Might one reason why Volvo’s first small SUV became first Volvo to win Europe’s most prestigious car gong is that it has somewhere to stow your tissues?
“People carry a lot of stuff.”
Frank Vacca (above), a senior Volvo executive in New Zealand this week to talk up the XC40 on sale from April in $59,990 front-drive T4 Momentum and $67,990 T4 Inscription and flagship R-Design T5 ($72,990 and $78,900 Launch Edition) all-wheel-drive formats, is relating a core finding from the unorthodox research Volvo undertook when shaping up its first ever sports utility.
Like a lot of brands setting out to sort the basics, Volvo determined to talk directly to a lot of prospective customers about what they really wanted from a car like this.
They went further than many, though, attests the XC40 project manager.
Rather than invite people to clinics to get into their heads, the brand instead sought to visit prospective punters’ homes, which was enlightening, because it not only showed aspects of lifestyle but also how they used their cars, Vacca says.
It was all very polite. “When we went to a customers’ house, they would have something to drink for us, some food and they probably cleaned the house.”
That was good insight, but there was something else Volvo’s people wanted to understand. So, at the culmination of the interview, they’d casually ask if they could have a look at the homeowner’s vehicle.
Bingo! Often, when looking into the cabins, they’d see exactly what they were looking for: A disorganised mess.
Tissue boxes were being left on the floor on dash tops because there was nowhere better to put them, phones were plonked into in drinks holders for the same reason. There was often stuff on the seats and the floor.
That’s the problem with small cars. They don’t always have a lot of room for stashing your stuff.
Volvo doesn’t like this kind of thing. It’s a neat freak and wants us to be that way, too.
So, accordingly, it decided early on that being compact would not inhibit the XC40 from being designed to have a stowage place for everything that people bring into their vehicles during the course of a normal day.
This emphasis on ‘clearness of space’ would enable the XC40 to set a new standard for ‘package engineering’ within its category, Vacca says.
“Car guys like myself like to talk in absolutes. We like to say our car has the largest or is the fastest.”
Neither of those factored into the XC40. Versatility and practicality. These were far more key.
“We were asking ‘how can we organise the space that we have?’ Because this was our reality. I mean, tissues boxes on the floor, nowhere to put garbage. I’ve gotta put my phone into a cupholder cos there’s nowhere else.
“So we kinda identified early on that we wanted clearness of space.”
The end result is a car that is stacked with soothing and smart solutions, all of which Vacca and a cohort, the car’s chief design engineer Johan Taws, were happy to point out on the sole XC40 in public view here, an R-Design on show at the temporary village operating from the Auckland viaduct while Volvo round the world racers are resting up.
By not installing audio speakers in the front doors – instead, they’re behind the firewall - they were able to enlarge the storage there. There are storage drawers under the front seats.
The centre console contains a bin big enough for a box of tissues and just ahead of it is a small lidded rubbish bin, easily removable for emptying.
Further forward there’s an angled phone tray, with built-in inductive charging. That’s becoming a norm, of course, but Volvo’s is different in orienting the inductive pad fore-aft, rather than across. That allows greater potential for being useful for XL-sized phones that might otherwise not fit.
Smart ideas are in the cargo compartment, too. Hinges hidden in the Volvo’s flat floorboard mean it can be folded to form a handy divider. Doing this also opens an extra underfloor storage area and exposes three built-in shopping bag hooks. The luggage protector can be removed and hidden under the floor. Storage capacity, above and below the floor, totals 460 litres.
The interior is also attractive. Volvo says XC40 was, from necessity, built to a tighter budget than the XC60 and XC90 but apart from its utilisation of some less expensive, sometimes recycled materials (the door insert panels are made from plastic bottles) there’s little to show for it being a cost-cutter.
Employment of the siblings’ big and bright portrait-oriented centre screen and a screen instrument display are emphatically premium. No scrimping on safety and driver assist, either. Volvo has a reputation for safety leadership and, further, doesn’t want its cars to cause deaths or even serious harm. So XC40 gets the same safety gear as the larger wagons. The list includes autonomous emergency braking, incorporating Volvo’s latest improvements in pedestrian, cyclist and large animal recognition.
Front and rear alike, the cabin is spacious. The roof pillar looks as if it will restrict the view from the rear seat but it actually isn’t a problem. The front seats are — as usual from Volvo — comfortable and supportive.
