Combining a surprisingly punchy and frugal engine with a perfectly usable amount of pure-electric driving range, the XC40 Plug-in Hybrid makes a very strong case for itself as a usable daily driver.

When the Volvo XC40 first launched back in 2018, it’s safe to say it was a massive success right off the bat. Taking out the European Car of the Year award along with the same title from publications such as Wheels, Carsales, and What Car?, there’s no doubting that Volvo was onto a winner with its super-stylish baby SUV.

But now, a few years on as the company edges closer to its planned goal of making half of its model lineup fully electric by 2025 through its range of Recharge vehicles, the main attraction everyone’s eyes are on is the XC40 P8 EV set to lob in next year.

However, to warm people up to the new branding its electrified models will sport, Volvo has introduced the Recharge range with the PHEV stepping stone. Officially dubbed the XC40 T5 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid – try saying that five times quickly – it now means every model in Volvo’s Australian lineup bar the diesel-only V90 Cross Country is available as a plug-in, which is a clear sign of the company’s commitment to electrification.

The hybrid system found in the XC40, though, is unlike what we’ve seen in any of Volvo’s other hybrid models released here over the last half a decade. Whereas the T8 Twin Engine variants of other models power the front wheels exclusively with a petrol engine, the rears with an electric motor, and with both power plants working together to deliver all-wheel drive with electric power filling the gap between the front wheel’s gear changes, this T5 Recharge model is far more conventional in that it’s exclusively front-wheel drive with the petrol engine and electric motor now working together, rather than independently, to provide the power.

Ignore the drivetrain for a moment and you’ll have to be a real trainspotter to notice that this is anything other than an ordinary XC40. Available in just one specification level for the Australian market, it borrows heavily from the regular R-Design model sporting a similar two-tone paint scheme, 20-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels, and gloss black highlights including the grille, window surrounds, and roof rails, while on the inside, the shift knob, steering wheel, and aluminium pedals are lifted from the R-Design model as well. As such, the only giveaways that this is a plug-in are the charging port flap on the front left quarter panel, and the Recharge badging on the C-pillar and boot lid.

With prices starting from $64,990 it may mark a substantial increase over the cheapest XC40’s $46,990 price tag, but it certainly packs an awful lot of standard kit to justify it. Things such as the power-adjustable leather seats with memory for the driver, panoramic sunroof, Harman Kardon audio system, powered tailgate, cooled glovebox, and Active Bending LED headlights with auto high-beam, and the full suite of active safety equipment including even Volvo’s excellent ‘Pilot Assist’ Level 2 semi-autonomous driving system are all standard inclusions you’ll definitely find yourself glad of having.

However, it must be said that there are a few fairly trivial items you would expect to be standard – the heated seats and steering wheel, or the must-have 360-degree camera for instance – that are still optional extras, but by and large it’s a comprehensively-spec’d package.

Inside, it feels just as plush as in any other XC40 you’d find yourself sat in, with all the materials from roof to floor possessing a reassuringly high-quality feel perfectly befitting of its list price. Classy metal trim across the top of the dashboard and door cards as well as on the speaker grilles, carpet-lined door pockets, and the use of sturdy leather makes it feel properly classy.

The big 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 9.0-inch portrait-oriented infotainment system screens add a nice techy feel as well, and the operating system on the latter is particularly slick and intuitive. It might have been around for a while now, and it is set to be replaced by a new Android-based system in the electric model, but it’s still one of my very favourite systems to use on the market. In total, this interior is a true masterclass in effective minimalism, and continues to prove just how much Volvo is on top of its’ game these days.

The real meat and potatoes of the matter here, though, is the plug-in hybrid drivetrain fitted to the T5 Recharge, which, as I mentioned earlier, is completely different to every other PHEV model the company has sold thus far.

At its core, you’ll find a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine which makes 132kW and 265Nm, which is paired to an electric motor that adds a further 60kW and 160Nm into the equation. Together, the two power the front wheels alone through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which is another big point of difference between this and its stablemates. Worth mentioning here also is that a less-powerful T4 Recharge model with a detuned version of this drivetrain is also available in other markets, although us Aussies will only be getting the more powerful T5 at this stage.

Of its five driving modes – one of which is a customisable Individual mode, and another of which is for Off-Road – Hybrid is what it will default to, in which it will alternate between electric and petrol power depending on how hard the throttle is applied and how much charge is left in the batteries. Once that charge is expended, it will simply revert to behaving like a typical hybrid like you’d get from Toyota, for instance.

It must be said that the transition between petrol and electric power is typically fairly seamless, with the dual-clutch ‘box doing a great job of preselecting the right gear for when the petrol engine needs to fire back into life – something which I’ve previously noted in my review of the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV as being the biggest benefit of using a dual-clutch in a hybrid, that being that it feels far more normal and progressive than, say, a CVT. Very occasionally, if you really floor it, there may be a slight moment of hesitancy, but in normal driving it’s right on the mark.

Switching to Pure mode allows for it to drive purely on electric power, which given the decent torque output of the electric motor is perfectly possible despite its 1760kg kerb weight. With a 10.7kWh lithium-ion battery pack fitted – which is packaged inside the transmission tunnel so as not to intrude on interior space any more than in the regular XC40 – it’s able to cover a claimed 46km without burning a drop of fuel, which is more like 40km in reality although that’s still perfectly acceptable.

