A lovable small ute, with a few quirks
THE GOOD
  • Quick and agile
  • Unique styling inside and out
  • High-tech safety features
THE BAD
  • Fussy electronic shifter
  • Interface requires too much screen prodding
  • R-Design ride a bit stiff-legged

2020 Volvo XC40 R-Design Review

As an entry point into the world of Volvo, the compact XC40 crossover delivers an intriguing blend of utility, comfort, and fine driving dynamics to go with a healthy dose of Nordic chic.

Fit and finish are exceptional. Here in sporty R-Design trim, with a starting price of $45,650, you can also add decent value to that equation. Volvo and value in the same sentence? Yes, you read that right.

Styling: 9/10

It’s hard to make a crossover stand apart visually these days, but the XC40 manages to step outside the box with its chunky demeanour, kicked-up C-pillar, Volvo signature “Thor’s Hammer” headlights, and here, two-tone paint. The back end signals its Volvo-ness via vertical taillights. The deep scallop in the lower door panels gives the XC40 a pinched waist from the side, and while you can’t call this little ute pretty, it certainly is perky, youthful, and interesting from any angle.

Safety: 9/10

Well, it is a Volvo, so there’s quite a bit of safety baked in, having earned the coveted Top Safety Pick+ from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for 2019. Standard safety features in the R-Design include automatic emergency braking (along with sensors to detect other vehicles, bicyclists, and large animals), lane-keeping aid, LED headlights, and road sign information. Also standard is Volvo’s subscription-based telematics system that provides access to live assistance in the event of an emergency, and allows certain in-vehicle features to be accessed via a smartphone app (think of it as OnStar but for Volvo). A four-year subscription is included.

Necessities like blind-spot monitoring, heated windshield washers, and headlight washers are included in the $1,750 Premium Package. This tester also had the $2,000 Premium Plus Package that adds adaptive cruise control with lane-centring that works in stop-and-go traffic, a surround-view camera system, a 12V outlet in the cargo area, and a self-parking system.

You sit up high in the XC40, and the narrow A-pillars and tall greenhouse afford good forward visibility.

Practicality: 9/10

The XC40 is one of the roomiest offerings in the premium compact crossover playground. The cabin serves up plenty of clever storage with its big door pockets, a driver’s seat storage compartment (part of the Premium Package), a capacious cubby with wireless charging ahead of the shifter, and a removable trash bin in the centre console. The powered rear hatch reveals a wide opening with low load floor, and the 60/40 split rear bench (with ski pass-through) easily folds to create a flat and level cargo area. There’s a compartment under the floor for more storage that also provides a convenient place to store the cargo cover when it’s not needed. The sloped rear window ultimately cuts into load space if you’re looking to carry something boxy or a big dog behind the second row, but otherwise the XC40 scores big on utility.

User Friendliness: 5/10

This is where the little Volvo trips all over itself, having been saddled with the automaker’s slick-looking but otherwise infuriating touchscreen interface. I’m sure Volvo is as sick of hearing the media whine about this as I am sick of writing about it. So here we go again.

Accessing anything from simple cabin temperature control to seat heat to radio functions requires altogether too much screen prodding, thus drawing your eyes off the road for precious seconds. And these little icons are not easy to hit when on the move, nor do they respond very well, often requiring more than one poke.

On the plus side, the graphics are sharp and the system supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Volvo has built its reputation on safety, yet I can honestly say this is one of the most unsafe interfaces I’ve ever encountered. Even just a couple of rotary knobs for HVAC controls would go a long way in remedying the situation. Or maybe Volvo should have a look at the Uconnect system from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), which manages to put most functions on the touchscreen in a logical and safely accessible way.

Another anomaly here is the XC40’s electronic shifter that requires two nudges to select either reverse (push forward) or drive (pull back). If you forget and only nudge once, you’re in neutral. I’m not sure of the logic behind this.

Features: 8/10

At $45,650, the XC40 R-Design comes decently equipped. Along with standard 19-inch wheels there’s a panoramic sunroof, leather and Alcantara seats, specific R-Design interior detailing, ambient lighting, sport-tuned suspension, a drive mode selector, heated front seats, steering-responsive LED headlights, fog lights, cruise control, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, rear parking sensors, roof rails, and more.

