ROAD TEST: Check out the Volvo that’s out of the box
OFFLOADED by Ford in its post-global financial crisis fire sale of luxury brands, including Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin, Volvo in 2010 found itself in the hands of Chinese car maker Geely.
Far from being the beginning of the end, as predicted by the pundits, it has opened up a brave new world for the venerable Swedish brand, which has enjoyed four years of record growth and is now competing with VW, BMW and Mercedes as a major driver of 21st century automotive technology.
Volvo claims, for example, that by 2020 nobody should be killed or seriously injured in its new cars. It will become the first maker to let go of stand-alone internal combustion engines. All Volvos after 2019 will be hybrids or fully electric. By 2025, one third of all Volvos will be self-driving.
Backtracking to the present, Volvos are now pretty good to drive, too. Forget the worthy stodge of yore - in 2017, the XC60 mid-size SUV won World Car of the Year and, in Australia, Wheels Car of the Year.
Its new, smaller XC40 sibling takes the fight up to well-credentialed competition including Audi's Q3, BMW's X1/X2, Jaguar's E-Pace and the Mercedes GLA.
A pair of 2.0-litre engines, the T5 turbo and D4 turbo diesel, are matched to an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. Prices start at $47,990 for the T5 Momentum; we're testing the T5 R-Design Launch Edition, at $56,740.
That's big money for a smallish SUV but our XC40 is in worksburger spec. Its bang for your buck quotient - 185kW of power - beats its more expensive BMW and Mercedes rivals.
Its R-Design Launch Edition includes firm, supportive heated sports seats trimmed in leather and suede. There are beautifully intricate Nordic styling touches in the dark interior decor, including a concave aluminium matrix in the dash, illuminated at night by LEDs.
External R-Design details include a contrasting black roof, black grille, groovy 20-inch "Diamond Cut" alloy wheels and "Hammer of Thor" LED headlights that turn with the wheel and illuminate your path through corners.
This edition wears the sharpest suit of any current model SUV. The boxy old Volvo wagon is dead and gone. Amen.
Millennial-native infotainment includes a nine-inch, hi-res portrait-style swipe and touch screen, with full smartphone app connectivity, navigation, digital radio and voice, supplemented with quality Harman Kardon audio.
It's close at hand, fast and logical. However, adjusting the aircon would be safer and quicker with an old-fashioned dial, Bluetooth doesn't extend to emails or messages and you will occasionally vent at the voice control.
Digital instruments, wireless phone charging, head-up display, automatic parking, sunroof and hands-free power tailgate are also standard.
It's a Volvo, so superb comfort is a given, with the only potential issue being interference from protruding head restraints. Rear legroom is generous, though the bench is quite low to gain headroom, so kids may feel entombed.
There's oddment storage everywhere and, in the sizeable boot, a clever fold-up floor creates two separate compartments.
The ride, especially in town, is surprisingly compliant and comfortable, given the aggressive wheel/tyre (245/45 20) combination and non-adjustable "sports chassis". At speed, the suspension absorbs imperfect surfaces without fuss.
A detailed run-through of the safety tech would take the entire page. Basically, it's got everything, including semi-autonomous steering that, says Volvo, can point you back to the straight and narrow if you're about to run off the road.
Its autonomous emergency braking also works if you're about to turn in front of an oncoming car, or enter an intersection and get T-boned.
Volvo's XC60, V90 and S90 are the only cars in the world with perfect scores in EuroNCAP's AEB tests. The XC40, as yet untested, uses the same technology.
Muscular and responsive, with slightly diesel-ish soundtrack, Volvo's 2.0-litre launches the XC40 from rest to 100km/h in a respectably rapid 6.4 seconds.
It works cooperatively with the eight-speed, although shift quality and timing are less refined than the German-brand engines. Selecting drive or reverse at rest requires two flicks of the lever for some strange reason, and the auto stop-start kicks in with a lurch when you release the brake.
Four drive modes include eco, comfort, dynamic and off-road - but I wouldn't go there in this. Expect 6-6.5L/100km on the highway, and 10-12L in town.
Relatively heavy by class standards, the XC40 packs finely controlled suspension, all-wheel drive, light, precise steering (in comfort mode; dynamic is too heavy), great brakes and Pirelli P Zero tyres.
The combination makes it, if not quite as agile and well-balanced as an A-grade hatchback, at least capable enough to enjoy along a winding road, where it never feels less than 100 per cent planted.
I appreciate high-end Scandi design and an approach to vehicle engineering that puts people first. If I have a crash, this is where I want to be.
I'm not a German badge slave. They put too much gear on the options list and gouge you for it. I want a fully loaded, Euro-badged compact SUV and this is the best value in the class.
BMW X1 xDRIVE 25i FROM $61,500
Top-spec X1 runs a 170kW 2.0-litre turbo/eight-speed auto/all-wheel drive. Bigger boot but a lot of gear that's standard in the Volvo is optional including, would you believe, Apple CarPlay and AEB.
MERCEDES-BENZ GLA250 4MATIC FROM $60,700
This blurs the line between sports hatchback and SUV, with a low stance and 155kW 2.0-litre turbo/seven-speed dual-clutch auto/all-wheel drive. Arguably the best handler, with adaptive suspension standard.
Elegant, expressive design, no options required, an interior that's as good as it gets for comfort, practicality and quality, world's best safety and a tight, tidy drive. No (Volvo) joke.
VOLVO XC40 R-DESIGN LAUNCH EDITION
PRICE $56,740 (reasonable)
WARRANTY/SERVICING three-year warranty (short); $3320 for four years/60,000km (expensive)
ENGINE 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 185kW/350Nm (good)
SAFETY Not yet tested, seven airbags, AEB, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, semi-autonomous steering, 360-degree camera (the best)
THIRST 7.7L/100km (average)
SPARE Space-saver (not ideal)
BOOT 460L (average)