Plug-In Hybrid's war: VOLVO XC40
Ford and Peugeot are only just getting their act together with plug-in hybrids, but Volvo is well and truly in its stride, offering at least one per model and quietly deleting diesel in the process. In fact, the Swedish maker is entering phase two of its electrification era, and has now renamed its plugins Recharge, from Twin Engine – though the Recharge name also confusingly applies to pure EVs.
Volvo’s ‘tough little robot’ (the words of former Volvo exterior designer Ian Kettle) has bags of character, its boxy silhouette giving off such ultra-modern vibes, with creases in all the right places and Volvo’s now ubiquitous ‘Thor’s Hammer’ light signature cutting crisp lines through the front end. Volvo’s baby crossover is dripping with cool. Get inside and the XC40 continues to impress, as its cockpit is in a whole other league in terms of quality, particularly compared with the austere Ford. The skinny, super-supportive seats (in a tasty caramel leather in this Inscription Pro model), the Orrefors crystal gear selector, the ‘Since 1955’ etchings on the seatbelts and the contoured door inlays… all of these little details in such a well-built interior make the XC40 feel truly special. It does practical too, with the largest boot on test.
Compared with the Kuga and 3008’s infotainment screens, the Sensus Connect system has iPad-like reflexes and is pin sharp, although the selection screens either side of the main home screen are more than a little baffling. While we complain about Peugeot putting literally everything behind a menu, Volvo does the exact opposite and shows all of your possible infotainment and vehicle controls on a single platter, making it tricky to find what you want at a glance. The hybrid powertrain management controls are bundled right next to all of the XC40’s safety tech, for instance, making it easy to switch off blindspot monitoring when you’re actually aiming for the Battery Hold button. Air-con controls are also relegated to a couple of touchscreen taps (just like the Peugeot), rather than physical dials and switchgear. But Volvo’s take on button reduction works better than Peugeot’s, despite its flaws. There’s an odd niggle with that crystal gear selector, though: why push or pull the lever twice to select Drive or Reverse? You get used to it if it’s the only car you drive, but it feels like an unnecessary complication that can be confusing when you’re mid-manoeuvre and in a hurry.
2020 Volvo XC40 hybrid interior
Volvo has opted for a three-cylinder turbo as the Recharge PHEV’s combustion engine rather than the four-cylinders used by its Giant Test rivals. The engine is shrouded in soundproofing to the point that even at high revs the hushed ambience inside isn’t upset – this really is a refined place in which to spend time isolating yourself from the world. And when you do hear it, that classic gargly engine note is another welcome quirk of an already quirky car. The Volvo’s engine is the keenest to wake from EV mode of the three cars, as the threshold for electric power (shown on the swooping semi-circle power meter split with a lightning bolt and drop of petrol) is easy to breach even when driving around town. Hoof it and the powertrain deftly manages your throttle requests – with much less latency than the Peugeot, and it’s faster than the Kuga.
Like the Peugeot, the XC40 doesn’t enjoy being driven hard but in an entirely different way – there are hard edges to the driving dynamics that don’t translate well if you’re in the mood for fun. The biggest of these buzzkills is the brakes; the pedal is wired, firm and ready to snap at you like a Rottweiler if you so much as look at it the wrong way. It’s so sensitive that just a moderately firm prod of the brake pedal can trigger the anti-lock brake system. But there’s an impressive chassis here, even if it feels sullied by the PHEV’s additional weight. Bodyroll is minimal, with the blocky XC40 cornering flatter than either of these Giant Test rivals when the going gets twisty. But the ride is firm to the point of the Volvo feeling brittle in this specification, with the taut suspension and large wheels on this Inscription Pro model sharpening potholes and road imperfections at higher speeds. Turn in with some vim and the steering – smooth, light and accurate at low speeds – starts to feel soggy as the XC40 washes into understeer with an accompanying squeak from the over-stressed front tyres. You’ll need to step up to an XC60 or S60 saloon if you want allwheel drive from your hybrid Volvo.
While it feels fast enough and super refined, there’s also a pent-up harshness to the ride that’s hard to ignore. So this is no dynamic masterclass, but what the Volvo concentrates on is making you feel special when you’re sitting inside. The result is this is a much nicer place to spend your journeys than either the Ford or the Peugeot.