DRIVEN: Volvo XC40 T5 AWD R-Design

It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1999-2000, Volvo wasn’t completely sure that it could survive without being sucked up by Renault, nor did it fully believe that it needed a line of SUVs to survive and prosper.

In the modern eras, its really Subaru and Volvo that launched the notion of making its popular station wagon models into “SUV-like” vehicles. Subi crystalized the notion with the creation of its Outback models and trim language, and Volvo did the same for itself with its first Cross-Country (XC), and of course its wan’t long before Audi developed allroad, and you likely know the rest.

I was at the Volvo vehicle launch program those 20 or so years ago when Volvo’s then chairman told us, at dinner, the night before the next day’s drive program, that they wanted to show us and have us test and feedback on something “SUV-like.” We though we were there to preview the first of the new C70 retractable hardtop convertible coupes, which was true.

Yet ultimately the bigger news was the XC70 Cross-Country. Volvo and Subaru employed similar formulas to toughen up their regular all wheel drive station wagons into surprisingly legit SUVs: more rugged looking cladding and bumper trim, bigger wheels and all season tires, roof racks, more robust looking “tweedy” carpeting, and things like that. These were not four wheel drive rockhoppers, but cars meant to haul people and stuff in luxury and style down the occasional dirt trail, or up to the ski cabin. All wheel drive and a powerful turbo motor helped them do that job credibly.

The Cross Country wagon model has proven so popular that Volvo still produces and sells it.  Much time has moved along since that first XC, as Volvo never did join Renault, but was ultimately acquired by Ford, and has since moved on to Chinese ownership.  And of course the brand now markets a very full line of SUV models, in Small, Medium, and Large, they being the XC40 the XC60 and larger, 3-row seat XC90.  The XC40 is today’s subject, and my “Bursting Blue Metallic” (which is very true) tester hit my driveway loaded for bear, with the 248 horsepower turbocharged I-4, all wheel drive, and very sporty R-Design level trim, plus every bell, whistle and goodie the option list had to offer, for an all in price of $48,835.  Skip a few of the top options and you could likely get the sticker down to $40K or within a few bucks of it.

R-Design is a very upmarket, high level and tech looking trim standard, with high quality surfaces and materials everywhere you look and touch.  This car had the performance oriented suspension tune and very premium looking 20-inch rolling stock.  The engine is smooth and strong with a brilliant mid range torque curve, spooling out its near 250 horses that make their way to the ground via a sophisticated 8 speed automatic transmission oferring multiple programming modes, full automatic or paddle shifters by which to orchestrate the whole powertrain.  The 250 watt audio system sounds brilliant, and the bright touch screen nav worked a treat.

The instrumentation is clean and clear, the leather seating sturdy yet luxuriously comfortable, and the handling spectacular with absolutely killer brakes.  It goes, it sticks, it corners, and you can really make this car move, in complete safety and comfort, with an enthusiastic Euro edge to it.

I have but two complaints in an otherwise brilliant car.  The first is that all of the connectivity menus (for nav, systems check, presets and such) take a few to several seconds to fully load.  No biggy, by the time you fire the engine and buckle your belts, everything is pretty much loaded up and ready to go, although occasionally with a slight lag when switching between menus.  Certainly not a deal killer, but a surprise, and only minor annoyance.