Parkers overall rating: 4.3 out of 5 4.3

Update 1: Welcome

Volvo XC40 T5 Recharge with bike

Plug-in hybrids will no longer be sold after 2035, shortly after regular petrol and diesel cars go off sale. Is this XC40 a good stepping stone on the way to an EV, or should you go straight for pure battery power?

Times have changed a lot since the last time I ran a plug-in hybrid long termer. That car (a VW Golf GTE) had to put up with a lot of long motorway drives for photoshoots, launches (or more likely) bike trips plus a commute which, at the time, was just too long. So while it was capable of using very little fuel, I didn’t often give it a chance to demonstrate it.

To balance things out I leant the Golf to one of my Bauer colleagues whose commute fit the 20-odd miles the battery could provide, and he loved it. In fact he bought one. However, if your lifestyle is as erratic as mine (used to be) then more often than not you’ll end up with a thirsty petrol engine lugging a flat battery around. So while I loved the styling and the breadth of ability with that car, it really was a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ with the fuel economy.

Times have changed though and for a lot of us the journeys we make in our cars have changed with them. Fewer photoshoots and car launches, and crucially no commute or early morning airport runs, means in my first month this plug-in Volvo XC40 T5 Recharge has gone through less than half a tank of petrol. Even my frequency of bike rides had dropped off, except for those in my garage strapped to a turbo trainer. If only there was some way of charging the battery with pedal power.

Watts

I’m sure things will change a little bit now Lockdown 2.0 is behind us – but my journeys so far have included running the kids about in the morning, going to the shops and the odd family excursion on the weekend for exercise. Rarely have these trips breached the Volvo’s claimed 28 mile battery range. Now though with an increase in work events perhaps that fuel economy will suffer.

One thing’s for certain – a car’s driving experience improves dramatically when you’re able to plug it into the wall, especially in winter. From my warm bed I can tell the Volvo to defrost itself and activate my heated seat and steering wheel so they’re toasty when I get in, all while my neighbours are still outside scraping.

That’s not all. Electric propulsion is just a nicer way to move around town. It’s unobtrusive, smooth and picks up instantly, so there’s no faffing around at roundabouts or when red lights turn to green like some of my previous cars (ahem, Audi A6 Allroad). It's also feels great to take the family out for some fresh air, and not immediately fill said air with exhaust fumes.

It’s a super chilled experience on faster roads too, the petrol engine occasionally chiming in to boost acceleration and then subduing itself again when you’re up to speed, making for a very quiet and relaxing cabin. In fact the best way to drive this XC40 is to work as hard as possible to keep the petrol engine out of the picture.

So, is the plug-in hybrid drivetrain in the XC40 still incompatible with my lifestyle? Would a standard petrol or pure electric make more sense? And just what is my tow bar bike rack going to do to the fuel economy? In six month’s time we’ll have answers to all those questions and more.

 


 

Update 2: Interior and comfort

The XC40's interior needs to be good value for money at one end of the brochure and capable of competing with other £50,000 SUVs at the other. Is that too much to expect one car to do, or can this Volvo offer all things to all people?

The idea of doing longer journeys in the XC40 has been somewhat torpedoed by another covid lockdown. I’ve been driving reasonably regularly, but none of my journeys have needed any combustible fuel to be used.

At first this filled me with an immense feeling of wellbeing as I wafted around in battery powered refinement without producing any tailpipe CO2, until I realised I’ve been hauling a heavy, unused petrol engine the whole time. That’s a role-reversal from my last plug-in hybrid long termer, except in that instance it was the electric motor and battery that often fell redundant.

Still, those shorter journeys have given me plenty of time to poke and prod at the Volvo’s interior and try and separate it a bit from the V60 long termer I previously ran and Keith’s old S90, which I drove a few times when I could convince him to give me the keys.

Why are those cars relevant? Well, better than anyone else (I think) Volvo offers a very level field of interior quality across its range of cars. This XC40 is the Swedish maker’s smallest car and yet it doesn’t feel like a nose-dive inside compared to more expensive models. Sure, it doesn’t have the massive crystal gearshifter from Murray’s XC90, but if anything that’s a bonus.

