Review: Volvo XC40 speaks with American accent

Posted by hpayne on March 1, 2018


The Volvo XC40 is owned by Chinese automaker Geely, designed in Sweden and built in Belgium.

And it’s made for America.

Volvo’s first subcompact ute ain’t so compact. It’s the biggest subcompact in the luxury aisle with more storage space than a roll-top desk. Americans live large in their cars and the XC40 is a rolling habitat.

Volvos have always been furniture on wheels with their crafted Scandinavian wood surfaces and plush chairs. The XC40 is all that and utilitarian, too. The entry-level Volvo is the unmistakable descendent of the fancy-pants, midsize XC90 and compact XC60 with its “Thor’s hammer” headlights, vertical iPad screen and fortress of safety features.

But this Swede has a personality all its own.

After all, this XC isn’t riding up to the usual cocktail-sipping party-valet counter. It’s mixing with a new crowd of potential Volvo consumers — hip youngsters and old hipsters looking for something that stands out in the crowded Whole Foods parking lot. These are buyers who prefer to spend time behind the wheels of a Mini Cooper Clubman, or funky Nissan Murano or edgy Ford Edge than in the back seat of an $80,000 land yacht.

My funkadelic Amazon Blue XC40 with white roof and Hot Wheels wants to be noticed.

I spent a day with the XC in Austin, which is basically the Texas version of Ann Arbor. Only bigger. The Volvo fit right in among Austin’s music bar-lined streets, University of Texas campus and urban tech vibe.

Exterior designer Anders Gunnarson had Mini Cooper in mind when his Swedish team designed the white-top Volvo.

“It’s different. It gives the car youthful proportion,” he said pacing around the car. “It’s charismatic like a Mini Cooper, and gives it it’s own personality — different from its big brothers.”

Gunnarson has a nickname for his charismatic creation: “Tough little robot.”

A properly elegant XC90 or S90 sedan would be horrified if you called them a “robot.” But it fits the XC40. The car, the first on Volvo’s small-car CMA platform (short for Compact Modular Architecture) carries the Volvo signature design themes of Thor’s hammer headlights, rectangular grille and boomerang taillights.

Everything else is different, quirky.

The front grille has been scalloped, as if Gunnarson carved it out with a giant ice cream scooper. The rocker panels are dimpled. The three-dimensional tailgate is so expressive that Gunnarson moved the license plate to the lower bumper so as not to distract from it.

Oh, and that roof. It’s supported by a flying buttress-style C-pillar so large it looks like it was stolen from Notre-Dame Cathedral. Or Toyota’s own subcompact funk-mobile, the C-HR. I love it, though it creates a driver blind spot bigger than Kansas.

All this drama got the attention of Ato Musa, a Kenya-born clothing designer living the dream in downtown Austin. He drives a Mercedes E-class for its elegance and — naturally — its handsome interior materials.

He couldn’t take his eyes off my loaded $44,000 XC40 T5 Momentum (the T5 gets a 248-horsepower turbo-4, the T4 gets a 187-horse turbo-4). As I watched him shoot pics in his custom three-piece suit, I imagined he would probably forgo the punk white roof for a more conservative black top offered with the R-Design trim. Either way, it was the interior that really moved him.

The appointments are singularly Volvo with standard digital cockpit, huge 8-inch tablet screen (just like its big brother, the $60,000 XC90), soft-touch dash, aluminum dash accents, leather seats, floor carpet lapping all the way up to the console and felt door-liners made from 97 percent recycled water bottles (that’s the ol’ greenie Volvo I know).

Choose the interior in black leather and lava-orange carpet/felt, and you’ll be invited to every party in town.

Then there’s the storage. It. Is. Everywhere. A healthy center-console storage container — designer Gunnarson calls it a “fishbox,” which I think is Swedish for tackle box — included a deep, removable trash bin which I wish every car had for tossing tissues, candy wrappers and all that rubbage (Gunnarson’s term again) that you have to toss into the door side pockets in other cars because there’s no proper place to put it. I once rented a car where someone had stuck their used bubble gum under the dash. Ugh.

In front of the fish box are two cup holders, two USB ports and a trough for phones, change, etc.

Speaking of side pockets, the XC40 has extended them the length of the door by moving the base speakers to the top of the dash. My laptop fit easily in the side pocket. Plus mouse. And a water bottle.

I’m just warming up. A clever hook flips out from the glove box to hang everything from a purse to plastic grocery bags.

The rear seat will easily stow my 6-foot-5-inch frame. The XC40 sports the best rear legroom in a class in which this is usually an afterthought. In fact, the Volvo’s room and cargo space compare favorably to more expensive compact utes like the Alfa Stelvio and similarly priced Buick Envision while besting them in interior finish. The rear passengers not only get center cup storage, but their very own storage trays at each seat corner.

The cargo hold is more versatile than a Swiss Army knife with more flip-out grocery bag hangers, a hinged floor that folds up to keep loose groceries in place, and — voila!— a subfloor where you can store that bulky cargo blind when it’s not in use.

The giant rear c-pillar makes the second row a dark hole, so opt for the panoramic sunroof so the sun can shine in.

So brimming with self-confidence is the XC40 that its 2.0-liter turbo-4 even beats its BMW X1 and Audi Q3 competitors in horsepower with 248 ponies. Only the pricey Jaguar E-PACE R-Dynamic bests it in segment.

Just don’t ask the Volvo to keep up with those athletes in the twisties. The Volvo’s fun factor ends when you flog it hard, as the e-steering goes numb and the big chassis feels like it’s floating above the road. So, if it’s handling you want, buy the x-citing X1 which also rivals the XC40 in roominess.

But if you want a tough little robot with the best living quarters, then Volvo has you covered. With swagger and space, it’s a Swede with an American accent.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Volvo XC40




$34,195 base ($44,315 AWD T5 Momentum; $45,935 T5 R-Design as tested)

Power plant

2.0-liter turbo-4


248 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (187-horse turbo-4 coming later for base T4)


8-speed automatic


0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 140 mph


3,800 pounds (est.)

Fuel economy


Report card

Highs: Versatile interior living space; loaded with standard features

Lows: Numb steering; all that carpeting could get soiled


Comments are closed.