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Volvo's first compact SUV isn't afraid to plough its own furrow. But can it edge the Volkswagen Tiguan in the compact SUV class?

Volvo has more or less accidentally discovered that it’s an SUV company.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, given that it’s a car maker founded on the virtues of strength and stability, but where once it was famed for its blocky, spacious estate cars, today those have given way to more dynamic-looking saloons and estates and the values of spaciousness and pragmatism are instead found more in its SUVs, the Volvo XC40, XC60 and XC90. 

Which is handy, given that 4x4s, crossovers or anything with a hint of rufty-tufty will likely find itself as one of the faster-growing and more profitable market segments there is. Whether by good fortune, design, or most likely a combination of the two, with Volvo and SUVs it’s very much a case of ‘right place, right time’, and the brand certainly isn’t letting this moment pass it by.

Having long offered a Volvo Volvo XC90 and Volvo XC60 but benefiting from a vast and rapid range renewal under Chinese owner Geely, Volvo has an SUV range that now accounts for more than half of all the cars it sells: the benchmark at which it accepts it is primarily a maker of 4x4s.

Those two larger off-roaders are based on the same modular platform, which also underpins the Volvo S90 and Volvo V90, and continue the same theme – although with vastly more confidence – as the XC60 and XC90 always have. The assertive elegance of their exterior designs and their superficially unremarkable but deeply cosseting and spacious cabins are hallmark traits of modern Volvo, and these bigger-hitting SUV derivatives know how to maximise their appeal along these lines.

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This new car, though - the XC40 - promises something a bit different. The big-three German car makers have had this section of the market – the premium compact SUV sector – pretty much to themselves until now, with cars that ape their larger siblings. They’ve recently been joined by the Jaguar E-Pace and the DS 7 Crossback, too, but the XC40 joins this ever-growing market with a car that’s wilfully different from its larger stablemates.

This is a younger market – both of itself, and in regards to the people who buy cars in it – so Volvo allowed its designers to cut a little more loosely when it came to sculpting this 4.4m-long vehicle.

Our test car is one of the early and very well equipped First Edition models, which were powered by a 188bhp diesel and used all-wheel drive. However, since the XC40’s introduction in 2017, Volvo has dropped diesel entirely from the line-up, which now consists of petrol and petrol-electric plug-in hybrid options with either front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and with outputs ranging from 129bhp for the entry-level XC40 T2 to an electrically assisted 259bhp for the T5 PHEV. 

As of 2021, there’s also even an all-electric version – the XC40 Recharge Twin – whose 402bhp twin-motor layout is shared with the Polestar 2. Further building out the variety of strokes based on the basic XC40 idea, that car is even available in C40 Recharge coupe form, with a sloping tailgate.

Trim levels then range from basic Momentum Core to top-billing Inscription Pro.

Volvo XC40 design & styling

Most compact SUVs tend to adopt a Russian doll approach to design and styling compared with larger models in their makers’ ranges, but Volvo has liberated the XC40 from the more sensible, formal design of the bigger XC60 and XC90. It’s a great deal funkier, chunkier, more outgoing and striking; perhaps the biggest diversion from Volvo normality since the 480 coupé – and certainly since the C30.

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Beneath that skin sits a new Volvo vehicle platform, CMA (Compact Modular Architecture), which will also underpin every smaller Volvo from now on.

As with the platform for Volvo’s bigger cars, CMA is a primarily steel monocoque, with a front-mounted transverse engine driving either the front wheels or, as tested, all four of ’em, and here through an eight-speed automatic gearbox. 

Later on, you can expect the range to grow to encompass more engines, transmissions and electrification mated to a three-cylinder petrol engine, but for now, there is a range of 2.0-litre four-pot motors. Our test car’s makes 188bhp at 4000rpm and its torque output is a healthy 295lb ft, generated from just 1750rpm.

Although Volvo is happy to offer a diesel now, the cost and complexity of making diesel engines meet ever more stringent emissions regulations incline the company’s engineering chiefs to believe that, not long into the next decade, it’ll stop offering them on new cars, as ever reducing battery costs will mean that a petrol hybrid will be not just as efficient but also cheaper to make than a good diesel. Volvo’s diesels haven’t recently been as competitive as some rivals, but we’ll see how it goes here.

The four wheels that it drives are suspended by MacPherson struts at the front, and a multi-link rear that gets, unlike larger Volvos, coil springs rather than a composite transverse leaf. In the UK, however, you can’t get the adaptive Four-C dampers that are available in other markets.

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