Partly this is because all Volvos share the same 9.0-inch portrait touchscreen and 12.3-inch driver’s display, so there’s no disparity in screen tech, although the Sensus system is starting to look a bit dated compared with the crisp graphics and IMAX-worthy set up in an Audi, for example.

The sat nav graphics are a bit cartoony and while you can show an overview of your journey on the main screen and turn-by-turn on the driver’s screen, you have to keep manually moving and zooming-in on the map. I like having a picture of the whole trip on the big display, if only to neutralise “how much further?” inquiries from younger passengers, and most other two-screen setups can cope with this.

I still like the portrait orientation though, and it’s just as useful in this more modest size as the gargantuan units in a Ford Mustang Mach-E or Tesla Model X, because it shows more of the road in front of you on the map.

The most popular car functions are also all contained within a page located one swipe to the right so there’s no hunting around in a dozen menus to put the traction control in sport mode, for example (hello VW Golf, I’m talking about you again).

It’s also worth bearing in mind that cars like the XC40 (in fact, particularly the XC40) are now offered with a massive range of engines, from cheap petrols to expensive PHEVs and fully electric too. As such this T5 R-Design Pro with its extra motor and batteries costs nearly double the price of the entry-level petrol car. We’ll talk about whether this drivetrain is worth it in a later update – for now though consider the challenge in making a car interior that returns a profit at £25,000, while being high enough quality to compete with £50,000 rivals.

For the most part the XC40 succeeds. Everything feels substantial and hefty, from the metal door handles to the soft leather and suede used on the wheel and seats. This is a well-specified R-Design Pro car but there are few throwbacks to cheaper model it’s based on.

That said, there are two slightly flimsy plastic sections under the main screen and above the buttons in the centre console, and in my car this interface has developed a small squeak when it’s cold. This is pretty annoying.

The centre console buttons themselves (what few there are) feel nice though and have a glassy effect – in my V60 long termer this was carried over onto the steering wheel controls too, although in the XC40 these have a matte plastic finish. This is genuinely the only place where this car feels cheaper than the larger one.

It’s got a different driving position, as you’d imagine, with more of an upright feel than the low-slung V60’s, but both cars have really excellent seats. There’s a memory function on the driver’s chair in the XC40 and an extendable thigh cushion so you can get it all set up exactly how you want it, and as in all Volvos there’s a focus on sculpting a small amount of padding into the right shape, rather than giving you a big armchair to slouch in. I still think these are the best seats you can buy, instantly supportive and yet very resistant to lower back pain on a long journey.

We’ll talk more about the storage spaces in the practicality update but one thing to note is how Volvo has carpeted not only the door bins (ooh premium!) but most of the door card itself. You can have this in orange if you want, but we didn’t think it would go with the red paint. It’s a small touch but means things like sunglasses or keys don’t rattle around while you’re driving, ruining the otherwise serene ambiance afforded by the plug-in hybrid engine.

The same could be said for the suspension, which is surprisingly soft despite the big wheels, and doesn’t thump over obstacles or patches of broken tarmac. It’s not limo-like, square edged potholes and large speedbumps can catch it out, but generally it strikes a nice balance between body control and comfort. It’s particularly good on the motorway, too.

Obviously the silent cabin contributes heavily to the overall sense of peace and refinement, which is fine until the battery runs out. The three-cylinder petrol engine is no louder than rival units (and actually I think it sounds quite good) but you’ll notice a bit of vibration at tickover and a gruff note on the move.

The best thing really is to keep it charged up and always put your destination in the sat nav before you leave, so the car can stretch out the battery life over the whole journey (but again, more on this later).

By far the greatest asset towards comfort is – like with most PHEVs and EVs – the fact you can set the climate control to come on before you get in while you’re still in bed. This is controlled via the Volvo app, which is very clear and easy to use, and the car draws power from your house to warm up the cabin, heated seats and wheel, plus it can defrost the windows if it’s icy.

I’ve been making good use of this over the winter, particularly the timer setting, which means the car’s automatically warm in time for the school run without me having to do anything. The only problem is my kids taking ages to get into their seats, prompting me to say ‘close the door, you’re letting all the heat out’.

Volvo’s image might have got dramatically cooler during the past ten years but this XC40 has still managed to turn me into my Dad. Maybe now’s a good time for an impulsive motorbike purchase to even things out.