Sensitive Initial Conditions

Entry-level, Gothenburg style. 

All images: The author

The opportunity was there for the taking. With Nimrod (my Volvo S90) in for his annual service, the weather dry and bright and only myself to fall out with, I wandered from Service Desk to Sales Area with some trepidation. There is always that certain feeling of unease when handing over the key — butterflies regarding the dreaded phone call, ‘nothing to worry about, Mr Miles, but…’ or on the other hand, not hearing anything for hours. 

To help these feelings pass, I wandered the used Volvo parade. Out of the two dozen on sale, over 50% were XC40’s, the solitary XC90 proudly wearing its ‘Sold’ badge. No S60 saloons, only a few wagons, the brace of black XC60s engaging none of my attention. The 40 (we’ll drop the XC herein) is this branch’s best seller. “Buyers like the height, the ‘cheaper’ price, the chunky looks without it being too brash,” the young sales fellow told me. 

With the majority the usual white, black or grey, from the line up, catching my eye (maybe too strong an emotion), I paused: a silver edition. The interior however caused a gasp. Goodness! Oxide Red makes quite the statement. As did the windscreen price — £32,000. Sourced from elsewhere but clearly little used, the odometer confirming but 9,000 miles covered.

My licence details checked, the car was brought over to me followed by a thorough ten minutes checking comfort levels and familiarisation. It being practically the same as my S90, everything was fine before heading out for my allotted hour alone; “Some folk just don’t want us around” being the salesman’s last words before I headed out onto the  highways feeling like so many other other motorists of the modern stripe in their crossovers.

First impressions: neat enough. Not so much the styling, this is merely passable. Entry and egress a doddle for dodgy knees. Unusually it’s inside where the drama happens. The seats are ergonomic, just not as comfy as the S90. But that red! From outside, peering in through misted up windows they look orange but I found both premise and reality rather interesting. The cabin is compact yet spacious. The dashboard wood is reclaimed (from where?) and brightens the ambience. Views out are fine, even those over the shoulder, which must be a height advantage.

Those robust A-Pillars could hide a truck at the wrong angle but my route avoided most traffic problems. A windy but dry external six degrees meant the heated seats were on but even at this Inscription Pro trim level, no heated steering wheel, which felt rather plastic. As indeed did a lot of the interior. Nimrod’s surfaces are in the main padded leather or at least more plush in the soft furnishing department. 

My ears are tuned to filtering out the S90’s diesel rumble but in this instance I chose not to sample the speaker system. Interesting me more was the Orrefors gear selector. The cold glass felt nice as I prodded the options. Tactile, design conscious and barely touched, more is the pity. For the manual change, one nudges the glass to the side but I cannot think for one minute many owners do — too much the distraction. 

Mercifully quiet roads allowed the gears to seamlessly change. Having recently driven the Recharge version, I sampled the loftier reaches offered by such vehicles. And I must be honest by saying the elevation is rather nice, if only to see over the stone walls on my bucolic drive. On progression, this higher perch settled well. The 40’s corners were clearly visible leading to excellent lane keeping — Nimrod’s width can be a problem over the same route. Chunky mirrors allowed the view of the rooster tails of spray as we splashed through moorland puddles. At one point I pulled into a pub car park to sample the reversing camera (after a dab to R) which was both helpful and distracting. This Inscription trim has bells, whistles and more besides; the more safety systems fitted, the less we take notice. 

Opening the taps led to an unexpected throaty enough tune exiting the pipes. With 188bhp from its 1.5-litre petrol, inside was quite serene. Viewing highlights saw two different kestrels along with a Barn Owl. My imagination believed I could see the bird’s lunch of mice or vole — damn this height advantage!

Taking the 40 to the National speed limit was quite unassuming. Being practically new, the brakes felt different to my S90 norm. Bloody hell, no wonder this type of car sells well. The 19” rubber dealt admirably with pot holes, loose edges and those water splashes. Then my route took a literal rocky road. A dashboard press brought about the setting change from Comfort to Off Road. The 40 traversed the connecting quarter mile farm track with ease. A three point turn (any excuse to grapple with Orrefors…) and we sailed back up as comfortably as wearing slippers. 

The car’s full title being a T4 Inscription Pro 5dr AWD Geartronic meant the car felt planted yet this driver couldn’t quite get past the leaning over stage. At no point did the 40 feel lose or cumbrous (though I was hardly being over-encouraging) but a part of my brain told me we were leaning. Is this the consequence of driving a saloon? I don’t recall the Recharge feeling this way. Maybe I got overexcited by the fact that the view of the oncoming, empty road allowed an uninterrupted flow until the milk tanker suddenly appeared. A firm right foot saw the 40 gallop past. 

