What was once a marque known mostly for its safety and conservatism has come out swinging in recent years with more styling swagger.

No longer does one look at a Volvo as only a sensible-shoes type of car driven by one’s elderly uncle, as design-wise it’s undergone a transformation akin to Clark Kent changing into Superman. Underneath, the Swedish vehicles are the safe and steady Volvos we’ve come to know, but the swish new styling has helped them garner a number of awards.

It was the XC90 large SUV that kicked off the renaissance followed by the midsized XC60, and most recently the XC40 which was voted Europe’s 2018 Car of the Year.

It isn’t hard to get swept up in its charms, particularly with the modern cabin which infuses Swedish minimalism with a more sophisticated touch than the somewhat plasticky Volvos of recent years. As with its larger stablemates the XC40’s materials give off a premium vibe with soft-touch plastics and classy chrome accents.

This interior glamour is paired with a smart-looking Sensus infotainment system with a large touchscreen.

The cabin lays on a premium feel and the infotainment’s easy to use. Picture: SUPPLIED
The cabin lays on a premium feel and the infotainment’s easy to use. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s about as user-friendly and nondistracting as these systems get, but it’s nice that the car has physical buttons to quick-access functions like the audio volume and the window demisters.

The XC40’s modern new exterior adopts the brand’s new styling theme. The family styling is unmistakable with those "Thor’s hammer" headlights, but the XC40 takes a playful styling detour with its up-kinked C-pillar, contrasting roof colour (in the upper models) and clamshell bonnet. It’s a chunky looking thing that appears to hanker for off-road trails, and it is fairly capable in the rough stuff with permanent all-wheel drive, elevated 211mm ground clearance, and hill-start assist feature.

Though the XC40 is the brand’s smallest SUV it is large enough to be all the Volvo most families will need. Interior space is comfortably roomy enough for a quartet of adults and the boot is a generously sized 460l — expanding to 1,336l with the rear seats flipped down.

There is a lower priced three-cylinder T3 turbo petrol version to come, but initially this Volvo is available in a choice of two 2l models: the 185k/350Nm T4 petrol turbo and the 140kW/400Nm D4 turbodiesel.

It is the diesel on test here, which provides easygoing and smooth performance. There is some turbo lag when pulling off, which you can’t do much about due to the transmission being automatic, but it’s not terribly intrusive. After shaking off this initial lethargy the car accelerates briskly and it’s good for a 7.9 second 0-100km/h time. We did expect better fuel consumption and our test car drank 8.1l/100km — a lot higher than the factory-quoted 5.1l figure.

The XC40 is a road-based SUV that handles with car-like characteristics. It has a comfortable ride quality but hustles through corners without feeling floaty, while the all-wheel drive system ensures plenty of traction even on rain-soaked roads.

Overall this premium SUV has a refined and grown-up nature with well-suppressed noise levels, and a solid feel.

The standard specification level is quite generous with navigation (which shows the speed limit on the road you’re driving), two-zone climate control, automatic wipers and lights, an audio system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, electrically adjustable front seats, and a wireless charging pad for smartphones.

Safety being a Volvo cornerstone, the XC40 also comes standard with six airbags, ABS brakes, stability control, a lane keeping aid, LED headlights, and a City Safety system which warns of potential frontal collisions and brings the car to an emergency halt if necessary.

The Volvo XC40 D4 in top-of-the-range R-Design execution is yours for R639,200 including a five-year/ 100,000km warranty, which puts it on the pricey side of a competitive segment that’s filled with some very competent alternatives. There are, however, lower-specced D4 derivatives starting from R600,300.