2021 Volvo XC40 Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Nov 30, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Volvo deals!

Volvo’s big news for its 2021 XC40 small premium SUV lineup is the addition of the Recharge P8 model, an electric version of the SUV providing 208 miles of range in exchange for $53,990 (before applying federal tax credits, state rebates, or local incentives). The XC40 Recharge P8, however, is destined to be a niche model until the company can improve range and more consumers decide to take the leap into electrification. 

In the meantime, Volvo continues to offer the XC40 in gasoline-fueled T4 front-wheel drive and T5 all-wheel drive model series with Momentum, R-Design, and Inscription trim levels. For 2021, Volvo upgrades the XC40’s standard equipment list with improved headlights, more safety technologies, and added features. It also limits the SUV’s top speed to 112 mph, which is plenty fast enough.

2021 Volvo XC40 T5 R-Design White Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated an XC40 T5 R-Design equipped with all-wheel drive, extra-cost paint, 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels, Lava-color carpet, the Advanced Package, and a Harman Kardon premium sound system. The price came to $45,590, including the $995 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Volvo deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Volvo XC40, it is helpful to understand who buys the XC40, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 56% of Volvo XC40 owners are female (vs. 58% for the small premium SUV segment), and the median age of an XC40 owner is 57 years (vs. 54).

Owners say their favorite things about the XC40 are (in descending order) the exterior styling, feeling of safety, driving feel, interior design, and getting in and out (in a tie with powertrain). Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the small premium SUV segment:

  • Vehicle protection
  • Operating vehicle remotely
  • Ability to hold personal items
  • Power of engine/motor
  • Smoothness of engine/motor

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the XC40 are (in descending order) the driving comfort, setting up and starting, infotainment, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the small premium SUV segment:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Using voice assistance
  • Using navigation
  • Audio system sound quality
  • Playing audio

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the XC40 ranked 2nd out of eight small premium SUVs.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Volvo deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides his perceptions about how the 2021 Volvo XC40 measures up in each of the ten categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

If nothing else, the 2021 Volvo XC40 is all about style, inside and out. Overall design themes are clearly related to the larger and more expensive XC60 and XC90 models, but XC40 adopts more angular and geometric details. 

2021 Volvo XC40 T5 R-Design White Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Painted Crystal White Metallic and equipped with optional machined-face 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels, the test vehicle’s black roof, black lower bumper and body trim, and black inner wheel spokes ensure a unique look within the small premium SUV segment.

This year, Volvo makes LED headlights with automatic high-beam activation standard. Curve illumination continues from last year, while rain-sensing wipers stand ready to combat sudden downpours.

Interior

Volvo employs quality materials and its typically minimalist approach to the XC40’s interior design. If you’ve seen the inside of any of the company’s other models, you’ll recognize the XC40’s cabin for a Volvo.

2021 Volvo XC40 T5 R-Design Black Lava Orange Interior

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Detailing is where the XC40 sets itself apart. R-Design trim includes ambient interior lighting and dazzling dashboard and door panel inlays called “Cutting Edge.” They certainly serve to give the XC40 a modern and upscale vibe, and especially when paired with Lava (orange) carpets you’ll be hard pressed to find another small luxury SUV with this amount of interior personality.

For 2021, leather upholstery is now standard with Momentum trim. The XC40 R-Design continues to mix premium Nappa leather seat bolsters with Nubuck simulated suede inserts. Charcoal is the only color choice with R-Design trim.

Drivers face a 12.3-inch digital instrumentation panel, and the XC40 features Volvo’s familiar Sensus infotainment system using a 9-inch display embedded portrait-style into the dashboard.

R-Design trim includes a large panoramic sunroof, and a handy storage box under the driver’s seat. Storage space is otherwise adequate, thanks in part to large door panel bins. 

Getting In and Out

Due to its high seating hip points, wide doors, and flat roofline, it’s easy to get into and get out of a Volvo XC40, which feels larger inside than many of its competitors.