The reason why XC40 has come out now is obvious. The compact premium sector has gone red hot; having snared fewer than 100,000 global sales in 2010, it’s predicted to achieve nearly one million by the end of the decade.
“If you look at any particular market it will tell the same story and certainly your market here in New Zealand, it’s all about SUVs.”
He says this model rounds out the portfolio in following XC90 and last year’s XC60 but insists his firm hasn’t created Russian dolls in different sizes; that they’re cars which have highly individual characteristics.
“The normal paradigm within the automotive industry when you introduce a compact SUV is you take the large SUV, shrink proportions down and there you go. We didn’t want to do that.
“It was very clear from the beginning from our perspective that we wanted XC40 to have its own identity, its own unique visual, its own character, its own punch.
The design team was briefed to do something more individual,” says Vacca, pointing out that the shape of the side windows and rear roof pillar, and its high ground clearance lend a very distinctive look.
“From very early on we didn’t refer to the XC40 as a little brother to these cars (XC60 and XC90), we referred to it as a cousin. Same family but different.”
It’s also aimed at a same but different crowd; one that’s relatively well-heeled but also a bit different in that it’s less family-minded, with Volvo out to capture downsizers and young buyers who attune to those trendy upmarket Scandinavian brand vibes.
Kiwis can see from themselves within three weeks, but initially can only draw their conclusions from considering the R-Design, whose 2.0-litre turbo petrol is the most powerful offer, with 182kW and 350Nm, and produces the slickest off-line performance, with a factory-claimed time of 6.5 seconds.
Volvo NZ has secured 50 examples initially, of which 30 will be Launch Edition cars whose $6000 premium over the regular editions is accounted for by the addition of heated front seats, alarm, plus two packs that normally cost extra - driver support (adaptive cruise, pilot assist, 360 camera and parking pilot) that costs $2000 and lifestyle (tinted windows, power folding rear seats, panoramic sunroof and Harmon Kardon premium sound) that otherwise is a $5000 ask. They also have the regular edition’s 20-inch wheels, sports chassis, nappa leather and R Design sports trim highlights.
Four months later we’ll get the T4 models, sharing a 140kW/300Nm 2.0-litre turbo petrol, with 0-100kmh times of 6.8 (front drive) and 7.1 seconds. The front-drive has claimed thrift of 6.8 litres per 100km, against 7.1 for the all-wheel-drive models.
These models respectively ride on 18 and 19-inch alloys, but all have the full gambit of Volvo’s active and passive safety assists, have LED headlights, foglamps, a rear parking camera, park assist front and rear, dual zone electronic climate control, power driver’s seat with memory, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, navigation and wireless phone charging. The Momentum has cloth and vinyl seat trim, the Inscription goes to leather. It also gets a crystal gearknob, driftwood décor inlays, high level interior illumination, keyless entry and hands-free tailgate and a power front passenger seat.
Both can be upgraded with lifestyle or sports ($3000) packs – pick one or the other. The power tailgate is also a $1600 option for the Momentum.
Spreading the gospel about Volvo and XC40 is second nature for Vacca; apart from a brief stint with Mercedes, he’s been with the Swedish brand for all his working life and most of that time has been involved with marketing-related activity.
The accent gives away that he is not Swedish but American. He rose through the ranks in his homeland to hold senior marketing positions before accepting the parent brand’s call to come to the Chinese-owned make’s birthplace, Gothenburg, in early 2015.
His current role as senior commercial programme leader for XC40 is almost complete but the job of selling the sizzle at least ends on a great high, the car having just won an important plaudit sure to fuel its sales progress.
It’s just seven days since the model did something that no Volvo has done in the 55 years of the award: It brought the European Car of the Year title to Gothenburg.
They came close in 2016, with the XC90 finishing runner-up. That almost-there moment was a surprise as the prestigious annual award, given out at the current Geneva motor show and decided by Europe’s motoring journalists, has long shown a preference for picking vehicles price at a level that is attainable for the masses.
As is, this was the first compact SUV to win and Volvo is just the fifth premium brand to win the title since the honour was launched in 1964. The last premium-brand winner was the Audi 100 in 1983.
Does this silverware help sell the car? Well, put it this way. Volvo already holds 40,000 global orders for the car and it has yet to launch it in the two biggest markets, China and the United States.