Style boosts SUV in bid for top rung

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There was a time when if you wanted a sports util­ity ve­hi­cle (SUV) you had to go big or go home. You had two choices: a big lux­ury SUV or some­thing more util­i­tar­ian with off-road abil­ity. Or some­thing that had both.

Then SUVs be­came smaller and then even smaller still when crossovers came along. Sud­denly small-sedan sales dwin­dled, sta­tion wag­ons al­most dis­ap­peared and even small hatch­backs were avail­able as cross­over de­riv­a­tives to make you think you are in an SUV.

The SUV has be­come the in­dus­try’s big­gest driv­ing force and few seg­ments are as com­pet­i­tive as the small to medium mar­ket. Here the Range Rover Evoque was king for a while, at least among the trendy set. The Toy­ota Rav4 set­tled in nicely lower down the scale and ev­ery­one from Audi to Volk­swa­gen had some­thing to suit.

In the pre­mium and sub­premium seg­ments, Audi has its Q3, BMW the X1 and X3 and now the style con­scious X2, Mercedes has its GLA and GLC and Jaguar has ex­panded its SUV on­slaught with the E-Pace.

And then there’s Volvo. The Swedish car maker was taken over by China’s Geely and never looked back, go­ing from strength to strength to the point where its pre­mium ri­vals are sit­ting at an awards cer­e­mony with­out hav­ing both­ered to write an ac­cep­tance speech be­cause they know the win­ner will be Volvo. The XC90 is a pre­vi­ous South African Car of the Year, the new XC60 due in May is the cur­rent World Car of the Year. The Euro­pean Car of the Year is the Volvo XC40 and it is avail­able in SA.

At the launch, Volvo SA ex­ec­u­tives dis­cussed how re­sale values and cus­tomer ser­vice have im­proved and that deal­er­ships are all un­der­go­ing ma­jor re­vamps over the next 18 months. But Volvo has to be about more than just great Swedish de­sign. The brand is adamant it is on a par with its Ger­man ri­vals, which would put it in the pre­mium seg­ment. That means pre­mium prices but is its self-ap­point­ment to the pre­mium big boys league jus­ti­fied?

It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to fault Volvo’s de­sign team. The XC90 her­alded the new era of great de­signs and it has car­ried through the S90 and XC60 to the XC40 with­out any di­lu­tion. The front is im­pos­ing with its big trade­mark grille, Thor’s Ham­mer day­time run­ning light sig­na­tures and a look of ath­leti­cism. The side pro­file shows a long bon­net and an al­most cabrear­ward de­sign like the iconic Volvo P1800. The rear is pos­si­bly the most dis­ap­point­ing area. Yes, it has sim­plic­ity and tra­di­tional Volvo style el­e­ments, but it’s just a bit bul­bous, al­though it does de­pend on the colour.

In­side all that el­e­gant de­sign is com­bined with some of the lat­est in tech. There is a large ver­ti­cal Sen­sus touch­screen in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem and a dig­i­tal in­stru­ment clus­ter. It is right up there with pre­mium ri­vals and, in some cases, even bet­ter.

Then there is stor­age, an area where Volvo has be­come the class leader, in ev­ery class. There are stor­age ar­eas for phones, in­clud­ing a wire­less charg­ing pad, large door pock­ets and a se­ri­ously clever fold­ing boot floor that can form a par­ti­tion so shop­ping bags do not empty their con­tents.

Re­gard­ing safety, the XC40 is well equipped. It has City Safety, Run-off Road Safety and loads of airbags, seat­belts and 40% of the safety cage is made from high­strength steel to pro­vide a solid cage but al­low en­ergy ab­sorp­tion in the event of the crash by the other ma­te­ri­als around it.

Strangely though, there is a lot of safety on the op­tions list, in­clud­ing blind spot de­tec­tion, some­thing that has been part of Volvos since the days when they re­sem­bled shoe boxes. The Pi­lot As­sist semi-au­ton­o­mous driv­ing is an op­tion, as is adap­tive cruise con­trol, sur­round de­tec­tion and rear cross traf­fic alert.

Sound­ing a lot like the Ger­man pre­mium ri­vals isn’t it?

Ini­tially there are just two engine op­tions, the 140kW, 400Nm D4 diesel or the 185kW, 350Nm T5 petrol. Both have all­wheel drive and Geartronic au­to­matic gear­boxes.

We took the D4 for a drive in­clud­ing putting it through some mild off-road routes on our usual test course. The engine lags a lit­tle on pull off but is good at medium speeds around town. The torque helped it cope well with a bit of mildly ad­ven­tur­ous ex­plor­ing and while we were warned against try­ing to cross a river (wad­ing depth is 450mm) it went through a de­cent ford with ease. 7.7l/100km 164g/km

It proved ex­tremely com­fort­able on the gravel and while the steer­ing could do with a bit more weight, it will suit most ur­ban in­hab­i­tants. On the road the D4 did dis­ap­point slightly with ride com­fort, mainly be­cause the sus­pen­sion al­lowed the body to pitch and roll in a way that would have a nod­ding dog feel­ing a lit­tle sea­sick. That dis­ap­peared when we jumped into the lighter T5 R-De­sign for a short run. The R-De­sign fea­tures slightly firmer sus­pen­sion, which re­moves that pitch and roll and pro­vides a bet­ter all­round ride. An op­tional adap­tive damp­ing sys­tem is avail­able on all mod­els.

While the D4 can get a lit­tle out of puff quite eas­ily, the T5 has in­stant power on tap that just keeps flow­ing. Yes you might use a lit­tle more fuel than in the diesel but if you want an all-round pack­age of­fer­ing a bit of power, econ­omy if you are cau­tious with your right foot and a com­fort­able ride, then its the T5 with the adap­tive sus­pen­sion or R-De­sign.

All mod­els in any spec will set you back more than six­hun­dred grand, with the top T5 AWD R-De­sign (the one that we most rec­om­mend) cost­ing R649,700.

Yes it’s a lot cheaper than an Evoque but while you do get much stan­dard equip­ment, it re­ally is up against the Q3, X2, GLA, E-Pace and VW Tiguan, all of which of­fer more in some ways and less in oth­ers.

And that’s just the Ger­mans. You could be in a top-spec Nissan X-Trail and have a large chunk of change.

Volvo will rem­edy things slightly later in 2018 with the ar­rival of the en­try-level T3 start­ing at R489,500 but you will prob­a­bly have to stretch to the R-De­sign ver­sion at R528,400 and then dig a lit­tle deeper into your pocket for op­tions to get the car you want.

The XC40 is a great pack­age and it seems un­fair just to judge it on price, but it is un­avoid­able.

It is unique in its styling, it has a beau­ti­ful in­te­rior and is prob­a­bly the safest car in the seg­ment by far.

I re­ally like it (but then I still want an 850R sta­tion wagon), the ques­tion is whether it is pre­mium enough to com­mand a pre­mium price.

Price: On sale date: Max power: Max torque: Top speed: 0-100km/h: Com­bined con­sump­tion: CO2 emis­sions: Star rat­ing:

The XC40 pro­vides unique styling that has much go­ing for it.

The rear, above, is pos­si­bly not as con­vinc­ing as the rest of the car. The in­te­rior, be­low, is prop­erly Volvo with lots of tech placed within sim­ple and el­e­gant de­sign.

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