A standard power rear tailgate rises to reveal 20.4 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s not impressive from a volume standpoint, but the way the space is shaped is useful, and there are additional compartments under the cargo floor. With R-Design trim, the floor configures into a cargo area divider complete with shopping bag hooks.

Maximum space with the rear seat folded down measures 46.9 cubic feet, according to Volvo’s public relations department. The automaker’s consumer website reports 57.5 cubic feet.

Setting Up and Starting

After you’ve climbed into a Volvo XC40 R-Design with Lava carpets, the SUV looks and feels special before you’ve pushed the engine start button on the dashboard. Do so, and the instrumentation and infotainment screens come to life, accompanied by the grumble of the 4-cylinder engine.

Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system works like a smartphone. You swipe left or right to access configurable menus containing tiles offering feature activation or access to deeper menus. There is a pull-down menu, too, which is easy to overlook.

Aside from small tile sizes and lettering, setting the XC40 up is fairly intuitive as long as you’re not driving the SUV at the same time. While the SUV is underway, we don’t advise this activity.

Configuring settings within the instrumentation is less intuitive, in part because of cryptic abbreviations. Using the steering wheel controls, you open a menu on the lower right portion of the display rather than in between the gauges, where you’d expect to make adjustments.

Infotainment System

Sensus includes Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and SiriusXM satellite radio. Upgrade to R-Design trim, and navigation is also a part of the system. During testing, it proved easy to stream Pandora from a paired iPhone.

Wireless smartphone charging is optional, along with a Harman Kardon premium sound system. Though unable to match the sonic clarity of Volvo’s outstanding Bowers & Wilkins components, the Harman Kardon setup will capably serve small premium SUV buyers.

A Volvo OnCall smartphone app facilitates remote engine starting, climate system cabin pre-conditioning, the ability to remotely lock and unlock the doors, and more.

The XC40’s voice recognition technology performs well, and it operates the cabin temperature settings since those controls are integrated with the Sensus infotainment system. It accurately responded to our standard test prompts, with one exception. It could not find a favorite local restaurant by name and street.

Keeping You Safe

More than anything, Volvo takes safety seriously. In alignment with its quest to eliminate all customer fatalities in its products, starting with the 2021 model year, all Volvos are limited to a top speed of 112 mph. Additionally, a new Care Key function allows owners to further limit that velocity, such as when a car is used by a young, inexperienced driver.

Another change for 2021 is standard blind-spot warning with steering assistance and rear cross-traffic warning. Volvo also adds new Connected Safety technology to the 2021 XC40, a car-to-car communication technology that can warn new Volvo drivers of other Volvos nearby that are using their hazard flashers or experiencing slippery road conditions.

These features join a roster of Intelligent Safety technologies including adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning (with pedestrian, cyclist, and large animal detection), and automatic emergency braking with low-speed rear automatic braking. The lane-departure warning uses a vibration through the steering wheel to warn drivers of lane wander, and lane-keeping assistance helps prevent unintended lane departure. A Collision Mitigation Support system employs active steering assistance to help you avoid collisions with oncoming vehicles.

R-Design trim includes front and rear parking assist sensors (rear sensors are standard) and a high-resolution surround-view camera system. This enhances the XC40’s already impressive outward visibility.

Generally speaking, the XC40’s advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) display smoothness, discernment, and refinement. The lane-keeping assistance can, however, behave in a more aggressive manner than might be expected. If this proves bothersome, the driver must remember where to go within Sensus to use the activation/deactivation tile. It would be nice if Volvo offered a shortcut button on the steering wheel or dashboard to turn the function on and off, but perhaps making it difficult to access is the point.

Last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the XC40 a Top Safety Pick rating. It did not earn a higher score due to Poor performance by the standard headlights. With the new-for-2021 standard headlights, this could change.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the XC40 5-star ratings across the board, except with regard to rollover resistance, where the SUV gets a common 4-star rating for this type of vehicle.

Powertrain

All XC40s have a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, but it comes in two different states of tune.

