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Lexus vs. Volvo: Second contender in the tiny crossover competition

Volvo adds the XC40 to its 2019 lineup. The small crossover resembles larger Volvos, but this model offers some seriously sporty handling. So we've put it to the test against the Lexus NX300, a model that has pretty much been the same since 2015.

The 2019/20 Volvo XC40 is an all-new small crossover. It resembles the larger XC60 and XC90, and is powered by the same basic engine.
The 2019/20 Volvo XC40 is an all-new small crossover. It resembles the larger XC60 and XC90, and is powered by the same basic engine.Read moreVolvo

2019/2020 Lexus NX300 AWD vs. Volvo XC40 T5 AWD Inscription: So, you want to pay a lot for a little bit of crossover.

This week: Volvo XC40.

Price: $46,290 as tested. With a base price of $35,200, there’s a long options list — Inscription features for $4,550, adding moon roof, 18-inch wheels, power memory seat, Sensus navigation pro, and more; Vision Package for $1,100, which adds blind-spot information, cross traffic alert, and more.

Conventional wisdom: Consumer Reports likes the “interior ambiance, comfortable front seats, standard advanced safety equipment,” but not the “stiff ride, controls, annoying gear selector, engine noise.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Awarded attention to detail.”

Reality: Really fun ride, less-than-fun drawbacks.

What’s new: The Volvo XC40 is a new small crossover from the Swedish-Chinese car maker. Though press materials say otherwise, it’s quite like a baby version of the XC60 or XC90.

Up to speed: After swapping out a Honda Passport for the Volvo XC40, I first noticed how easily the XC40 is to move from a stop. The Passport isn’t slow, but it wants a whole lot of pedal pressure to get it moving; the XC40 is touch and go — in the best possible sense.

That translates into a 0-to-60 time of 6.7 seconds, slightly quicker than the NX, according to Motor Trend. What’s more, the little Volvo really moves through driving’s sweet spots, with plenty of oomph for passing or going from town speeds to the highway. The company’s main 2.0-liter four-cylinder power plant gets turbocharged for this ride, and makes 248 horsepower.

On the road: The Volvo XC40 handles nicely enough, with a lot of sport for the curves, coupled with a smooth highway ride.

Sport mode button is hidden in plain sight to the right of the radio dial. It sure turns on the fun, making the XC40 feel like an Alfa Romeo.

One night in the rain, though — NOT in sport mode — made me question Volvo’s commitment to safety. Even slowing down to posted speeds or lower left the small crossover lunging this way and that in ponding rain. It was a tremendous storm, but I’ve had cars do wonders in similar situations — thinking fondly here of the Cadillac CT6.

Shifty: The electronic shift joystick left me less than enthused.

On the bright side, drivers get a manual mode. But manual shifting is awkwardly left to right. Spring for the paddle shifters.

Still, the joystick is pretty and easy to move but not to operate, as it requires two clicks to move in almost any direction. If you’re pushing it toward Reverse, the first click will throw it into Neutral; same if you’re pushing it toward Drive. Frustrating.

Driver’s Seat and stuff: It’s a sad state of affairs when a Volvophile like the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat gets a ride in the latest Swedish offering — and fails to realize it. “Really?” she said. “That seat was pretty stiff.” I’d have to agree with that assessment, though I was more disappointed by the thin bolstering. I was hoping Volvo had a T6 trim for the XC40, but there’s only T4 and T5, so this is the better seating. Oy.

Otherwise, everything up front does say Volvo: the design touches, knobs, infotainment system, and more.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat is fairly roomy for the vehicle size. Legroom is not bad, but foot room and headroom are impressive. The seat sits a little upright for my tastes. Middle seat is not bad, although the console intrudes and the hump is fairly tall.

Cargo space is 47.2 cubic feet with the second seat folded, quite a bit less than the Lexus’ 53.7, and 20.7 with the seat up.

Watch the rear doors — they curve upward toward the high outside corner and could be a real banger.

A clever covered slot in front of the armrest is a great hideaway for cellphones.

Play some tunes: I’ve had mixed results from the clever and attractive Volvo infotainment system.

I find the vertical screen useful, and it’s easy to swipe from screen to screen, and from function to function. But go a little deeper, and the icons become hard to see and to aim at. Sliding from station to station is never easy, and often you’ll be switching from Tom Petty to the Beatles and get an earful of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” along the way. It may all sound interchangeable to those of you sighing, “OK, Boomer,” but it’s so not. (And, anyway, I’m a Gen Xer.)

Volume adjustment, pause, and skip are the only functions outside the touchscreen.

I loved the premium system in an XC90 years back, but this Harman Kardon sound was no match (despite the $800 price tag). It did feature a custom equalizer, but after thinking I might like to adjust it further, there seems to be no easy remedy to readjust the settings.

Keeping warm and cool: The vertical vents direct reasonably well. Control is all from inside the screen, except for front and rear defrost, so that’s a pain.

Shaky brakes: Really bad for a car with just 3,000 miles on it. All the symptoms of warped rotors. Not a deal breaker but something to watch for.

Fuel economy: I averaged just under 25 mpg in the usual Mr. Driver’s Seat testing arena. Feed the XC40 premium.

Where it’s built: Ghent, Belgium.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts a reliability of 4 out of 5 for the XC40.

In the end: I guess if I had to fight with a fussy gearshift or a fussy touchpad, I’d probably pick the touchpad — especially since the sound is so much better in the NX300. But the XC40 is a whole lot of fun as well.