The XC40 provides unique styling that has plenty going for it. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The XC40 provides unique styling that has plenty going for it. Picture: MARK SMYTH

There was a time when if you wanted a sports utility vehicle (SUV) you had to go big or go home. You had two choices: a big luxury SUV or something more utilitarian with off-road ability. Or something that had both.

Then SUVs became smaller and then even smaller still when crossovers came along. Suddenly small-sedan sales dwindled, station wagons almost disappeared and even small hatchbacks were available as crossover derivatives to make you think you are in an SUV.

The SUV has become the industry’s biggest driving force and few segments are as competitive as the small to medium market. Here the Range Rover Evoque was king for a while, at least among the trendy set. The Toyota Rav4 settled in nicely lower down the scale and everyone from Audi to Volkswagen had something to suit.

In the premium and subpremium segments, Audi has its Q3, BMW the X1 and X3 and now the style conscious X2, Mercedes has its GLA and GLC and Jaguar has expanded its SUV onslaught with the E-Pace.

The interior is properly Volvo with lots of tech placed within simple and elegant design. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The interior is properly Volvo with lots of tech placed within simple and elegant design. Picture: MARK SMYTH

And then there’s Volvo. The Swedish car maker was taken over by China’s Geely and never looked back, going from strength to strength to the point where its premium rivals are sitting at an awards ceremony without having bothered to write an acceptance speech because they know the winner will be Volvo. The XC90 is a previous South African Car of the Year, the new XC60 due in May is the current World Car of the Year. The European Car of the Year is the Volvo XC40 and it is available in SA.

At the launch, Volvo SA executives discussed how resale values and customer service have improved and that dealerships are all undergoing major revamps over the next 18 months. But Volvo has to be about more than just great Swedish design. The brand is adamant it is on a par with its German rivals, which would put it in the premium segment. That means premium prices but is its self-appointment to the premium big boys league justified?

It is almost impossible to fault Volvo’s design team. The XC90 heralded the new era of great designs and it has carried through the S90 and XC60 to the XC40 without any dilution. The front is imposing with its big trademark grille, Thor’s Hammer daytime running light signatures and a look of athleticism.

The rear is possibly not as convincing as the rest of the car. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The rear is possibly not as convincing as the rest of the car. Picture: MARK SMYTH

The side profile shows a long bonnet and an almost cab-rearward design like the iconic Volvo P1800. The rear is possibly the most disappointing area. Yes, it has simplicity and traditional Volvo style elements, but it’s just a bit bulbous, although it does depend on the colour.

Inside all that elegant design is combined with some of the latest in tech. There is a large vertical Sensus touchscreen infotainment system and a digital instrument cluster. It is right up there with premium rivals and, in some cases, even better.

Then there is storage, an area where Volvo has become the class leader, in every class. There are storage areas for phones, including a wireless charging pad, large door pockets and a seriously clever folding boot floor that can form a partition so shopping bags do not empty their contents.

Regarding safety, the XC40 is well equipped. It has City Safety, Run-off Road Safety and loads of airbags, seatbelts and 40% of the safety cage is made from high-strength steel to provide a solid cage but allow energy absorption in the event of the crash by the other materials around it.

Strangely though, there is a lot of safety on the options list, including blind spot detection, something that has been part of Volvos since the days when they resembled shoe boxes. The Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving is an option, as is adaptive cruise control, surround detection and rear cross traffic alert. Sounding a lot like the German premium rivals isn’t it?

Initially there are just two engine options, the 140kW, 400Nm D4 diesel or the 185kW, 350Nm T5 petrol. Both have all-wheel drive and Geartronic automatic gearboxes.

The clever partition created by the folding boot floor shows some real though went into practical solutions. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The clever partition created by the folding boot floor shows some real though went into practical solutions. Picture: MARK SMYTH

We took the D4 for a drive including putting it through some mild off-road routes on our usual test course. The engine lags a little on pull off but is good at medium speeds around town. The torque helped it cope well with a bit of mildly adventurous exploring and while we were warned against trying to cross a river (wading depth is 450mm) it went through a decent ford with ease.

It proved extremely comfortable on the gravel and while the steering could do with a bit more weight, it will suit most urban inhabitants. On the road the D4 did disappoint slightly with ride comfort, mainly because the suspension allowed the body to pitch and roll in a way that would have a nodding dog feeling a little seasick. That disappeared when we jumped into the lighter T5 R-Design for a short run. The R-Design features slightly firmer suspension, which removes that pitch and roll and provides a better all-round ride. An optional adaptive damping system is available on all models.

While the D4 can get a little out of puff quite easily, the T5 has instant power on tap that just keeps flowing. Yes you might use a little more fuel than in the diesel but if you want an all-round package offering a bit of power, economy if you are cautious with your right foot and a comfortable ride, then its the T5 with the adaptive suspension or R-Design.

All models in any spec will set you back more than six-hundred grand, with the top T5 AWD R-Design (the one that we most recommend) costing R649,700.

Yes it’s a lot cheaper than an Evoque but while you do get much standard equipment, it really is up against the Q3, X2, GLA, E-Pace and VW Tiguan, all of which offer more in some ways and less in others.

And that’s just the Germans. You could be in a top-spec Nissan X-Trail and have a large chunk of change.

Volvo will remedy things slightly later in 2018 with the arrival of the entry-level T3 starting at R489,500 but you will probably have to stretch to the R-Design version at R528,400 and then dig a little deeper into your pocket for options to get the car you want.

The XC40 is a great package and it seems unfair just to judge it on price, but it is unavoidable.

It is unique in its styling, it has a beautiful interior and is probably the safest car in the segment by far.

I really like it (but then I still want an 850R station wagon), the question is whether it is premium enough to command a premium price.

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