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Volvo XC40 family test: utterly brilliant – until we found its one small but ridiculous flaw

The XC40: Get ready to see lots of these on Britain's roads
The XC40: Get ready to see lots of these on Britain's roads

Is the outgoing European Car of the Year really as good as everyone says? Stylish, practical, ultra-refined: Volvo’s new compact SUV seemingly has it all. So much so that the XC40 is marketed with the slogan: “Everything you need, nothing you don’t”.

My wife and I put this car through a three-month lifestyle test, driving it in all conditions on motorways, in cities and across country dirt tracks to see if it is the ultimate family car it claims to be.

It turns out it is rather superb after all - and yet it has one incredibly annoying flaw that will leave you scratching your head. Simply log in or subscribe to find out what it is.

Here are the many things the everyday driver will love about the XC40 - and a few things we definitely won't.

Safety

Forget, for just a moment, what this car looks and feels like. Arguably its greatest asset and certainly what stands it out against everything else in its class is its incredible safety system.

Thanks to some leading edge technology, the XC40 is able to do a number of pretty cool things that saved my skin on a number of occasions (and probably my life at least once). The XC40 brakes for you, steers for you, anticipates trouble and takes remedial action on your behalf. It suggests when you need take a break. It even appears to see round corners.

No wonder Volvo, whose mission is to ensure not a single person is killed in one of its new cars by 2020, is so heavily involved in driverless technology.

Inside the XC40: sleek, refined, comfortable

The City Safe system works by using a 360º series of radars and cameras linked to the car’s steering and braking systems. These scan the road for trouble, making adjustments and bringing you to a stop if necessary.

The system did this several times during my test (perhaps a damning indictment of my driving). When backing out of my driveway in front of a speeding car, making a blind turn into oncoming traffic, when my neighbour walked out behind me while I was reversing.

Without fail, it picked up the potential for trouble and took decisive action. Perhaps it was too trigger-happy at times, braking when I had things covered. But you can never be too careful, I suppose.

Most memorably, when a police car came thundering down the middle of a single carriageway, like everyone else I moved over to give the emergency vehicle space.

As it approached behind me and sensing that a rear collision from a speeding object was possible, the XC40 automatically overtightened my seat belt, pulling me firmly back into the seat and quite literally squeezing the breath out of me.

It also applied vice-like pressure to the brake as it braced for an impact that it turns out was never actually going to happen.

In conjunction with the Lane Assist function, those cameras also mean that if you venture too close to a white line or kerb, the auto-steering system will spring into life with very firm adjustments, much like the way I might steer my unsteady toddler.

If the system has to intervene too many times, it'll prod you into taking a break, even re-routing the satnav to the nearest service station. Now that is smart.

Looks and appeal

When I was a child, Volvos had no street cred whatsoever. They looked like boxy hearses, the sort of car a middle-aged geography teacher would drive. Something like this...

How Volvos used to look: Oh dear

Fast forward 30 years and this badge is the epitome of chic.

The XC40 is a lovely looking car. Its trademark curvy rear end, two tone body and chunky high bonnet makes it stand out in a hugely competitive SUV market.  It may be quite a bit smaller than the XC60 (see below), but it's bigger than the Range Rover Evoque and Nissan Qashqai, and only marginally smaller than a VW Tiguan.

You'd be pretty proud if this was sitting on your driveway

It feels roomy inside and has a generous 460-litre boot. I managed to get a full-length fridge freezer in mine thanks to the fold-flat seats...

A trip to the tip is no problem thanks to a 460 litre boot

Inside, the cheaper plastics are well hidden. The interior materials feel top quality. And you get the funky little design touches you'd expect from the Swedes, such as the passenger glove box handle doubling up as a bag holder (perfect for keeping your Friday night takeaway from slipping around the footwell). It even has a cool (but completely pointless) Swedish rubber flag sticking out the side of the bonnet.

We're not sure what the point of this little rubber Sweden flag is on the bonnet. But we like it anyway

If you're not used to using a tablet device, then the huge central touchscreen will come as a shock. There are very few buttons on this car and no dials. All controls are via the 12-inch pinch, swipe and press touchscreen apart from a few token buttons and the steering wheel controls. This will not be everyone's cup of tea - not least when you are trying to scroll your way through the system whilst concentrating on the road.

The touchscreen has some useful apps such as Spotify, Yelp and Find Parking, and you can subscribe to Volvo On Call - an app which allows you to control certain functions remotely such as unlocking and turning on the engine.

The sat nav is excellent: easy to use, clear and works particularly well on the upright display. Plus speed camera alerts come as standard which is a small but useful detail. I've driven several premium cars recently that did not have this option.

The heating controls would have been far easier with an old fashioned dial, especially when operating on the move. But at least everything works really well (the front and back screens cleared the thickest of January ice in seconds).

You can voice operate most functions as well, although I had trouble with this. I’m yet to find a satnav that understands cockney.

