Johannesburg - Having just spent a week with Volvo’s XC40 in full-fat T5 R-Design trim, I’m starting to get a better understanding of the often-used ‘crossover’ term.
Although it is taller than a traditional hatch, it doesn’t look or feel like a traditional SUV, but rather like a slightly pumped up hatch, which is refreshing in a sea of trying-to-be-butch SUVs.
In T5 form, featuring a 185kW, 350Nm 2-litre turbopetrol engine, it also has some hot hatch ambitions, although apart from the Mini Countryman JCW and the Jaguar E-Pace P250 (both of which cost more), the T5 doesn’t really have much direct competition.
The XC40 is slightly larger, but similar in spirit to the Audi Q2 and BMW X2, but the former doesn’t offer a performance model at all and the latter doesn’t offer a semi-hot version that would compete with the T5, instead you have to go for a tamer 141kW 2.0i, which only costs R40 000 less than the Volvo T5, or the more hardcore and expensive M35i.
While the XC40 hasn’t entered the top performance tier, it does offer a good spread of models, from the more economical three-cylinder T3 that starts at R519 400 to the T5 R-Design featured here, which retails at R693 000.
The XC40 T5 is not dramatic in the way it performs or handles, but it is fast enough to be entertaining off the mark, and more effortless than you’ll ever need it to be for overtaking on the open road. Volvo claims a more than decent 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.4 seconds.
You can choose between Comfort, Eco, Off-Road and Dynamic drive modes, but it doesn’t get all revvy and overbearing in the latter set-up, just a little sharper. That said the eight-speed automatic gearbox is not the smoothest-shifting unit we’ve experienced under hard acceleration - it’s no DSG, but you won’t notice this in everyday brisk driving.
The XC40 T5 gets Volvo’s permanent all-wheel-drive system as standard, which along with 19-inch (or optional 20”) alloy wheels, makes for pretty nimble handling, but the steering isn’t communicative or weighty enough to translate that into ultimate driver satisfaction. The large wheels - our car had the 20” rims - and firm suspension also result in a relatively firm ride over speed bumps and rougher surfaces, although it feels fine enough on normal roads that are in decent condition.
While this car certainly has sporting ambitions, its most impressive aspect in my book is its posh cabin finishes. The little Volvo really has a million dollar feel inside, with its abundance of soft-touch surfaces and satin chrome trimmings, while the seats in the R-Design model we tested felt superb in their combination of leather and velvety Nubuck cloth.
While the XC40’s funky exterior design can mislead you into thinking this is in fact a small and possibly even impractical vehicle, it is actually surprisingly roomy inside. Rear passengers have space to stretch their legs and the 460 litre split-level boot should have no trouble swallowing your holiday luggage.
Volvo has paid close attention to everyday usability, resulting in some nifty features like a hook that folds out of the cubby hole to hang packets on, and a small removable rubbish bin.
Ergonomically the car does take a bit of getting used to, with most functions including ventilation controlled via the 22.8cm portrait-oriented touchscreen, but there are at least a shortcuts to the climate page and from there it is fairly easy to work out - and dual zone climate control is standard.
The system also includes a decent sound system and navigation as standard, and it is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. As for all those life-saving gizmos that the Swedish brand is renowned for, the price includes things like the Collision Mitigation Support frontal accident prevention system with steering assist, as well as Lane Keeping Aid, but you do have to pay extra for a lot of the cool stuff.
Volvo’s Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system will set you back R19 000, for instance, while the Blind Spot Information System is R7650 extra and the 360-degree camera adds R13 500 to the tally.
At R693 000 before options, the XC40 T5 AWD is not priced shyly but it does compare favourably with rivals. It’s not the sharpest tool dynamically and the ride can get iffy (especially if you upsize those wheels), but it does offer strong performance, plenty of high-tech features and loads of style, while the cabin just oozes elegance, and is surprisingly practical. It’s desirable yet rational at the same time and a deserving winner of the 2019 European Car of the Year competition.