2019 Volvo XC40 R-Design Review: A Compact Crossover Packing Style and Smarts Alike

This small Volvo SUV’s beauty runs deep, bringing with it ultra-efficient packaging and ingenious features.

byLawrence Ulrich|
Volvo Reviews photo

With automakers seemingly determined to put every last American into a crossover, the subcompact class is growing as fast as SUVs are shrinking. A miniaturized luxury division that once seemed a lark has grown to encompass the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, Land Rover Evoque, BMW X1 and X2, Audi Q3, Infiniti QX30, Mini Cooper Countryman All4, and Jaguar E-Pace, with an all-new Lexus UX in the wings. Indecisive types may have a meltdown as they figure out where to send their monthly payments.

The Volvo XC40 complicates those choices, because it appeals to both sides of a consumer brain—let’s call them the Dionysian and Apollonian—in a way that can confuse an old-school Volvo fan, for whom a boxy lack of style was integral to Volvo's style. So allow me to simplify matters. Do you like the way the Volvo looks, this handsomely tailored Swede with evidently good genes? I mean, do you absolutely love it, in a movie-crush way that you’ve never felt for an SUV? Do you love the XC40 so much that “SUV” seems to utterly fail as a descriptor? Well, then just buy the damn thing, and you won’t be disappointed. You can even tell the neighbors you bought the Volvo because it was the safest, so they won’t think you’re shallow or selfish.

Something bold, something blue, Lawrence Ulrich

With apologies to Volvo for oversimplification, the XC40 is a style play. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the Volvo measures up in other areas, which it mostly does. At least the Volvo has a play to get separation from the SUV scrum. This XC40 definitely brings the wowza factor that’s especially rare among SUVs, an effect heightened by my tester’s Bursting Blue metallic paint. If you’ll forgive some cigar-tinged male harrumphing, that design charisma seems to especially affect women, who tend to perspire over the XC40 as reliably as if it were a dashing, Mr. Darcy-like Jaguar. Not coincidentally, the Jaguar E-Pace is likely the Volvo’s fiercest rival when it comes to high-class looks. But I enjoyed driving the Volvo more than I did the Jag, and the Volvo feels like a more practical, family-friendly choice — in fact, one of the most efficiently packaged and thoughtfully designed entries in the class.

Contrasting black roof and 20-inch black alloy wheels are options, Lawrence Ulrich

The XC40’s clamshell hood is a complicated piece—but, fronted by Volvo’s reassuring coat of arms, it delivers a bite and panache that carries through to the rest of the design. The conjugation of the black roof and rising, body-colored sheetmetal elevates an SUV design cliché into something truly compelling. Details? The XC40’s got ‘em, from “Thor’s Hammer” LED headlamps to rear lighting that traces the spread-hipped tail like lipstick on a cocktail napkin. That contrasting black roof, a stylistic signature of R Package versions, seems nearly a must-have, despite the package's $2,500 upcharge that adds 17 exterior and interior features—everything from slightly sportier tuning to 19-inch alloy wheels, black roof rails, integrated tailpipes, LED foglamps, paddle shifters, and seat-cushion extenders up front.

XC40's style is arresting at any speed, Volvo

A few interior plastics look more mainstream than luxury, but the Volvo will still charm any occupant with its modernist Scandinavian layout, including art gallery-worthy metal vents and the Sensus Connect infotainment system with its dramatic, vertically-oriented touchscreen. (To really spice things up, choose off-white or red upholstery, or optional Lava Orange carpet). The R-Package goes a long way to boost luxury impressions, with such features as ambient lighting, grid-patterned aluminum “Deco” trim, a black headliner, and precisely supportive seats clad in leather. As for that Sensus system, the graphics are slick and the functions generous, but screen response seems laggier here than in pricier Volvos like the S80.

Volvo cabin classes things up, here with optional Lava Orange carpet, Volvo

The Volvo can pack 20.7 cubic feet of gear behind its rear seats, and 47 cubes with those second-row seats folded, an operation that can be smoothly accomplished with one hand. On paper, those cargo specs are average for the class—a BMW X1 holds a maximum 59 cubes—but they understate what the Volvo can swallow, which is one hell of a lot. In practical terms, the Volvo feels one size larger than it actually is. (That size, incidentally, is 174.2 inches in length, or 3.7 inches shorter than a Honda Civic hatchback). 

Stubby electronic shifter is needlessly fussy, Volvo

First, the Volvo essentially doubles the door-and-cubby storage space of its rivals, and that’s a big edge when you’re comparing such relatively small vehicles. Eliminating low-mounted door speakers in favor of a Harmon/Kardon subwoofer in the dash, carves out room for door pockets that feel larger than the ones in some full-size SUVs. Volvo says each pocket can manage a laptop and tablet—or, as I found out, two huge water bottles. The driver also gets a secret stash tray that slides out of the front seat cushion. 

The rear cargo area adds hidden, underfloor storage below a hinged floor lid. A hook folds down from the glovebox to hang a grocery bag or purse. Cleverest of all is the lidded, removable garbage bin in the center console, one of those “duh” moments in design that you’d think every automaker would have latched onto by now. Think of it as a super-sized ashtray in a car from a few decades ago, but updated for a healthier age.

