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Volvo scores with a lighter touch

As excellent as luxury German cars can be, they can also trend towards being a tad austere, clinical and humourless.

And Volvo has traditionally been something of the dorky, sensible and safe cousin among the European auto industry family.

But after a week in the XC40 it seems the brand has decided to lighten things up a bit — both figuratively and literally.

It’s hinted at by the small Swedish flag badge on the side panel and confirmed once you hop inside.

The cabin is a bright and open space, with excellent visibility.

There is still much of the same chrome and dark leather as found elsewhere, but here it is employed with a bit more flair, such as the mirrorball- like dash and door trim, the long and slender air vents used throughout and Volvo’s massive portrait-shaped infotainment screen.

It still makes the car seem appropriately top-end — this isn’t a Mini, after all — but here things seem a bit more free-flowing than rigidly thought out.

Volvo XC40
Camera IconVolvo XC40

And just as impressive is how little the XC40 feels like a compact SUV. There’s plenty of storage up front and there’s no unintentional elbow knocking with front passengers.

Pleasingly, this continues in the back. At 185cm, I easily had enough leg and head room behind my own driving position despite a sunroof (foot room was a bit awkward, though) and we were able to fold down the rear seats to accommodate a bunch of bulky items destined for dumping at the sister-in- laws while still having room for our son’s car seat.

The R-Design is the top-spec XC40 and the gear is suitably impressive. There are heated seats, wireless phone charging, bending LED headlights, electric tailgate, sat nav with road sign information, head-up display, Harman Kardon premium sound system and more to impress your passengers.

The safety tech is also comprehensive, including pedestrian, vehicle, big animal and cyclist detection, steering support, semi-autonomous driving, 360-degree camera and more, but crucially it almost never feels intrusive; the auto hill hold was the exception, kicking in unexpectedly on rather innocuous inclines and declines, resulting in jerky take-offs.

But the XC40 does feel like a small SUV when you’re on the move — which is a good thing.

Steering is effortless and the tight turning circle makes it easy to squeeze into parking spots.

It feels light and nimble at all times, urged on by a more-than- willing 185kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo four pot paired with a smooth eight-speed auto transmission.

Volvo XC40
Camera IconVolvo XC40

Unfortunately, the engine is a tad thirsty around town; 7.7L/100km is relatively high for a vehicle this size these days and we struggled to keep it under 10L/100km.

And the gear lever is, frankly, stupid. Rather than a single movement to go from Reverse to Drive, it required two. It’s not very intuitive and even after a week we still found ourselves trying to take off from neutral.

And while we’re fans of Volvo’s current design approach, we’re not totally sold on the back end; there’s a bit too much clean space in some areas, though as always looks are subjective.

Plus, design boffins recently awarded the XC40 a Good Design award, so what do we know?

VERDICT

Just as it has with the bigger XC90 and XC60, Volvo has injected the premium small SUV segment with a quality offering. The XC40 is good to drive, convenient and has a personality distinct from the rest of the Euro luxury brands.

VOLVO XC40

Model T5 R-design Launch Edition

Price $56,740

Engine 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol

Outputs 185kW/350Nm

Transmission Eight-speed automatic, AWD

Thirst 7.7L/100km

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