IAIN ROBERTSON 

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Having commenced building its own engines, rather than relying on buying them in, writes Iain Robertson, Volvo risked criticism but none has been forthcoming, mainly because they all work so efficiently, reliably and avoid architectural complications.

The costs involved in designing, developing, building and installing new car engines is frightening. It should come as no surprise that the world’s largest carmakers are also its biggest earners from engine supply deals with smaller players. On the other hand, cross-brand collaborations are extensive (for example: Ford and PSA Group), all in pursuit of spreading initial outlays to ease cashflow.

Yet, during the 1990s and early noughties, when Ford Motor Company was a much larger group than it is today (it owned Volvo during that period), an unfortunate quirk arose that rocked the various partnerships in its portfolio. It is regarded as an ‘architectural blip’ but has further reaching implications somewhat deeper than the minimalising description infers. In essence, the electronics of its PSA-supplied engines (of the 1.4 to 1.6-litre family) were not relating competently with the Ford (including: Volvo and Mazda) vehicle management packages…the architecture. It is not unusual, as each manufacturer wants to ‘protect’ its intellectual property and some of the deeper-rooted programs would incite ‘fault codes’, which led to ‘limp home’ mode coming into play. Ford succeeded in hushing-up any negative implications and most remedies were carried out by ‘downloading’ fixes within Ford workshops.

IMGFrom the 1927 founding of the company, Volvo relied on external car engine supplier technology. Penta, a Swedish engine manufacturer, based at Skoevde, in the south of the country, satisfied its demands. Volvo bought into the firm in 1931, completing the buy-out in 1935. Skoevde is still Volvo’s engine hub. However, they were simpler times and electronic developments were not even in their infancy. Over the years, Volvo established independent supply arrangements with other brands, such as Ford, PSA and Renault, until 2011, when it formulated its own engines featuring modular technology.

A genuine engineering masterstroke, Volvo determined that it could create a number of engine choices from a core design brief. In essence, from a four-cylinder engine block, displacing 2.0-litres capacity, both petrol and diesel versions could be created. It is ingenious, because the internal pressures extant within most diesel engines were such that a petrol block would never survive them. However, Volvo was also working closely with its aluminium alloy supplier. The resultant construction features strengthening webs and coolant flow benefits that allow multi-fuelling. Only the supplementary hardware (pumps, inlet/exhaust systems and so on) would differentiate them. Featuring blends of turbocharging, supercharging and hybrid technology in different configurations, would be the means of boosting power outputs.

The beauty of modular technology is that anything from a single to vee-formation multiple cylinder engines can be produced. The 3-cylinder petrol-turbo engine featured in the test car is a three-quarters version of the 2.0-litre four-pot, displacing 1.5-litres and developing an excellent 161bhp and a prodigious 195lbs ft of torque. It can accelerate from 0-60mph in 9.5s, top 125mph and attain 45.6mpg, while emitting 146g/km CO2. Rather than feeling ‘underpowered’, driving through an 8-speed automatic transmission, this XC40 impresses with its outstanding upmarket balance and wide torque spread, which makes it a great tow car. I would venture to suggest that it is even the best of the XC40 models.

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Cabin space is exceptional, with copious leg and headroom that ensure both a comfortable and accessible environment for up to five adults. Typical of recent Volvo models, the levels of tactility are unerringly excellent, with plenty of ‘soft-touch’ surfaces and high-quality exuding from every impeccable upholstery stitch and taut trim shut-line. This may be the baby of Volvo’s current XC line-up but it lacks none of the finessing that has been instrumental in raising the bar for the brand and affirming its place in the executive class. Feelgood factor is in abundance and is winning conquest sales from its perceived market rivals, which include Jaguar, Land Rover, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Over 560-litres of boot space, which can be trebled by folding the rear bench forwards, is class leading and benefits additionally from a lack of intrusions, full carpeting and a floor height level with the rear bumper. There is secure oddment space beneath and flanking the ‘false’ floor, for added convenience and load practicality. The cabin also benefits from an abundance of practical slots, lidded compartments and rubber-based trays. All door pockets are felt-lined to reduce the potential of annoying rattles.

The commanding driving position helps when positioning the XC40 and the car’s crisp, front-wheel drive handling envelope underscores its resilient comfort-biased suspension settings. As a result of Volvo’s extensive electronic developments, most of which are biased towards its long-standing driver and occupant safety ethos, the front driven XC40 suffers from none of the more typical characteristics, such as understeer. Yet, body roll is exceptionally well-controlled and, combined with accurate, well-weighted power steering, the XC40’s handling bias is driver engaging and confidence inspiring, in ways that shade its rivals, even without the chassis-enhancing controls fitted to higher-priced and 4WD variants. Naturally, it brakes confidently and its all-LED headlamp array provides a blue-tinged white light that lights-up on bends and provides steered direction illumination at speed.

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While no modern Volvo has missed its intended target, the XC40 is simply so good that I am unsurprised that the firm’s first all-electric model that is undergoing new model reliability trials at present could become readily its best-seller, when it is launched in the not too distant future. With list prices (pre-discount) starting at a competitive £29,540 and the usual Momentum, R-Design and Inscription trim levels and accessory packs available, finding the right XC40 model to meet personal requirements is not a difficult task.

Conclusion:     While the SUV sector is immense and very competitive, Volvo is managing to make its offerings stand out, with an intoxicating blend of executive class detailing and relative affordability. It is little wonder Volvo is leading the pack at present and attracting so much positive critique simultaneously.

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