Graceful vents are another design standout, Volvo

With its abundance of good design, it’s amazing how Volvo managed to screw up a human interface as crucial as the electronic console shifter. This stubby doohickey is the XC40’s biggest misstep, beginning with its vague, too-short travel. An initial tug moves the transmission into neutral, and then you have to tug it a second time to actually find drive or reverse. Until I figured out its Johnny-Two-Times operation, I lost count of how many times I was stuck in neutral, revving the engine like a moron. And the “Park” button is a miniature, poorly-located chiclet on the console that’s hard to see and harder to poke. Kick things up to the $39,390 Inscription model, however, and that gearshift knob adopts the Orrefors crystal offered on larger Volvo SUVs, so at least you’ll look fancy while you’re jimmying the shifter.

Volvo's signature "Thor's Hammer" headlamps,    Volvo

In pricier T5 guise, the XC40 generates a healthy 248 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque from its 2.0-liter “TwinPower” engine, so named for its one-two punch of turbo- and supercharging. And where this four-banger engine, mated to a relaxed-feeling eight-speed automatic transmission, can sound stressed and overmatched in larger, pricier Volvos—including the big S80 sedan and V90 wagon—it’s perfectly suited to its small-fry mission here. Volvo figures a 6.2-second sprint to 60 mph, and the XC40 feels eager and peppy at all times.

XC40 really makes the most of its interior space, Volvo

The Volvo isn’t expressly sporty to drive in the manner of the BMW X1; there’s a kind of soufflé layer to the suspension, including some body roll in curves, and steering feedback is negligible. Yet the XC40 can really stay out of its own way. In Volvo fashion, the chassis has a pleasingly limber, elastic feel; on the roller-coaster Saw Mill Parkway north of Manhattan, the Volvo had no trouble dispatching curves at family-frightening speeds. My test model added burly 20-inch, matte-black alloys that looked dramatic and boosted grip, but exacerbated the Volvo’s somewhat jittery ride.

Seats are handsomely wrought and all-day supportive, Volvo

If the Volvo has a handicap versus some rivals, it’s the surprising thirst for premium fuel. The EPA claims that the XC40 T5 AWD will deliver 23 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 on the highway, rising to 29/36 mpg for the XC40 front-wheel-drive-only T4 version. All I can say is, the EPA is stoned. I never came come close to 31 mpg in my T5 tester, achieving no better than 27. During modestly spirited highway use, I saw as low as 22 mpg. In comparison, I’ve experienced as much as 34 mpg on the highway in the Mercedes GLA-Class, and 32 mpg with no sweat in the BMW X1 or Audi Q3. 

The Volvo’s fuel tank is also relatively stingy. On a 160-mile run at normal highway speeds, the Volvo downed half a tank of fuel, meaning I’d have been stopping after barely 300 miles to fill up.

Sensus touchscreen takes a (smaller) page from Tesla, Volvo

As Volvo has dragged the brand upscale (perhaps a bit rapidly for some longtime fans), the Swedish brand has mastered the very-German art of appealingly low base prices broken by the cold slap of reality, best delivered by a salesman with a rolled-up options sheet. The T4 Momentum starts at a reasonable-sounding $34,195. I haven’t driven one, but its combo of 187 horsepower and front-wheel-drive may make it seem unreasonable for luxury SUV buyers who demand four-wheel traction or generous power. Most buyers will turn to the 248-hp, T5 AWD Momentum that starts from $36,195. The aforementioned upcharges for higher trims brings a T5 R-Design to $38,695, and the T5 Inscription to $39,390.

(Number-crunchers may be intrigued by the Care by Volvo program, which allows you to drive an XC40 Momentum or R-Design for no money down at either $650 or $750 a month, a flat rate that includes full insurance, no-cost maintenance, coverage on some wear items, a 15,000-mile annual allowance, and the option to trade for another Volvo after just 12 months.)

Lawrence Ulrich

My XC40 T5 AWD R-Design had a features list as long as its name, including Vision ($1,100), Premium ($900) and Advanced ($995) packages. Don’t forget a panoramic sunroof ($1,200), those 20-inch alloy wheels ($895) and Harmon/Kardon premium audio ($895); heated front seats/steering wheel ($795), and metallic paint ($595). All told, my XC40 reached $45,835. 

Safety is assured in this Volvo, Volvo

Personally, I might lean toward the BMW X2 in this class, for the Bimmer’s class-kicking performance. But while BMW’s tall hatchback is funky, nerd-cool, and smartly equipped, its design doesn’t dazzle in the manner of this Volvo. As The Drive’s Josh Condon has noted, it’s nothing short of remarkable how Volvo has refashioned itself as a high-design brand almost overnight, with a fresh Scandinavian aesthetic that's distinct from the competition. 

I should underline that Volvo’s fashion revolution hasn’t distracted the brand from its safety mission: The XC40 incorporates everything from City Safety collision mitigation for cars, pedestrians, cyclists and large animals; to whiplash-protecting seats and adaptive cruise control with lane keeping and steering assist. Add those comforting, leading-edge safety features, and traditional conservative Volvo buyers are in the clear: You can hook up with this Prince-scale sexpot with no morning-after guilt. 

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com