The aforementioned $1,750 Premium Package nets a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, a power tailgate, power-folding mirrors, auto-dimming inner and outer mirrors, a wireless smartphone charger, and driver’s seat storage, plus the additional safety systems. So in essence, you’re not leaving the dealer without the Premium Package.

The $950 Harman Kardon audio upgrade is also worth the hit, providing clear and well-balanced sound.

Power: 8/10

Volvo’s 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine falls in line with the competition power-wise, yet this ute feels spritelier than most, surging ahead on a linear wave of torque when hoofed. Helping here is Volvo’s own eight-speed automatic transmission that is quick to kick down, operating with intelligence and smoothness. The engine can get a bit coarse as the tach needle swings right, but with its strong mid-range torque there’s no reason to thrash it. Overall, this is a very satisfying drivetrain that gives the XC40 a good turn of speed and commendable refinement.



Comfort: 7/10

Volvo knows how to do seats, and these R-Design front buckets with the faux-suede inserts are superb, blending snug support and long-distance comfort. However, I would suggest Volvo recalibrate the heat, as even in the lowest setting both my wife and I found our backsides were getting roasted.

Back seat space is generous, with easy access and plenty of headroom.

The R-Design gets a firmer suspension than the base $39,750 Momentum or top-spec $48,200 Inscription, and even on these 18-inch wheels shod with winter tires, the XC40’s ride never got choppy over less than perfect pavement – of which there is plenty in the Great Toronto Area (GTA). Nevertheless, the XC40 is a serene and stable cruiser, and carries itself with a sense of premium solidity.

Driving Feel: 7/10

Despite wearing the R-Design badge and having sportier suspension tuning, this XC40 is more a cruiser than an engaging drive. The steering is resolutely numb, and while sport mode sharpens throttle and transmission response while adding some heft to the helm, you won’t be goaded into attacking your favourite back road with any vigour, like a BMW X1 or X2 are wont to do. Do most buyers care about this? Not likely. The XC40’s handling is competent and composed, feeling agile and light on its feet, which suits its mission statement perfectly.

The all-wheel drive system kept the Volvo feeling safe and secure in slippery conditions.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

After a week of mixed driving in wintry conditions, the XC40 R-Design returned 11.1 L/100 km combined on premium fuel (which is required). This is pretty much what you’d expect from this class that is chock full of vehicles running with all-wheel drive and turbocharged 2.0Ls. I could have done better if I’d left the XC40 in Eco mode, which dulls throttle response and has the eight-speed transmission shifting in the most economical manner. It’s not much fun, though. Official fuel economy figures are 11.2/8.3/9.9 L/100 km city/hwy/combined, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

Value: 8/10

Being Volvo’s newest and smallest SUV, the XC40 is targeting a more youthful audience, and as such is priced to entice. The best value proposition is the entry-level $39,750 Momentum that, with the $1,750 Premium Package rounds out to be nicely appointed piece.

The Verdict

What a conundrum. There’s so much to love here, yet there’s much about the XC40 that frustrates. If you can make peace with Volvo’s infotainment, this funky little ute makes for an intriguing and fine driving alternative to the German, Japanese and American (Lincoln Corsair, Cadillac XT4) offerings. The seats are fab, and the artfully designed and beautifully crafted cabin is a highlight. Factor in the functionality and spritely drivetrain, and you might just overlook the XC40’s annoyances, or at least chalk them up to Nordic quirkiness.

A lovable small ute, with a few quirks 6/9/2020 6:30:00 AM

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2020 Volvo XC40 R-Design
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $45,650
Peak Horsepower 248 hp @ 5,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 258 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm   Destination Fee $2,015
Fuel Economy 11.2/8.3/9.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $55,840
Cargo Space 586 / 1,336 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$8,075 – Premium Package, $1,750; Premium Plus Package, $2000; Metallic Paint, $900; Navigation, $1,000; Harman Kardon audio, $950; 20-inch black diamond cut alloys (not shown), $1,475