Fans of classic films -- this writer among them -- could be forgiven for thinking of Volvo as an automotive Dick Powell. Both the Swedish car brand and the American actor are defined by a radical change in image.
Old-movie buffs know that Powell, after spending most of the ‘30s appearing in frothy musicals and lightweight comedies, forever altered his image in 1944 when he portrayed novelist Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private-eye Philip Marlowe in the now-classic film noir “Murder, My Sweet.”
Thereafter, hardly anyone thought of Powell as a song-and-dance man.
Volvo over the past two decades has pulled off a similar reinvention of itself.
For pretty much the last three-quarters of the 20th century, notwithstanding an occasional step-out-of-character model like the ‘60s-era P1800 fastback coupe, Volvo’s image was that of a no-nonsense purveyor of safe, boxy, practical -- and boring -- cars.
The 21st century, however, has seen the brand jettison its grocery-shuttle performance and box-it-came-in styling with sleek looks and athletic dynamics that add pizzazz to Volvo’s retained obsession with utility and safety.
These days, hardly anyone thinks of Volvo as boring.
A prime example of this new outlook is the 2020 XC40 luxury compact crossover.
Now in its sophomore year, XC40, offered in Momentum, R-Design and Inscription trims, is available in two basic versions: the front-drive T4 and the all-wheel drive T5. Both are managed by an eight-speed automatic and each is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo four. That blown four makes 187 hp in T4 and, boasting bigger lungs, 248 hp in T5.
We drove a top-of-the-line T5 Inscription around town for 125 miles and realized 22 mpg, just as the EPA figured we would. But we realized something else, too: This little guy is a ball!
Its styling takes the newly sleek look of the Volvo brand to the next level, with “Thor’s Hammer” headlights (love that name!), a billeted grille with diagonal slash, a clamshell hood, a beltline that kicks up like a horizontal hockey stick, and an available contrasting-color roof. Throw in the 19-inch, five-split-spoke wheels hugged under our car by Michelin rubber, and this guy makes a loud styling statement.
Equally laudable -- and audible -- are its driving characteristics. Boasting four drive modes -- Comfort, Dynamic, Eco and Off Road -- XC40 T5 in Dynamic mode provides lively throttle response and athletic handling, despite the requisite higher ride height of a crossover. It’s also quick: We greeted 60 mph in a blink over 6 seconds.
Interior room is impressive, given this guy’s status as a compact crossover. Up front, room is fine under the panoramic moonroof our Inscription provided while rear-seat space is better than expected: Aft head room is good, leg room adequate.
Those acquainted with Volvo’s larger crossovers -- XC60 and XC90 -- will recognize the lay of the land in XC40. Decor and equipment are similar.
That, of course, means XC40 boasts Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system, complete with 9-inch vertical touchscreen. Alas, this thing, on initial encounter, is more complicated than radar. To access screens and various menus you scroll, swipe, drag, mmmm . . . plan some quality time with your sales person or your owner’s manual -- or both.
Regarding safety, XC40 standards include Blind Spot Alert, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Assist, Collision Mitigation with Auto Braking and, of course, a backup camera, among other nannies both standard and available.
Yeah, this little crossover boasts style to spare, driving verve to excite and convenience to appreciate -- so much so, owners might develop the swagger of a Philip Marlowe . . . with one major difference: when Marlowe swung a foot under the rear of a bad guy, the perp got a kick in the rump; when XC40 owners swing a foot under the rear of this crossover, the power tailgate opens.
Better all the way around.