However, flick it into Power mode and it’ll use the petrol and electric components of its drivetrain for all they’re worth in the pursuit of performance. The gauge that normally shows how much power you’re using from each method of propulsion automatically swaps out for a tachometer as the car’s character drastically changes – the steering weights up, the throttle feels sharper and more dynamic, and it really does feel lively in comparison to its docile and well-mannered nature around town.

Able to sprint from 0-100km/h in 7.3 seconds on paper – although some publications have timed it as breaking into the sixes in reality – it’s currently the second-fastest model in the current XC40 range behind the regular T5 R-Design. With its three-pot engine having a decent amount of displacement, it feels far stronger and punchier than you’d expect from an engine many would argue is missing a cylinder, while the electric motor really helps add in some extra zest. Add up the power figures and its 192kW and 425Nm total outputs makes it the most powerful model in the range, although the hefty weight and lack of all-wheel drive does set it back slightly in that regard.

Not only is it a punchy and brisk thing, but it feels fairly agile, too, despite its weight. The steering feels perfectly weighted in each of its respective drive modes, it rides beautifully and remains fairly composed through the corners (despite the humongous alloys) given it has independent suspension both front and rear, and the dual-clutch auto is as compliant being driven hard as it is around town.

Now, in the interests of fairness, I should mention that not all is perfect with the XC40 T5 Recharge. The brake pedal feel, for instance, is nowhere near as progressive as you might like with the transition between regenerative braking and mechanical braking being too juddery and noticeable at times. The big wheels lead to slightly more road noise intrusion than you might like, as well, although it’s still a fairly docile environment inside. And, while its boot capacity remains unchanged at 460 litres, it misses out on the clever folding boot floor that acts as a divider with bag hooks to keep your shopping from rolling around.

However, you really do have to nitpick to find fault with this thing, as like with the XC40 in general, it really impresses on all fronts. That’s a call I’ve made rather pre-emptively, though, as there’s one topic I haven’t yet discussed yet – fuel economy, perhaps the most important thing to discuss when it comes to a plug-in hybrid.

Officially, Volvo claims that the XC40 T5 Recharge will use 2.2L/100km on the combined cycle which might seem far-fetched – particularly given how far off from their respective claims the company’s T8 Twin Engine models can be in reality – but this system really does work as well as intended.

After leaving the dealership on the day I picked it up, I instantly set about driving it around Adelaide to see just how frugal it could prove to be while running some errands, and after around 60km of going back and forth from one side of the city to the other I had an answer – 1.7L/100km was the figure displayed on the dashboard, which is remarkably impressive. Keep in mind that I was rolling in Hybrid mode, too, and that had I have relied on electric power all of the time fuel use would be be zilch for the first 45km of that cross-city driving.

By the end of my week with it, that figure had risen to 4.8L/100km but that’s still incredibly impressive in my eyes as, given I live a fair drive outside the city in the Adelaide Hills, and since I did some longer distance driving beyond that in it, too, it did about as well as you could ever expect a PHEV to do in unideal circumstances for it.

Admittedly, PHEVs really do just feel like a stepping stone between petrol and electric power at the end of the day, but if you’re someone worried about range anxiety with an EV, it really does present some great benefits in my eyes. Take this scenario for instance – if your drive to work is anywhere up to 20km there or back, you’ll be able to head to and from work Monday to Friday in Pure mode, with not a single drop of fuel being burned. And, whether you charge up at home or at work, it’ll only take a little over four hours meaning you’ll never have to worry about it being fully charged by the next time you need to drive it. Then, if you want to head out to the countryside or beach on the weekends, you can simply fall back on the petrol engine to get you there stress-free.

How about another use case, which is more like my own – needing to make a circa 30 minute freeway journey to the city, I would simply rely on the petrol engine the whole time while cruising along at 110km/h (which is where it’s at its most efficient) before swapping to pure electric power once I reached town (where the electric motor is now at its most efficient) and, as such, reducing my tailpipe emissions to nothing while in the smoggy city.

Add it up practically any way, and a plug-in hybrid like the XC40 T5 Recharge really does start to make a lot of sense for many buyers. Yes, PHEVs might only be a halfway point in the shift towards electrification, but they do present some unique benefits. Add those benefits into the already well-accomplished package that the XC40 is, and you really are left with what can only be described as one very impressive car.

2021 Volvo XC40 T5 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid List Price: $64,990 | As Tested: $69,760
  • 8.5/10
    Performance - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 9/10
    Tech & Features - 9/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Punchy driveline that combines a frugal three-pot petrol with a decent amount of pure-electric driving range, sophisticated and ergonomic interior layout, acceptable price increase over petrol-only models as it feels every bit its worth, many desirable features included as standard
Cons: No AWD option for PHEV model, some fairly ordinary features such as heated seats still cost extra

In a nutshell: The XC40 Plug-in Hybrid presents a mighty strong case for itself – it’s punchy, refined, perfectly usable in the real world, and priced accordingly. For those conscious of wanting to reduce their tailpipe omissions while in the smoggy city but still suffering from range anxiety when on the open road, this thing nails the brief. 

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Volvo Cars Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel and a full charge upon delivery.

Patrick Jackson
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