off with a genuinely brilliant all-rounder that also happens to be individually styled and exceptionally safe. Highly recommended.