Motoring

2018 CAR OF THE YEAR

Volvo XC40 T3: Swedish sensation

Volvo XC40 T3: Swedish sensation
New Volvo XC40 - exterior

In an automotive market as competitive as the South African one, fuelled by the emotive relationship we have with our vehicles, singling out just one contender as Daily Maverick’s 2018 Car of the Year was never going to be easy …

Cars enjoy a special status in South Africa. While they may be considered little more than transport appliances in first-world countries, they represent so much more in our local context.

It’s not hard to understand why. We routinely travel distances that first-world commuters prefer to tackle by air. And we depend on our cars for the daily commute because the public transport infrastructure is poor and unsafe.

In South Africa, owning a car is a symbol of mobility, of independence – and of achievement. It’s also a status symbol: in-the-metal proof that you’ve arrived, not only at your destination, but in life itself.

Small wonder that it’s not uncommon for South Africans to spend more on their monthly car instalments than on their bond repayments … It also explains why the local vehicle market is considered one of the most discerning, and most competitive in the world.

Which brings us to Daily Maverick’s inaugural Car of the Year. During the course of 2018, we drove and reported on more than 80 new models – and that doesn’t even represent a full year’s quota.

The spread of models covered almost every new vehicle category: from budget beaters and mainstream hatchbacks to burly bakkies, smart sedans and adrenaline-pumping sports cars. And SUVs, of course: in every conceivable size and configuration.

Reflecting the seemingly insatiable appetite for SUVs that’s sweeping the globe, we tested more SUVs than any other vehicle type. And so it should come as no surprise that the Daily Maverick 2018 Car of the Year should belong to that category.

Often considered unconventional, iconoclastic, uncompromisingly pragmatic and even downright boring, with an unusual predilection for stations wagons, Volvo has undergone something of a revival in recent years.

Nobody could have anticipated the Swedish marque’s rise from marginality to premium brand status. Now owned by Chinese car giant Geely, it has found its mojo by focusing on its core strengths: heritage, authenticity, technology, craftsmanship – and an almost obsessive commitment to safety.

The consistent investment in research and development made possible under Geely’s stewardship has allowed the Swedes to build on those foundations while reinventing Volvo as a premium brand less focused on luxury and status than on creating a reassuringly comfortable, safe and innovative motoring experience.

The first sign of that revitalisation came with the launch of the current-generation XC90 – a regal yet refreshingly unassuming expression of the luxury SUV art.

Its highlights include an almost minimalist, less-is-more approach to interior design, a plethora of safety and driver assistance systems, and a line-up of efficient drivetrains that even includes a dual-motor hybrid model.

It would be true to say that the XC90, more than any other Volvo, has changed the perception of the brand forever. It was also inevitable that the concepts, executions and technologies included in the XC90 would filter down to more compact, more accessible models.

One of those beneficiaries is the XC40 – the marque’s latest – and smallest – SUV, but a vehicle that manages to express the Volvo way in a younger, keener and fresher context. And because it’s more compact and more efficient, it’s also greener and cleaner than more traditional SUV behemoths.

New Volvo XC40 – exterior

The XC40’s relative affordability enables it to bring the contemporary Volvo message to a wider audience. That fact alone probably makes this compact SUV the brand’s most important new model ever.

I drove two versions during the course of this year: the turbodiesel D4, and the entry-level T3, the latter powered by a three-cylinder turbo petrol engine. And it’s that version that’s stolen the march on a deserving field of potential Car of the Year candidates.

New Volvo XC40 – exterior

The T3 shares its chunky, pugnacious lines with the rest of the XC40 range. The combination of short overhangs, big wheels and a broad-tracked stance creates a muscular, sporty presence that is almost irreverent in the usually conservative Volvo context.

The lines are square and edgy, but never boxy or boring, exuding a cocky attitude that thumbs a nose at the more streamlined opposition.

New Volvo XC40 – exterior detail

Of course, there’s a reason to be concerned about the XC40 T3’s dynamic capabilities, given that it has to make do with a comparatively small engine. However, despite its modest 1.5-litre capacity, the high-tech three-cylinder delivers surprising gusto.

At 115kW of muscle and 265Nm of twist, there’s ample urge to propel the 1,5-ton Volvo: it’s zippy in the concrete jungle, with plenty of pep, all nicely harnessed by a slick six-speed manual gearbox.

New Volvo XC40 – interior

For all its raised-stance SUV attitude, the XC40 is no all-terrainer, though: this a resolutely urban warrior. Yes, the extra ground clearance will allow it to traverse slightly more challenging terrain, but front-wheel drive and those fancy 19-inch R-Design wheels underscore the Volvo’s on-road bias.

