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A cousin, not a little brother. How Volvo designed the tiny but mighty XC40

When Volvo designed the second-generation XC60, it knew precisely what buyers liked about the outgoing car and what they wanted to see improved or changed. The brand-new XC40 was born from a completely different process because Volvo had no previous model to use as a starting point. For this reason, it hosted customer clinics in North America, Europe, and Asia to gather in-depth feedback on the path its design team should take and what to avoid at all costs.

Kettle created the XC40’s personality as that of a “tough little robot”

“During the design workshops, customers told us they didn’t think our competitors offered a true SUV in the segment. Many also pointed out they didn’t want a scaled-down XC90 or a smaller XC60 because they didn’t want to be perceived as motorists who can’t afford to buy the bigger model. They wanted a vehicle that stands out on its own,” Johan Taws, the XC40’s project manager, told Digital Trends. He added that, surprisingly, there were no major differences between buyers’ tastes in the three markets Volvo studied.

The clinics underlined the importance of connectivity and state-of-the-art tech features. That’s why Taws and his team never considered installing a smaller, more basic infotainment system in the XC40. They also added high-tech options like inductive charging, which isn’t available yet on the company’s bigger SUVs.

The feedback and ensuing guidelines made their way to the design department. Ian Kettle, the young British designer in charge of the project, said his team began sketching the XC40 in 2013.

“The basic idea was to produce a vehicle considered a cousin, rather than a little brother, to our 60- and 90-series models. We wanted to create a family resemblance and share some DNA across the XC line-up without scaling down the bigger cars,” he explained, echoing Taws’ comments.

Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Even at first glance, the XC40 is instantly recognizable as a member of the Volvo line-up. Styling cues like the Thor’s Hammer inserts in the headlights are present but they receive a different treatment. Volvo’s historic emblem is embedded into a concave grille with horizontal slats. Kettle created the XC40’s personality as that of a “tough little robot,” one that’s ready to defend its turf in the urban jungle.

“We have never, to my knowledge, managed to stay so true to the original clay models,” Taws told us with a smile. The Swedish firm previewed the XC40’s design in 2016 with a concept car named 40.1.

“We wanted to solve the issue of messy cars. We focused on smart engineering”

Anders Gunnarsson, Volvo’s design manager, told Digital Trends there’s much more to the design than meets the eye at first glance. The tailgate, for example, is curved in all directions. “It’s a masterpiece,” he remarked. “There were so many things we wanted to keep [from the early models] that required finding unique tech solutions.” It has the biggest spoiler and the biggest grille ever fitted to a Volvo, notably.

Outside, one of the coolest design features is the little Swedish flag that sticks out from under the hood like the tag on a stuffed animal. It will only come on the first 4,000 cars built globally, according to Volvo spokesperson Jim Nichols. He watched as every person who walked up to the XC40 during last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show touched the tag.

Feedback from customers also helped the team in charge of designing the XC40’s interior.

“We wanted to solve the issue of messy cars. We focused on smart engineering. It’s not always high-tech; look at the foldable hook we integrated into the glovebox door,” Taws noted.

Volvo XC40 console
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

The hook, which holds a little under five pounds, is just one of the clever solutions baked into the XC40’s interior. Designers also moved the speakers out of the door panels and into the dashboard to make the door bins as big as possible. We easily stored a 15-inch laptop and a water bottle in the driver’s side front door when we drove the car. The inner part of the pocket is wrapped with a felt-like material that prevents items from rattling.

The center console houses a removable in-car garbage bin, ensuring one of the cup holders doesn’t become a landfill. Equally ingenious thinking went into making the trunk as user-friendly as possible. The floor panel folds up to reveal a generously-sized bin and two additional hooks useful for carrying grocery bags. There’s enough space between the trunk floor and the bin to store the parcel shelf.

It’s all part of a broader human-centric approach to designing a car. With the XC40, Volvo believes it has achieved the right balance to lure first-time luxury car buyers and again lock horns with German rivals Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.

“[The XC40] feels like a Volvo, like a car that’s more than the sum of its parts, and that’s important to us,” summed up Gunnarsson.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American automotive and tech journalist based in southern France. As a long-time contributor to Digital…
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