The XC40 T4 makes 187 horsepower at a low 4,700 rpm and 221 lb.-ft. of torque between 1,400 rpm and 4,000 rpm. It comes only with front-wheel drive and an 8-speed automatic transmission with an irritating shift requirement to go through Neutral each time you switch from Reverse gear to Drive, or vice versa.

The XC40 T5 test vehicle uses that same automatic, but it distributes the power to all four of the SUV’s wheels. The engine is more powerful, too, generating 248 hp at 5,500 rpm and 258 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,800 rpm to 4,800 rpm. Driving modes include Eco, Comfort, Dynamic, Off-Road, and Individual, the latter giving you customization options. A Hill Descent Control system is also standard.

Overall, the XC40 T5’s engine is quite enjoyable and supplies plenty of satisfying torque. However, perhaps because the peak torque doesn’t arrive until 1,800 rpm, uneven surges of power are an issue. And the transmission, which occasionally behaves in unexpected ways, such as downshifting later than expected, doesn’t help.

Switching to Dynamic mode helps to smooth things out, and paddle shifters provide more driver control. Just remember that to exit the manual shifting mode you’ll need to hold a paddle for a second or two.

Ultimately, you learn how to ride the XC40 T5’s wave of torque. But you never quite figure out how to tame it.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, the XC40 T5 AWD should return 25 mpg in combined driving. We averaged 22.9 mpg on our testing loop. Multiply that result by the XC40’s 14.2-gallon fuel tank, and the SUV travels no more than 325 miles. And since you’re unlikely to drain it fully, you’re going to stop at the gas station before you hit the 300-mile mark. 

Driving Comfort

In addition to safety, comfort is another Volvo hallmark. All XC40s have a power-adjustable driver’s seat including 4-way lumbar adjustment. All have a manual or power front passenger’s seat height adjustment, too. The R-Design adds the latter, plus thigh support extensions for both front seats.

No doubt, the XC40’s front seats are really comfortable. The back seat, however, is another story. You sit low on a flat cushion that lacks thigh support. There is plenty of leg and foot space though, and Volvo equips the XC40 with rear air conditioning vents and USB charging ports.

With Momentum trim, a single-zone automatic climate control system is standard, and it includes Volvo’s CleanZone air filtration technology. With R-Design trim, the XC40 adds dual-zone automatic climate control. Controls are embedded into Sensus, which is not ideal.

Air conditioning performance is dissatisfying. The dashboard air vents are small, and the R Design does not offer ventilated front seats. On a sunny, 85-degree day, we had to set the temperature at 64 degrees or less just to keep comfortable, and when the engine’s fuel-saving automatic start/stop system activates the AC goes limp and in no time at all it gets warm and swampy inside the XC40.

Furthermore, the XC40 is loud inside. Engine and wind noise are not problems, but the 20-inch tires communicate plenty of unnecessary information about the road surface.

Driving Feel

Choose R-Design trim, and the XC40 includes Sport chassis tuning. Nevertheless, with its short wheelbase and tall center of gravity, the SUV suffers plenty of vertical and lateral body movement, resulting in excessive head toss for the driver and passengers.

Handling is impressive. The XC40 R-Design takes a flat cornering stance, and the test vehicle’s optional 245/45R20 Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires supply impressive grip, to the point that better bolstered front seats would be a good idea. 

Choose Dynamic mode, and the XC40’s light steering assist firms up nicely. Both the steering and the brakes support enthusiastic driving, but do not encourage it. 

Nevertheless, I did enjoy driving the XC40 T5 AWD, especially in comparison to other vehicles in the small premium SUV segment. And it took the speed humps running past a local school at 30 mph without any issues.

Final Impressions - Find the best Volvo deals!

Exuding style inside and out, equipped with impressive safety technologies and crash-test ratings, sized just right for urban environments, and supplying a spunky driving character, there is plenty to like about the 2021 Volvo XC40.

Sometimes confusing controls, uneven power delivery, frequent stops for fueling, excessive road noise, weak air conditioning performance, and a back seat that could double as a park bench are the primary sources of complaint.

Nevertheless, while the 2021 Volvo XC40 is not flawless, it is quite likable.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power

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