The drive

The XC40 comes in three main trim levels - Momentum, R-Design and Inscription - each of which can be specified in Pro form to give some additional upgrades. There are three petrol engines and two diesels.

The range starts with the entry level T3/D3 from £27,610 but Volvo expect the majority of sales to come from its T4, eight-gear automatic version. We tested the car in petrol mid-level Momentum Pro (£38,045 as tested), and also in its most popular diesel R-Design guise (£40,845).

You can get all models in 4WD, but we found the all-wheel-drive (AWD) version well composed even in the roughest winter conditions.

The XC40 really is a delight to drive. The handling is gorgeously smooth and responsive. Its proportions are just about perfect.

I didn't realise this until climbing back inside the Volvo after testing a number of new executive saloons. But the front seats and driving position are so much more comfortable- great if you suffer from back pain. The backseats are less comfortable, though, on account of being more upright (to make more room in the boot).

On the downside, the car feels very heavy - more so with the diesel. Both automatic versions require a surprising amount of welly to get anywhere fast from a standstill. As a result, we never got anywhere near the claimed average EU combined consumption in the brochure. The petrol ran at an average 28mpg and the diesel at 34mpg, pretty disappointing for a 2.0-litre family car.

This was in eco-setting, too. You get the choice of four driving modes, but do yourself a favour and leave ‘dynamic’ well alone - unless you actually like the sound of thrashing each gear to the red line.

All sounds good so far, so where’s the catch...

I’m scraping the barrel to find much wrong with this car. But there were a few things that simply annoyed my wife and I that would be remiss not to mention.

We found it odd that there's no obvious button to autofold the rear-view mirrors (if you are one of the few people who actually consult the handbook - I didn't have one - you know this can be done by holding down the left and right buttons simultaneously).

The heads up satnav display on the main instrument display is superbly practical

And you can call me old before my time, but the lack of buttons was, at times, just a pain in the backside.

Do you really want to have to swipe and scroll your way around to find the auto park function buried in the depths of the computer? Not when you’ve got an impatient idiot behind you honking his horn. And good luck trying to turn off an option when you’re on the move, such as the lane assist function through roadworks.

Yet the biggest bugbear without a doubt - and something that actually put off a friend who considered buying this car following a test drive - was how dark it is in the back of the XC40, around the rear seats.

You see, in the entry level Momentum trim - and remember the car I tested cost over £38,000 - you don’t get the benefit of illumination in the rear seats. It’s not even an added option. Only when you go up a trim to R-Design do you get “courtesy reading lights” in the inside door arches.

Try operating a baby’s Isofix seat in the pitch black or dealing with your five-year-old son having a nose bleed on the hard shoulder of the motorway at night, and you’ll understand why this is such a ridiculously devastating flaw.

This is genuinely the view looking inside the XC40 Momentum Pro at night. Rear courtesy lights may seem like a trivial point - but try doing without them when you live in the country

And it’s also a matter of principle. Like ordering a burger in a nice restaurant and it not coming with chips. There are just certain things you expect as standard in a car - especially for this kind of money.

Spot the difference: Left, the XC60, beside its smaller sibling the XC40

How it compares to its big brothers the XC60 and XC90

From Europe's best car to last year’s world champion, the XC60. Go up a class and you get something a bit larger, a bit more powerful and a bit more refined… but it will cost you.

A top-of-the-range Inscription-spec XC60 is arguably on a par with a Range Rover Sport

The XC60 feels comfortably bigger than the XC40 even if the official stats don’t show it. It’s only 20cm longer than the XC40 but you really notice the difference inside as it swallows a family of four with ease - with similar width and height dimensions.

That extra 20cm in length does make it hang out of parking spaces, however

The range starts at around £38,000 - so you’re paying in the region of £9,000 on top of the entry-level XC40 for basically a bit more leg room. The top-of-the-range T8 Hybrid Inscription version (£68,000 as driven and seen above) however is arguably on a par with the Range Rover Sport. It oozes class without ramming it down your throat.

Go up to the XC90 and you get an even bigger beast. Now this car is massive: I got a single mattress in the boot (with the rear seats down) and had feet to spare. You could literally camp in this car. 

A full sized single mattress in the boot of the XC90 - and still room for luggage

But the extra size comes at a cost. Volvo claim it will do 34-36mpg combined fuel economy. In reality I struggled to hit 24 in a week of driving. And the enormous width of the car makes the lane assist function at times quite a pain. I ended up turning this off, as I felt it was being overly bossy (and quite scary).

The XC90 starts at £52,235 and is no doubt a fine machine. It would be unfair to compare it to its smallest sibbling given it's in a completely different class.

Yet if I had to choose between all three, it's the XC40 that I'd go for every time. The mix of proportion, styling and the fact that it's considerably cheaper - with much of the same high-quality features - is a winning combination.

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