Hairpin bends being prevalent, steering assistance felt safe but the hour was almost up. The need to press on soon found me back in the urban crawl, where this vehicle will mainly reside. Now at walking pace allowed another glance around the cabin. Be that the trim level is actually above that of Nimrod, the overall feeling is definitely lower. 

Should that sound snobbish, here’s our conversation on returning:

Salesman: “I know what you’re going to say. You liked the 40 but not as much as your S90”.

AM: “Indeed. Everything was fine but…”

S: “The 40 is a ‘starter’ Volvo for many. You’ve got the topmost level. You’d need at least a 60, if not a 90 or buy a Rolls-Royce!”

AM: “Thank you, the S90 remains most pleasing and I love the saloon shape and style”. 

S:  “We’d love to take it off your hands — we don’t get too many in and it’s a belter of a spec!”

Which of course led to the inevitable ‘how much’ question, to which the answer surprised me. Not enough to abandon my Hunting Saloon but food for thought. No salesmen were hurt in the making of this report. In fact, they epitomised openness, friendliness and understanding. How refreshing.

Returning to the Service desk smiling, I was pleasantly surprised to see Nimrod waiting for me, that phone call never received. Barring oil and those other consumables a service entails, the only addition being a pair of wipers, duly fitted, Nimrod whisked me away, the 40 already a distant memory. An itch scratched.

But £419 for a car wash (inside and out) seems a bit excessive.

And a week since writing, someone clearly thought better than I — sold!

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

21 thoughts on “Sensitive Initial Conditions”

  1. I find the Oxide Red seats rather attractive – but the door cards don’t match….

  2. I had exactly the same experience when i sampled a C5 aircross against my 2015 C5 sallon. The C5, even with 120 K miles on the clock now, will stay for good, thank you.

  3. Good morning Andrew and thanks for your impressions of the XC40. It is certainly one of the better examples of its breed, at least in terms of image, but there are a couple of exterior design issues I couldn’t live with:

    The horizontal shut-lines at the trailing edge of the bonnet, where it meets the A-pillar and door, are a problem. The former should be aligned with the lower DLO line, but sits an inch too high on the A-pillar. The latter stops too abruptly and just looks ‘wrong’ to me.

    Your second image also highlights another problem for me, the horizontal capping piece that breaks up the C-pillar. It works ok (-ish) on examples with a different coloured roof, but just looks wrong when the roof and body-colour are the same. I’m also no fan of the way the lower DLO line kicks up under the rear quarter light.

    Moving up the Volvo range, the XC60 is near-perfect, apart from the overly angular shapes on the lower body sides between the wheel arches:

    The XC90 is just about perfect, as good as a large SUV gets, at least:

    I guess you get what you pay for!

    1. Now you mention those issues I can’t unsee them. One of the many things I admire about Volvo is how they’ve ‘owned’ vertical rear lights for the last few decades. I think the Fiat Punto was one of the first cars to do this (I’m sure others will correct me), but Volvo have stuck with it for cars with a rear door. It seems a very practical solution for safety, and also loading-width with a hatchback.

    2. Hi Daniel, I did a bit of “normal-fying” on the XC40 (without going for the most elegant solutions, just ones more aligned with the other XCs). I thought it would highlight the odd proportions, but I don’t think it’s *that* bad, only the very shallow DLO is a bit obvious here.

    3. Nice work, Tom. That’s a great improvement to the DLO and bonnet shut-lines. 👍

      I guess the lower bodysides cladding in black helps to disguise the height (and shallow DLO) which becomes more apparent when the cladding us in body-colour. My ideal would be your upper body amendments with the original lower body cladding in black.

    4. Thanks, Daniel. Ask and thou shalt recieve (if I happened to have done that one too, that is 😁):

    5. Hey Daniel,

      Agreed that stylistically the XC40 is the most compromised and the XC90 is the best resolved. The XC60 has another minor stylistic niggle for me beyond the ‘dents’ you mention on the lower portion of the doors: I’ve never liked the large infill panel between the taillights where the ‘V O L V O’ wordmark appears. On the XC90 it is well proportioned and the ‘notch’ into the tailgate glass seems appropriate, but on the XC60 it feels bulbous and far too large, giving the tailgate a ‘large forehead’ appearance:

      Worse yet are the V60 estates where the crease on the aforementioned infill panel pushes the wordmark quite far up leaving an odd and unsatisfying blankness right above the license plate opening:

      It just feels like a backward step from the preceding V60 which, although less distinctive and pretty in every other way, handled the wordmark panel perfectly in my opinion:

    6. Good afternoon Alexander. I hadn’t noticed that issue before, but you are right: in both the examples you cite, the panel looks too bulbous, as though it had been stuck on top of the light clusters rather than being an integral part of the tailgate. Well observed. 👍

    7. Now that you mention it, indeed, the “VOLVO” wordmark on the back of the V60 station wagon really should be placed lower. I hadn’t noticed, because I haven’t seen any of these cars here in Athens – SUVs are all the rage, and most people still think of station wagons as five-door hearses or a plumber’s car.

    8. Nice job, if less distinctive and looking like a Mk 1 Mokka X.

    9. Thanks, that is probably why Volvo went the way they did with the XC40.

    10. Sometimes I wonder whether they deliberately leave these styling faults there for the likes of us to criticise! Maybe it’s better for an ugly detail to be remarked on than for your vehicle to pass unnoticed? The XC40 looks more Chinese than Scandinavian; it lacks the cleanness and proportioning of the larger two. From what you write, Andrew, it is really a Volvo not a rebadged something else – it just doesn’t particularly look like one.
      While I was waiting for a friend in a city car park the other day, I saw an XC40 and was taken by just how small and measly-looking those windows are. Surely there is no mechanical safety reason why the side window line couldn’t be dropped below the level of the bonnet, as on the XC60. Say to the level where the mirror attaches at the moment, that’d be, what, two inches deeper?
      That would shift your proportions, and then there might not be the need for so much lower-body black over-detailing, which seems to be used here as a stylistic band-aid. The larger ones don’t have it, and indeed don’t need it.

    11. Agreed on both the hood shutlines and the rear passenger door DLOs. One of our neighbors has this particular car, and thankfully he got it in black. Of the “premium” SUVs currently on offer, the only one I could live with, design-wise, is the XC60, although it’s beyond my current pay grade. Now, as for the interior, I love the oxide red upholstery (my wife won’t agree with me here), but I think it’d all have been more complete if the door cards had some red leather or leatherette panels in them as well. Possibly the dash, too.

      I also noticed that the gear lever and the surrounds for the cup holders in the central console are chrome-finished. I can’t say for sure if they’re stainless steel or chrome-plated metal, or if they’re metallized plastic. The third option is the most likely, to be honest: my Delta’s grille, door pulls, along with several other interior trim bits are metallized plastic. While I understand doing this for the grille (for pedestrian protection reasons) and maybe for the external door pulls (probably to help rescue teams get you out of the car if it catches fire), metallized plastic is NASTY. It swells up, it flakes, it even crazes like – erm – crazy.

      I know this sort of thing apes 1970s and 1980s Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Silver Spirit interiors, but I’d much rather see plain grey or black plastic there, or a wood veneer.

    12. Good points about the rears. In general, I think the rears of the current – otherwise rather excellent – generation of Volvos are their weakest point.

      As a final experiment I tried to rework the XC40 into the C40n hatchback (which along with the S40-turned-Polestar-2 might have been in the works at one point):

  4. I really like these reviews – they seem to say more (or be more interesting) than standard reviews. I think it may partly be due to there being more context.

    Re the wood – from a bit of research, I think it may be driftwood and wood reclaimed from forests. Various Volvo sources are a bit vague on the subject.

  5. I really like the XC40, although it’s now so popular one hardly notices any more. The 90 is the nicest looking large SUV, and the S and V 60 and S and V 90 are terrific designs. I am less keen on the XC60 and the new EX90, though. The really striking thing is how expensive they and other new cars like this have become – terrifying really.

  6. The XC40 looks great for me; compact, solid, and planted…, except for that beltline that kick up on the rear doors. It breaks the harmony of the design and generates way too much sheetmetal on the C pillar. I like Tom V’s proposal, but I’d go even further by getting rid of the upkick completely and only leaving a sort of Hofmeister kink.

    I agree with Daniel, the XC90 is perfection when it comes to large SUVs, especially in a light metallic colour with light leather interior. It’s already been around for some time, so its replacement is likely not far. I have the uneasy feeling that it won’t be as elegant and neat.

    P.S.: I had a chuckle when I saw that picture of the C pillar (second pic) and I thought: …now, that’s a perfect place on which to put an inscription… that reads “INSCRIPTION” 😀

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