Still, the compact SUV is more than capable on smooth gravel and poorer country roads, while the handling is confident, even in the twisty stuff.

New Volvo XC40 – interior

The steering is precise if not particularly communicative, and the ride tends to be a choppy, thanks to those big wheels and the relatively short wheelbase. Still, overall progress is confident and fuss-free.

As for efficiency, the XC40’s appetite for fuel is relatively frugal: Volvo claims an average consumption of 6.2 litres/100km, but my somewhat more enthusiastic driving style resulted in a 7.9 litres/100km figure.

New Volvo XC40 – Harman Kardon speakers

The interior is one of Volvo’s strongest suits. Much of the execution mimics the bigger XC90’s smart and streamlined treatment, including virtual and configurable instruments, and an infotainment system utilising a portrait-orientated, tablet-like touchscreen.

Most of the vehicle’s functions and features are intuitively powered via this system, replacing conventional buttons and switches, which adds to the uncluttered, Scandinavian-style interior aura. It’s not perfect, but the intuitiveness outweighs negatives like the smudge-prone screen.

New Volvo XC40 – exterior

Accommodation is generous: the interior feels bigger than the compact exterior suggests, and there’s plenty of room at the rear. The downside is a boot that’s only adequate, with 388 litres of luggage space, and a further 72 litres in a concealed underfloor compartment.

Given South Africa’s appalling road traffic accident statistics, safety should be a priority in any vehicle purchase consideration, and Volvo’s arsenal of safety and driver assistance systems ticks all the vital boxes.

Included, for instance, is the marque’s City Safety system, which pre-emptively spots animals, vehicles and pedestrians, and can brake the XC40 autonomously to prevent a collision. You also get lane departure warning, oncoming lane mitigation and a raft of other active and passive safety systems.

Love them or hate them, SUVs are here to stay – but as the Volvo XC40 proves, they can be compact, clean, frugal and safe. The T3’s small turbo engine counts in its favour in both dynamic and efficiency terms, as does the smooth, engaging six-speed manual gearbox.

While so many SUVs are bloated and unwieldy, the XC40’s compact dimensions make for great manoeuvrability around town and easy parking, helped by the excellent all-round vision from the raised driving position.

There’s also the superbly executed cabin, offering all the comfort and convenience features expected of a premium vehicle, together with that extensive array of safety features.

As for cost, the Volvo XC40’s pricing reflects strong value: the T3 Momentum model, with most of the bells and whistles, comes in at under R500,.000. The fancier R-Design version featured here costs R533 600 – still highly competitive in the premium space.

So, there it is: Daily Maverick’s 2018 Car Of The Year is the Volvo XC40 T3, proving that small can be sensational, after all.

BEST OF THE REST

With so many strong contenders on our list of possible Car of the Year candidates this year, we had to highlight some deserving category candidates

Best Performance Car: Volkswagen Polo GTI

Returning to the essence of affordable, practical performance, the latest Polo GTI epitomises the everyday enjoyment and thrilling engagement that turned the original Golf Mk1 GTI into an automotive icon, while adding the class, refinement and quality to a compelling overall package.

Best Sports Car: Porsche 911 Carrera T

Lighter and more focussed than the standard model, the Carrera T is all about the driving experience, and while it’s not as refined as its posher siblings, this 911 finds a near-perfect equilibrium between challenging and satisfying the pilot, thanks to an uncanny ability to clearly communicate its dynamic intentions.

Best Hatchback: Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport

Who would have thought that the stodgy, ungainly car that was the original A-Class would develop into this smart and keenly styled hatchback, with a real penchant for dynamic appeal and an interior execution that puts it way ahead of the premium hatch pack? A case of mission accomplished in a tough segment.

Best Value For Money: Renault Duster

The original Duster’s success underlined the demand for a compact, rugged and affordable SUV. Its successor retains that formula, but adds class and refinement, plus a long list of extras, without upsetting the value cart. The result is a great all-rounder, as suited to the great outdoors as it is to the urban jungle.

Best Budget Beater: Ford Figo

Affordability and value are the key considerations for the vast majority of SA car buyers. The Ford Figo proves that a trendy, nippy and confident runabout doesn’t have to cost the earth while offering just the right mix of features, comfort and safety. The Figo always delivers more than you bargained for.

Best Car Design: Volkswagen Arteon

A Volkswagen glamorous enough to turn heads? The sleek and sexy Arteon is the first, truly convincing expression of what VW is capable of in the premium context. And it’s not just a pretty face: the plush interior oozes space and quality, with effortless dynamics to match. The premium brands should be worried … DM

@Deon_Schoeman

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